Testimony by Siobhán McGrath
Policy Research Associate
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
Hearing before the New York City Temporary Commission on Day Laborer Job Centers
June 28, 2006
Good evening. My name is Siobhán McGrath. Im a Policy Researcher with the Poverty
Program at NYU School of Laws Brennan Center for Justice. I have been invited by the
Commission to provide testimony, and I would like to thank you for the opportunity to do so. I
am here to share some of our research on workplace violations, and to speak in favor of
establishing comprehensive, city-funded day labor job centers.
I emphasize the word comprehensive. At a minimum, the day labor job centers that this
Commission is considering provide workers with shelter, offering some degree of protection
from the elements, traffic hazards and harassment that they too frequently encounter when
seeking work on the street. At their best, however, job centers accomplish much more than this.
They can serve as institutions through which a number of problems arising from the day labor
practice can be addressed.
One of the most pressing of these issues is the frequency with which employers of day laborers
violate workplace laws. The Brennan Center has been conducting an intensive, multi-year,
multi-method study of workplace violations in New York Citys economy. We have interviewed
over 300 people on this topic, including employers, workers, regulatory officials, community
organizers, job placement providers, and union officials. We have found that in a wide range of
fourteen industries, laws which mandate minimum wage and overtime rates, health and safety
protections, and guarantees of fair treatment, are routinely violated.
As you know, day laborers are particularly vulnerable to these abuses. Previous testimony has
focused on these abuses, and on the obstacles and difficulties faced by immigrant workers in
claiming the legal rights to which they are entitled, particularly in the case of undocumented
immigrants. Rather than commenting further on these points, I would like to bring your attention
to two other factors that contribute to the prevalence of workplace violations: first, declining
enforcement by regulatory agencies and second, industry structures and practices. Both factors
weigh in favor of establishing comprehensive, city-funded job centers.
On the first point, the federal governments capacity to enforce wage and hour laws has been
severely reduced. While the estimated number of workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards
Act has increased by 55% over the last three decades, and the estimated number of covered
workplaces has increased by 112%, the number of investigators available to enforce this law has
declined by 14%1 over the same period. On the state level, in July 2005, there were just over 100
investigators on staff at New York State Department of Labor2 charged with enforcing minimum
wage and overtime law for about 6 million covered workers and over 500,000 employers.
On the second point, working conditions for day laborers are driven largely by the project-based
nature of the construction industry. Day laborers in construction are hired by subcontractors, for
short-term jobs. In contrast to most workers who, when they encounter problems on the job, can
discuss the issues with their co-workers and bring concerns to their employers, day laborers do
not have these means of addressing workplace issues available to them. This is because they do
not have the same employers day-to-day, nor do they have the same co-workers day-to-day, nor
do they even work at the same job sites day-to-day. In fact, day laborers often do not even know
how to contact the employers that they have worked for.
While the declining enforcement capacity of regulatory agencies affects all workers, day laborers
additionally face this second set of barriers. Job centers serve as a best practice in responding to
these issues which arise from the contingent nature of project-based employment and
subcontracted work. Through the institution of day labor job centers, then, the incidence of
workplace violations can be significantly reduced.
When done right, job centers really work. First and foremost, this is because they require
employers to register at the job center, providing contact information through which they can be
located in the event of workplace injuries, non-payment or underpayment of wages, or other
problems on the job. And at job centers, day laborers are educated about their rights, develop
relationships with fellow day laborers who they can turn to for support, and are provided with
opportunities for leadership development.
On a final note, in order to best respond to the prevalence of workplace violations in day labor,
these job centers need to be staffed by those with expertise in addressing workplace issues, and
they need to be designed and run with the active participation of day laborers themselves. I am
including with the copies of my testimony copies of a report outlining the elements of model job
Thank you again for considering this issue, and for the opportunity to testify.
See the Brennan Centers publication: Trends in Wage and Hour Enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor,
1975–2004, available at: http://www.brennancenter.org/resources/books.html#ej.
Source: Letter from the New York State Department of Labor, to the Brennan Center for Justice, in response to the
Brennan Centers Freedom of Information Law request, received August 16, 2005 (on file with the Brennan Center
BUILDING COMMUNITY: The Components of a Day Labor Worker Center Model, published by the National
Day Laborer Organizing Network, available at: http://www.ndlon.org/docs/buildingcommunity.pdf.