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Sept. 11 attack takes toll on Queens’ day laborers

For three years, Peter has shown up on a Flushing street corner at 6:30 a.m. looking for a job.

A Peruvian immigrant, Peter, who lives in Astoria, is one of nearly 100 people who come to 149th Street in the area of Northern Boulevard at 6:30 a.m. nearly every day year round. Together, they wait for passing pickup trucks and vans to stop and take them to construction, demolition or moving jobs.

Their employers want to employ the laborers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, to avoid paying taxes.

But recently, competition has increased for the day laborers.

“Now, since Sept. 11, a lot of people are coming to this corner,” said Peter.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the slow economy have taken their toll on underground job markets as well as traditional ones. With more full-time workers losing their jobs, the market for illegal labor has also tightened.

“The day laborers who are already organized are having a little bit of a problem with those who came since Sept. 11,” said Oscar Paredes, director of the Latin America Workers Project.

Paredes’ organization is currently working on making sure that day laborers on similar street corners in Brooklyn refuse work if they do not receive decent wages.

According to Paredes, those who have become day laborers since Sept. 11 are willing to work for less than the more established laborers such as Peter.

“The day laborers who are already organized know how much they have to earn,” he said. “The new people come, they take very difficult jobs for $5 or $6 (an hour) of wages.”

A worker asking for only $5 an hour undercuts workers such as Peter, who try to make a minimum of $70 for about a 10-hour day.

Paredes added that his group hopes to expand and start organizing in Queens.

Day laborers in the region have made headlines recently.

Many of the laborers worked on cleaning dirt and debris off buildings in Downtown Manhattan in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Worried about the health effects of cleaning the area, Queens College completed a study of the day laborers working near Ground Zero last week and expect to publish the results in a few months.

On Jan. 9, Ryan Wagner, 20, of Maspeth was sentenced to 25 years in prison for nearly beating to death two immigrant day laborers with a friend in Farmingville, L.I.

According to trial testimony, Wagner and his friend, Christopher Slavin, 29, picked up Israel Perez and Magdaleno Estrada Escamilla, Mexican immigrants, on Sept. 17, 2000, promising to give them work. Instead, they took the men to a basement of the warehouse and attacked them.

But in Flushing, day laborers said they deal with problems of a different nature.

“Sometimes they don’t pay, they run,” said Mike of the Bronx, speaking of the employers. Mike, who listened to a CD Walkman as he stood on the corner, said he was not a day laborer but translated for the workers, many of whom were his friends. According to Mike, most of the laborers were from El Salvador or Peru.

Mike said that sometimes the laborers were abused by their employers.

Community Affairs Officer Frank Devereaux of the 109th Precinct, which covers Flushing, Whitestone and College Point, said several years ago day laborers were a big problem for Flushing. The city tried to arrange for all of the laborers to head to 35th Avenue and Union Street, but many returned to 149th Street.

Devereaux said that in recent years the police have received few complaints about the laborers.

“Our main concern is alcohol consumption, urinating in public,” said Devereaux, saying the police would not bother the laborers as long as they were obeying the law and not obstructing the sidewalk.

Tyler Cassell, the president of the North Flushing Civic Association, which covers the area around 149th Street and Northern Boulevard, also said the laborers have caused few problems recently.

“It’s a concern,” he said. “It’s not a major concern. As far as I know they behave themselves.”

The laborers themselves said they were careful not to allow drinking on the street corners.

“We won’t permit a drunk guy if he comes,” said Eddie of Yonkers, New York.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

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