On the Thursday morning before Christmas, about fifteen women, mostly Latina but some Eastern European, stand scattered on a curved asphalt shoulder overlooking the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As yeshiva school buses and somber men in black topcoats pass by, an older Hasidic woman comes close and asks a Latina, in Yiddish-accented English, “Clean today and tomorrow?” “No, sorry,” replies the worker, who is already booked for Friday. The Hasidic woman eventually hires a middle-aged Polish worker, who trails her home at some distance.
It is thirty-six degrees and windy, but a patch of shifting sunlight warms Hellen Rivera, a luckless jornalera, or woman day laborer. Tall and fair-complexioned, Rivera looks so unlike the other Latina workers that I mistake her for Polish. She wears a long, black wool coat and orange beret and scarf—a contrast to most of the workers’ bulky, pragmatic garments.
Rivera has been on the corner for only a month or two. I ask her what she thinks about the cleaning work so far. “They should pay fifteen, not ten,” she says. “And they don’t give you a mop. You have to get on your hands and knees!” Gladys, a bearish woman who lives in the Bronx, recommends buying knee pads: “You get accustomed to the way they want you to work.”
Rivera is still getting accustomed to the hiring process. “They look at you. They look at you. And then they say to one, ‘Do you want to clean my house?’ And then they take them.”
She recites the English she’s learned: “Do you have mop? How many hours? How do you pay per hour?” The going rate, she and dozens of other Latina workers tell me, is $10 per hour. “In the bathroom, sometimes they don’t have the brush, so you have to clean inside with the sponge—for ten or twelve dollars!” And the different levels of need mean that some women on the corner work for less.
“My Cuban friend today said, ‘We’re going to put up a big sign that says we demand a mop and this is the rate per hour.’… I don’t know how the laws work here, but I was thinking of something like that: organizing.”