A large red trailer rests at the eastern-most end of Bennington Avenue in Freeport. It’s often partially obscured by the large semis sitting the parking lot of the industrial businesses nearby, making it hard to find even for those who know it’s there.
Activity at the trailer starts early—5 a.m.—as a middle-aged Latino named Nicholas parks his bicycle, unlocks the door, and starts preparing a massive meal for about 30 to 50 people, sometimes more depending on the season. The men he’s cooking for are all day laborers. They begin arriving just before 6 a.m. Contractors and business owners looking to hire them are not far behind.
Nicholas had just completed a 10-hour shift washing dishes at a nearby restaurant and didn’t get off work until about 11 p.m. Nicolas’s contributions at the trailer are his way of giving back to a place that many of the workers describe as a second home. The only paid employee here is Liz O’Shaughnessy, executive director at CoLoKi Inc., the non-profit organization that runs the trailer. CoLoKi stands for Compassion, Love, and Kindness, but the name falls short of describing the organization’s depth and purpose.
The trailer was established in 2002 as a hiring site for day laborers, but has since grown to become much more. “First and foremost we need these guys to work,” explained O’Shaughnessy. “But it also provides shelter and bathroom facilities. The meal is a bonus.”
More importantly than that, it provides a sense of safety and organization to the hiring process. The workers sign in, grab water or coffee, and sometimes perform small errands or chores. They can watch TV inside or chat with each other in the parking lot outside.
What’s clear from the outset is that this is a community. Most of the guys know each other. The atmosphere is relaxed—and that’s part of the purpose. “When they wait at Home Depot and a guy pulls up, everyone is rushing to get in the car,” said O’Shaughnessy.
But at the trailer, potential employers first discuss what it is they are hiring for and the skills they need. O’Shaughnessy makes some recommendations. She may also suggest pay rates for the work, but for the most part lets the workers negotiate their own wages.
“When [employers] come here, they have a really good experience,” said O’Shaughnessy. “Everyone is so respectful and nice. They get to have this experience that they are not going to have when they are competing on the corner.”
Liz O’Shaughnessy, executive director at the Freeport Trailer
Overall, O’Shaughnessy hopes not just to give employers and workers a better experience, but to foster a greater sense of community. Those efforts start at the trailer by encouraging others to pitch in, either by cleaning up the parking lot, conducting small repairs around the trailer, helping out in the garden out back, or, like Nicholas, contributing to cooking.
O’Shaughnessy says most of the guys need very little motivation to do so—most are already appreciative of what the trailer provides them. Still, she runs a few small incentive programs, such as the work boot program.
“For me and my husband, our work boots last 10 years,” she said. “But for these guys, they are doing such hard work, they can go through a really good pair of Timberlands in a couple of months.”
Using contributions from the Long Island Workers Fund, she sits down with a group of workers—a peer committee—and makes a list of the most active contributors, and then gives them vouchers that they can use to get new work boots. For the last three years, they have given out more than 60 vouchers for new boots each year. “All of a sudden everyone is picking up a shovel,” she joked.
O’Shaughnessy also aims to help those who come to the trailer become more effective and valuable workers. She does this by running ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, as well working with organizations such as NYCOSH (New York City Occupational Safety and Health) and Make the Road New York to host personal health and safety courses and OSHA certification training. PULSE of NY, a patient advocacy group, comes in regularly to help workers understand their medical rights and similar matters.
One worker, who goes by the name Santos, said getting work through the trailer is a much better experience than trying to find work at Home Depot. But that, he insisted, was never the point. He finds the most value in the classes, which he said make him more valuable to employers. “The point is I want to know more. That’s why I get here. People come here to give me information,” he said.
If O’Shaughnessy could have one wish, she told me, it would be to take this close-knit community and better integrate it with the Long Island community at large. “What I’d love is more community support,” she said. “These guys live in this community. They’re not going anywhere.”
She added that many people don’t realize the value that workers like those who come to the trailer give back to the communities they live in.
“During Hurricane Sandy, these guys did so much—in crawl spaces, in muck, ripping up carpet and walls,” she said. “There’s no way anyone would have been able to rebuild as quickly as they did if it weren’t for the day laborers doing the initial cleanup… They were an incredibly valuable resource then and they are today.”