Me and My Day Laborer



by Susan

Over the years I’ve recommended the hiring of day laborers, especially for gardeners of a certain age and gender like myself.  I’ve hired men from the local immigrant job bank to plant or move trees, to carry the 8 to 10 cubic yards of mulch my hilly garden gets every spring, and even to bust up an ugly concrete walkway to the front door.  And all went well.  Very little English/Spanish communication was required, though the occasional English-speaking African has been a welcome change and some delightful conversations have ensued.

But then came Adolfo, recommended by a neighbor for whom he’d laid a flagstone path.  Fluent in Spanish herself, the neighbor introduced us and explained the tasks to be done.  Here they are, with the results, post-Adolpho:

1.  For my front yard lawn-to-veggie-garden makeover, Adolpho removed sod, carried it to the compost pile, and spread bags of compost.  Fine.

2. Next, a 10-foot ‘Green Giant’ arborvitae fast on its way to becoming gigantic and sadly in the wrong spot needed to be moved.  Preferably without being killed in the process.  Readers, perhaps you’ve been asked questions by nongardeners that are stunning in their ignorance of how plants grow, the role that insects play in the garden, and other high school basics, and found it kinda amusing?  Well believe me, with the victim of that disconnect from all growing things a large and valued tree of mine, I was not amused to discover the huge, perfectly cylindrical hole Adolpho had dug, better suited to the insertion of a large concrete pipe. The scene of me trying to get him to NOT to bury the damn tree a good 2 feet up its trunk might have been laughable if it were someone else’s tree and if I weren’t into near-hysterical  "Get this killer away from my garden" mode.

3. Finally moving on to the indestructible world of stone, I needed a 2-foot drystack stone wall removed, 20 feet of French drain (black holeless pipe) laid, and the wall put back.  Here the absence of a common language was compounded by what can only be described as machismo, with Adolpho managing to convey to me – repeatedly – that he’d done this kind of work in his country and I should BACK OFF and let him do it without instruction or supervision.  A contest of wills followed as I watched him doing everything wrong.  What a surprise to discover that by simply understanding the utility of gravity in the drainage equation, I actually knew more about the subject than someone else on earth – that being Adolpho.  The project ended with my letting him finish, paying him through a tight-jawed smile, berating myself as I drove him back to the pick-up spot, then redoing the pipe-laying and wall-building.

Isn’t that what the motivational speakers tell us to do, look for cheerful "lessons learned" whenever we screw up?  Well, this daughter of a psychologist is on board with that sensible life lesson, so let’s go.

1.  Sometimes you really do get what you pay for, if that.  And 12 bucks an hour generally does not buy skilled labor.

2.  It might be time for me to review my high school Spanish, it being such an easy language and there being so many people in my neighborhood to practice it with.

For this story I casually inserted "day laborer" into the Google image search engine and wound up HERE, a portal to a
very angry world, and found the charming photo you’ll see there.  I then browsed my way to the California Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Minuteman Project, which totally explain the set design on the Colbert Report (patriotic colors, stars, soaring eagles and more!)  Seems they haven’t gotten the word yet about their candidate dropping out – Tancredo, of course.  Finally, I found the photo above and other, more positive depictions of Latino immigrants at sites like and   

These Internet reminders of the controversy – make that xenophobic hysteria – surrounding the very existence of day laborers prompt me to mention one lesson I didn’t learn from my experience with Adolpho – that these men are threatening me and my way of life.  And while I won’t be hiring that particular Salvadoran immigrant to haul my mulch this spring, I’m happy to put a little cash in the hands of people who are eager to work hard so they can send half of their earnings home to their very poor families.  I know there’s an immigration problem and it’s hugely complex, but can I just say I admire them and leave it at that?

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).
  • Also in Greenbelt, MD, writing the e-newsletter and serving on the Board of Directors for the cooperatively-owned music and arts venue and restaurant called the NEW DEAL CAFE.

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. So, let me get this straight…. you drive , pick up a random man/men who you have never met, who has no insurance, background checks,possibly ID,and with whom you are unable to converse and bring him/them to your home with you, alone? Are you nuts? Did your mother not tell you not to bring strangers home?
    Next time, ask your local high school if any young men/women need a few hours work for $12 hour! At least you’ll be able to talk to them , and not waste money re-doing work paid for! ( and they’ll be legal!!). I know of several youngsters in my small town that make a fortune providing basic gardening services ( mowing, mulching, leaf clearing etc) , I use them myself , the only downside is they can only work weekends, and , sadly,my guys Jeff and Tom will be off to college this Fall, but they know that I know their parents, and will be passing their business on to younger siblings!

  2. We have used day laborers. What has worked for us is to get one recommended by someone else . . . someone else who knows something about what you are doing. On the other hand, the last guys we used stopped at the front door because they saw the rocks we had delivered and offered their services. My husband supervises the workers but if they know what they are doing, he lets them do it. We’ve been REALLY lucky. We’ve hired both spanish-only speakers and native born locals with great success.

    What I find most appalling is the gratitude that I get from the day laborers for simple things like bottles of cold water to drink and a sandwich at lunchtime. One guy told us that the only liquid he was provided at his previous job was beer. Yup, I want to be digging trenches with nothing but beer to fuel me. Sounds great. So, when I offer cold drinks and food — they are beyond thrilled. Sad, really.

  3. This blog has always made me feel warm and fuzzy with its emphasis on sustainability and supporting the local economy, which is why I check in daily. Up to this post, love everything about you guys. But bypassing the legitimate businesses in your community to hire (exploit?) someone who is undervaluing his labor seems really wrong. It sucks for those of us in the landscape and construction industry, because we’re not even competing on a level playing field. You get sick of spending an hour at a sales call only to hear “yeah, now we know we’re on the right track. Our neighbor knows a Mexican guy who’ll do the job for a grand. Thanks anyhow.”

    I don’t know, I just would’ve thought you all would place more value on what we do.

  4. Dave M, We have been through this before. I’ll let Susan find the link to the old post if she wants. We are the “Mow and Blow” guys. Any fool can do our kind of work.

    At $12 an hour I should move to the DC area and become a day laborer. The state of NC values our profession at $9 an hour.

    I just spoke with several of my former decades long clients in Hawaii a few days ago. After ten months they are on their second and third gardeners since I left.

  5. Have to say I agree with Dave M here. I know you know what you are on about Susan and don’t necessarily need all of the knowledge and skills your local landscapers can bring to the job, but bypassing pros who contribute taxes and jobs to the community in favor of someone who is working with no insurance, has no health care and won’t at those wages, and isn’t going to live a sustainable life on the wages you give them (in fact, may well be costing the rest of us in tax dollars) – it just seems wrong.

    The reason we have contractor’s licensing, employee laws, insurance, disability coverage, and pay taxes is so that our communities and the country as a whole can ensure a basic standard for workers and for jobs completed. Yes it costs more, but it feels like a real snub to bypass those that are following the rules designed to help us live well as a group, just to save money.

    I hope you will rethink this. It really isn’t a sustainable choice and it does, frankly, feel a bit wounding coming from one of our own.

  6. This has all the makings of high controversy.

    If I need a garden designed, I’ll hire competent, expert help. And I have.

    If I need a ditch dug, I’ll hire the cheapest labor I can find. And I have.

  7. Naturally, I’m biased in favor of anything that happens on GardenRant, but can I just say that a healthy debate over the use of immigrant labor in the garden is exactly the sort of thing we don’t hear ENOUGH about in the mainstream garden media?

    Having said that, a few thoughts in no particular order:

    1. The ability to speak a little Spanish goes a long way, especially here in CA. While I don’t hire out much garden work myself, I have been called upon to translate at friends’ homes before, and when I speak to someone in Spanish, it always turns out to be a great experience for both of us. It’s a beautiful language.

    2. Here in Eureka, we have a day labor employment service that you can go through. (like the job bank Susan describes) I believe they provide workers comp, handle paperwork, etc. That’s a nice pro-worker thing to do, because you know they have some protection from on-the-job injuries.

    3. Not everyone who speaks Spanish and works for $12 an hour is an illegal immigrant. And everyone, regardless of their immigration status, pays taxes. Sales tax, utility tax, all kinds of taxes. Also, illegal immigrants often use a false Social Security number if they are hired by an employer that requires paperwork (which I know is not the case for casual day labor), meaning that they pay into the system but will never get money back from that system.

    4. I think the phrase “you get what you pay for” makes sense with casual, unskilled labor, which is sort of Susan’s point, right? In the old days, we used to all hire teenagers to mow our lawn and rake leaves. (without paying taxes!) I hired a teenager once to clear an area of tough weeds, and that was great, but it’s hard to find a teenager who wants to do that kind of work. And there are plenty of “guys with pickups” around town who will haul my non-compostable yard waste to the dump. Should I really be hiring a skilled professional for those jobs? Does it matter what language they speak or how long they’ve lived here?

  8. Oh, I can’t let this one pass! Susan, I feel your pain! Macho men have a tough time listening to the ladies, and the language gap doesn’t help. I would have been trotting across the yard to fetch the neighbor. I didn’t get, though, what was up with the “huge, cylindrical hole”. Was he trying to plant the arborvitae into that hole, or is that how he dug it up to start with?
    Emmakw, I ’bout rolled out of my chair at your suggestion to get high school students to do this work. Once upon a time, I, too, thought the high school student who needed a few extra bucks would be a good way to go. Not. My own kids clearly thought I was out of my mind at the suggestion that they, or any or their friends, should be willing to do physical labor for money. And I quote, “that’s your thing, Mom, not ours.” Maybe they raise ’em different in Emmakw’s town.
    Liza, bless you for realizing that humans need water. Such a simple act of common courtesy is hugely appreciated, but so often overlooked.
    Dave, I’m a professional too but sometimes I tell my clients to hire day labor instead of paying me. Day laborers do have taxes withheld, and they are covered under an umbrella insurance policy by the ‘bank’ from which they come. At least, that’s the way it works around here. I don’t feel threatened when someone nixes me in favor of day labor, and Susan’s post is the very reason why I don’t feel threatened. I am a competent, educated, skilled gardener, and I’m definitely not above digging the occasional ditch, but if an immigrant can dig that ditch faster than me and charge less for the privilege, then I’ll step aside and hand him my shovel. Beyond a shovel, though, a day laborer (or homeowner) is not likely to own the equipment to make landscaping or construction work efficient. I think those industries are actually pretty safe from the scourge of day labor.
    And finally, Christopher, Lord have mercy, son, you aren’t working for $9 an hour, are you? I was making $15 an hour when I left NC 15 years ago.

  9. Who would think that good earth people would go along with exploitation of the working class. The problem with using migrant labor IS the inability for legitimate business to compete against labor that pays no taxes. This is a huge problem but one that is easily solved by vowing never to use “under the table” labor and stiff punishment for those “employers” who use this labor without paying the true cost.

  10. And when your cheap labor breaks your water line, or a window, or scratches your neighbor’s car- what then?

    If he drops a rock and breaks his foot, what do you do? Do you drive him to the ER and pay his bills, since he was on YOUR property, working for you? Or do you do what many do, and drop him right back at Home Depot and get a “fresh one”?

    I’m glad your world is so black and white, Brent, that everything’s ok as long as you perceive that you’ve gotten the maximum value for your dollar by hiring someone under the table. Apparently, Susan feels the same way, which is a shame, because it means I may have been too optimistic in my assessment of what the folks who run this site value.

    I’ve read a lot about organic and sustainable practices here. Well, who spends the time and money to learn more about these issues- not just so they can work for those who care, but so they can advise and educate those who don’t yet know about such things? Day laborers, or real companies? Those of us who take pride in what we do are not just labor, we’re consultants. I’m actually glad that Susan appears to have gotten what she paid for.

    As communities pass laws regulating pesticide use, fertilizers, even working conditions- will the day laborers even know? You could be asking someone to do something illegal and harmful, and neither of you will know.

    There’s been debate here about buying locally. What’s more local than the guy who lives down the street, votes in every election, is active in the chamber of commerce, and strives to run a profitable, ethical business that he can be proud of?

  11. thistleandthorn- it doesn’t work that way here. Here, you pull of the road, take the first couple that jump in your truck, and take off to use and abuse them as you see fit. See why it’s objectionable?

  12. Yup, I guess we DO raise ’em different up here in Massachsetts! Maybe because our kid’s don’t have to compete with day labor banks, or guys on street corners for cash in hand jobs , they have the chance at the ” mow and blow” jobs that maybe children in more southern areas have no chance of competing for! Maybe, thistleandthorn, you should withhold allowances – your kids will soon find work for money to be “their thing”. And have a long talk with them about where they think money for college is going to come from!!

  13. This post makes me squirm, which is probably a good thing. We should be talking about immigrant laborers, because Lord knows, the mainstream gardening press isn’t talking about them–though they appear regularly on those appalling HGTV shows–unacknowledged, unthanked, ignored by both designer and homeowner.

    I’m with Emmakw and worry for Susan’s safety. I’m with Dave M and worry about the laborer’s foot. I worry that there may be a Garden Rant reader at the IRS. I’m worried about Christopher C, too. I’m worried about everybody who doesn’t recognize that immigrants are a self-selecting group of extremely hard-working and self-sacrificing people–and generally a complete boon to our economy. In short, I am now worried about everything and have no idea what to think. Doesn’t happen that often.

  14. My husband and I do most of our garden work ourselves but there have been times in the past when we needed help. When I tried to hire assistance for limited, one-time simple tasks through landscaping companies, I couldn’t get anyone to call me back. My job was too small for them to be bothered. It’s been ages since we’ve needed that type of help but I would consider using a day labor agency if the need arose.

    Not all day laborers are illegally here and fail to contribute to the tax base. A local day labor agency works in much the same way as the temp employment agency I worked for years ago. A client contacts the agency specifying the type of help needed, the agency supplies able bodies, the client pays a set fee to the agency, the agency covers insurance, FICA and all that fun stuff, and pays the able bodies a hourly rate less than what the agency charged. For a few hours of work doing simple tasks, such as moving yards of soil from Point A to Point B, this source can’t be beat, as my dad discovered when he hired day laborers through this agency last summer. Using them to build a short, basic, dry stack stone wall was a mistake, though. They said they had done it before and knew what they were doing. My dad had to rebuild the wall.

    I agree that there are tasks that only professionals should undertake. That said, hiring a professional isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get quality work. When I worked at a local nursery, I saw many “professionally” designed garden plans that were abysmal – wrong plant, wrong place and any other garden no-no you can think of. IMO, hiring these so-called professionals does as much damage to the profession as hiring cheap, unskilled labor.

    To get what you pay for, you have to be smart about it. As with anything else in life, it’s caveat emptor.

  15. No Thistleandthorn I’m not working for $9/hr yet. That is the listed rate of pay for a temporary/seasonal gardener position at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, a state university institution, a guvmint job, and a place I would actually like to work. I am currently tragically under employed and when I go back in a week or two to my single client I will be making $17/hr.

    Don’t worry Michele. I’m going to grow a great big vegetable garden this year.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if this was a cut and dry issue, but it’s not. No matter what side you come down on it is really important to remember we are talking about real people with real lives.

    The professional landscape industry as a whole is not exactly quilt free on this issue either.

  16. Since I started this dust-up, let me clarify. Official job banks take care of all the officialdom including taxes and background checks, etc, and we have a good one near me.
    And wanna know WHY the wall had to be removed to insert a drainage pipe and rebuilt? Because the professional I’d hired did it wrong and water was going exactly where I told him I didn’t want it to go. Sorry, professionals!
    For unskilled tasks like carrying mulch, if I had to pay the going rate in my ‘hood for a maintenance company – 3 times what I have to pay these day laborers – I wouldn’t do it. No one would get my money and I would strain my back, at least.
    And can I remind Dave that each Ranter speaks only for herself? This was my personal story, using “I” and even my byline! And the next time one of my partners pisses everyone off, I hope you all remember that.

  17. Dave M, this is not an area with a huge amount of immigrants and thankfully the >take the first couple that jump in your truck and abuse them as you see fit< mentality isn't prevalent here. And the day laborer just might be >the guy who lives down the street, votes in every election<. People have all kinds of reasons for working day labor. Especially these days, if you know what I mean. Christopher C, if I'd had a chance to at the NC Arboretum, I'd do it for minimum wage!! But I still think you're getting snookered at $17 per hour. Go check out some of those golf course/retirement communities around the area, populated by Floridians (we used to call 'em Floridiots, before I became one) who are accustomed to paying big bucks. Steer clear of the Atlanta transplants... they are used to even cheaper wages! Oh, and Emmakw, did I mention I am a gardener?? My poor kids didn't get an allowance! And yeah, to be fair, they would pick up some odd jobs in the neighborhood, but not way they wanted to dirty and sweaty like I do!

  18. Sorry for the screwy post. What I meant to say is, the use ’em and abuse ’em mentality doesn’t seem to be prevalent here, except with companies (and landscapers and construction companies are both guilty) that hire immigrant labor and pay crap wages. And, sometimes it is your neighbor who is throwing his briefcase in the car, and heading off to his job at day labor. You never know. Especially these days, if you know what I mean.

  19. Here in New Orleans, prior to the flooding, I hired the local crackhead to help with my yard. Many Hondurans live here; the only city with more Hondurans is the capital of Honduras – wonderful neighbors, some of them great for carpentry, but not gardening. The ‘head was an honest man; I’d tell him the names of the plants, and he started passing by when I was outside, point them out and recite them back (“Aesclepsia, right?”). He started holding his head higher. Unfortunately, just before the flood he was arrested. He was on the bridge, from what I heard, and I haven’t seen Carl since. I miss Carl. He did good work, he was a nice man, and he was proving to be a smart one, too. Sometimes, yard work is straight cash work. Sometimes, that job is the start of getting someone into a better place. Sometimes, ya pay my sister the landscape architect.

  20. I have to wonder if the immigrant laboror is really “feeling” exploited? They WANT to work. Are they not making a wage better than they are used to, and sending money home to improve their families lives. The world is my neighborhood, and I wouldnt have a bit of shame paying someone for a days work regardless of where they are from. I would feel pretty good about feeding a family of 4 in Mexico or wherever. The doughy teenager with clean hands down the street is getting dinner from Mom either way.
    Coaches and Consultants are fine, but a garden is work, and not just fun dirty digging work but is sometimes tedious and labor intensive. Who is going to do that part if the garden owner or consultant won’t? And then people wring their hands wondering why there is a decrease in interest in gardening in the younger segment of society. Its the work.. stupid

  21. mj (hey, that’s my wife’s name!), you don’t have to know you’re being exploited to be exploited. If you’ve come from a place where you make $8 a month, $8 an hour sounds like it’ll make you rich like an astronaut. But if no one has told you that everyone else is getting way more than that…

    I’m not going to get into an immigration debate; the system is horribly broken and racist, which I’ve seen firsthand- I’ve sat there in immigration court to support friends trying to work with the system to get in, get legal, or bring wives and kids in. In my mind, though, this argument is about more than immigrant day laborers, it’s also about the uninsured, unlicensed “electrician” who leaves his card in my mailbox twice a year, the woodchucks (under the table tree guys) who deal only in cash off the books, and everyone else gaming the system. Where’s the incentive for those of us who play by the rules, if we’re struggling to pay bills all winter while those who do as they please pay cash for a new truck?

    Susan, hey, I’m sorry you got jerked around by your contractor. That shouldn’t happen, and I know for a fact it wouldn’t happen on one of my sites. I tell every homeowner I talk to- check references, see what he’s built for yourself, and don’t write that last check till you’re happy. Hopefully, you’ll have better experiences with landscape pros in the future, and that’ll change your mind about the value of our services.

  22. My my. I remember as a child that a neighbor had a “live-in maid” – ends up this woman worked like a dog since they smuggled her in from Poland. Thanks to keen eyes and ears, she got out and made a life for herself. Hey! Pay up your homeowners insurance (if a delivery person slips and fall, they are covered too)! Golden rule time here folks – I work right along with the lovely strong man we hire, offer our bathroom, water, and skills…and “How do you say ___? works BOTH ways. I remember all too well having to take an elevator 40+ floors down to use the bathroom in the Penthouse- centerfold-covered super’s basement bathroom since the penthouse client didn’t want “the help” to use the bathroom. Walk a mile in other’s shoes.

  23. All in all a very spirited discussion of a very tough subject. The problem is being covered up our national problem with ethnic diversity…the problem is not ethnicity but , rather, the wage rate paid to worker. I agree that some jobs do not require skilled labor and that labor needs to be cheap for us to afford to have our projects done. The true problem occurs when we move up the difficulty scale and hire out the job “under the table”.

    Perhaps the discussion should turn to the ineffective government programs that force the cost of labor off the charts and really line the pockets of insurance agents and the awful health care system that we have in this country.

    Susan please keep on ranting…I love you guys

  24. Personally,i dont care who Susan hires to do her odd jobs around the house.I do care about the term immigrant being used to describe anybody from a foreign country that is working here.An immigrant is somebody that applied for immigrant status,had to pass a background check by law enforcement,had to pass a check-up by the health department,recieve neccessary immunizations,pass a test in written and oral proficiency in english,was granted temporary status under supervision of a sponsor and at a later time granted citizenship.All this to come to a better place and with hard work and dilligence achieve a better life.It irks me when illegal aliens,regardless of nationality,are called immigrants.They are not!Sneaking into a country,for whatever reason is not immigration and by hiring people that do,we are not only undermining our own workforce but our own laws and ethics.Yes,i am a proud immigrant.

  25. Sometimes you get what you pay for…and sometimes you don’t.

    I hired a fancy, big-name designer who then subcontracted the work out to day laborers with whom he could not communicate. With no written design or plan for them to at least eyeball, and no supervision, things did not go well. And I went through exactly the same problem dealing with the machismo of a guy who I trusted to know more than I did about something and who didn’t.

    The end result: a garden house where the roof wasn’t attached to the walls, which failed inspection of four counts, and which had to be pulled down before the roof blew off and killed someone.

    PS. I agree with Luise H. above. My husband was a legal immigrant and now a naturalized citizen. Most of us in this country are immigrants or descended from immigrants. Immigrant should not used as an euphemism for illegal alien.

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