New Weapon in Day Laborers’ Fight Against Wage Theft: A Smartphone App

by Liz Robbins

Just past sunrise on 69th Street, near a No. 7 subway stop in Queens, men in backpacks and work boots gather in groups, many on their cellphones.

They are workers at one of the largest day laborer stops in New York City, hoping to be hired. Most are undocumented immigrants who have reported being cheated by employers. In the fight against wage theft, their phones could soon become their biggest allies.

After three years of planning, an immigrant rights group in Jackson Heights is set to start a smartphone app for day laborers, a new digital tool with many uses: Workers will be able to rate employers (think Yelp or Uber), log their hours and wages, take pictures of job sites and help identify, down to the color and make of a car, employers with a history of withholding wages. They will also be able to send instant alerts to other workers. The advocacy group will safeguard the information and work with lawyers to negotiate payment.

“It will change my life and my colleagues’ lives a good deal,” Omar Trinidad, a Mexican immigrant, said in Spanish through an interpreter. Mr. Trinidad is the lead organizer who helped develop the app.

“Presently, there is a lot of wage theft,” he said. “There has always been wage theft, and the truth is we’re going to put a stop to that.”

The app had its soft launch on Tuesday night, with beta testing to be held later this month at the Jackson Heights day laborer stop that stretches for a mile along 69th Street. Day laborer centers in Brooklyn and on Staten Island will also be testing the product, which is available in Spanish and English.

Mr. Trinidad, 35, suggested the name for the app — Jornalero, which means day laborer in Spanish.

The plan is for the app to spread to all 70 of the city’s day laborer stops, and then to workers in all kinds of jobs across the country.

The Jornalero app began as a project of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, known as NICE, in Jackson Heights, and then expanded in scope when the group’s parent organization, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, based in Los Angeles, secured more funding.

“It’s going to be a gift that the day laborers are going to give to the working class in America,” said Pablo Alvarado, the executive director of the national day laborer group.

The project has been a collaboration of workers, artists, organizers, lawyers, unions and academics. Sol Aramendi, a photographer based in Queens and an activist with NICE, first joined Hana Georg, a local electrician, to propose the idea to construction laborers, who were immediately enthusiastic. The Worker Institute, a program within the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, ran forums for workers across New York City to see what they most needed in an app.

The workers wanted an easy way to track payments, record details about unsafe work sites and share pictures to identify employers. Most of all, they wanted to do it all anonymously.

Read more from The New York Times

The Jornalero is scheduled to launch in Spring 2016.