But work is by no means guaranteed. Before the Sabbath or Jewish holidays, the demand for cleaners increases; on other days, many women never leave the corner.
So some of them decided they would take matters into their own hands and start a business.
“If they pick you up for two or three hours, that’s good,” said Ms. Bucio, who moved to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico, with her sister in 1997. “And if not, in any case, you go like you arrived, with empty hands.”
Last November, the Bucio sisters founded the Apple Eco-Friendly Cleaning cooperative with a handful of women whom they met at the Williamsburg hiring site. The group advertises on recycled paper and makes its own cleaning products, forgoing harsh chemicals for ingredients like lemon juice, glycerin, borax and fruit oils.
The women taught themselves to make the cleansers and refined their s through a combination of Internet research and trial and error.
“When we say we’re from a company with a business card, they treat you differently from the time you arrive,” Yesenia Bucio, 32, Teresa Bucio’s sister, said. “I feel very good, very happy and I have very high self-esteem.”
The group is using its environmentally conscious approach to attract customers and also to protect the health of its workers. Yesenia Bucio said she used to suffer migraines from using large quantities of bleach and other chemicals.
The Bucios grew up in rural Mexico, where their father planted corn and milked cows. After Yesenia Bucio’s husband left for the United States, they followed, hoping for better work opportunities. The Bucios began their immigrant lives working in clothing factories in New York for roughly $4 an hour. After one factory was cited for labor violations and shut down, they became day laborers in Williamsburg. The work was less steady, but the wages were significantly higher: $8 to $10 an hour.
Still, the instability of the work and the physical toll of long days of scrubbing spurred them to consider alternatives. They began to attend meetings run by Ms. Guallpa, the advocate for day laborers. Ms. Guallpa, who speaks English and Spanish fluently, helped the original group of 13 women establish the cooperative. She recruited volunteers to advise them on various aspects of the business, from accounting to logo design.
Volunteers often attend the Apple cooperative’s weekly meetings, which are hosted by Luz Maria Arias, another member, in her Jackson Heights, Queens, apartment. Ms. Arias, 50, who began working as a maid as a child in Mexico, said the cooperative helped the women recognize the value of their own labor. It has also made material improvements in their lives.
“Here it’s less time, better paid and healthier in terms of the products,” Ms. Arias said. The women now earn about twice as much per hour as they did as day laborers, and negotiate their hours with their clients ahead of time.
During their meetings, the women review their progress and discuss subjects like the most effective bathroom cleaners and the best way to make a bed. They also review their finances; schedule jobs on a rotation, so that each woman gets an equal amount of work; and brainstorm next steps to expand the business.
Progress is slow and sometimes uneven. The original group of 13 members has dwindled to five as some found they could not commit the time required to start a business.
Meanwhile, cleaning opportunities come and go in a highly competitive industry, and the cooperative must compete with larger, more established companies. A promising $5,000 contract to clean the offices of a union in Times Square fell through when the client learned that its building’s rules prevented nonunionized workers from cleaning there.
Nonetheless, the cooperative has gained 15 steady clients, and its business is growing.
Although they no longer have to wait for work on the corner in Williamsburg, some of the women go back to talk about the cooperative.
“We see the needs there are at this site,” Yolanda Osorno, 48, another founding member of the group, said. Ms. Osorno came to New York from Mexico nearly four years ago, after losing her job as an executive secretary in Mexico City. She left behind two daughters, whose school fees she pays with the money she earns.
The cooperative aims to expand and recruit more women from the Williamsburg hiring site, Ms. Osorno said. It also hopes to establish a mobile day labor center for women, which would most likely be housed in a trailer, where women would be able to receive training and resources about working in the United States.
“We will succeed,” Ms. Osorno said. “And we will help the girls of Williamsburg, because that’s where we’re from. That’s where we came out of.”