A Year After The Woolsey Fire, This Malibu Day Laborer Still Struggles to Find Work
Exactly one year ago, the Woolsey Fire tore through Malibu, growing to nearly 100,000 acres and destroying almost 500 homes in the city.
While reporting on the blaze, I learned that Malibu homeowners weren't the only people hit hard by the fire's devastation; so too were day laborers, housekeepers and gardeners who travelled to the area to work in the city's affluent neighborhoods.
Julio Osorio, a day laborer, later showed me around his neighborhood in South Gate, including the corner where he picked up his first bus — the initial leg of a commute to Malibu that took two to three hours.
Nearly a year later, I met up again with Osorio at the Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood, where he was celebrating Día de los Muertos with his two brothers.
Families nearby pitched tents and set up food. A Mariachi band played a few gravesites away.
Osorio kneeled next to his mother's grave. On the headstone he placed McDonald's coffee and creamer — her favorite drink.
The family also laid an ofrenda — offering — of orange and white flowers shaped like a heart, and a giant sunflower rimmed with white daisies at the gravesite.
Family is everything to Osorio. At the cemetery, he was relaxed, smiling.
But his demeanor belied what he said has been a tough year for him and many other day laborers who endure hours-long commutes to work at Malibu mansions.
"I've been working a little bit, but not enough," he said.
Osorio lives with his brother's family and helps pay the rent. He also sends money to his teenage daughter in Massachusetts. That means the shortage of work doesn't impact just him, but his relatives as well.
Osorio is a skilled construction worker: "I do painting, I do drywall, I do stucco... I do quite a few things to survive," he said, ticking off each type of work on his fingers — Osorio had a list of homeowners who would regularly call him for work before the fire.
But when those flames tore through the canyons he worked in, Osorio was out of a job for weeks.
He and other day laborers who tried to enter the city while the fire burned said they were turned away by police who thought they were looters.
Nearly a year later, Osorio said things haven't gotten better, and they may even be worse.
"Nobody build their houses still, you know," he said. "The land is empty. It's like walking [on] the moon."
Osorio and other workers keep coming at five or six o'clock each morning to a day laborer hiring center called the Malibu Community Labor Exchange. But Osorio said since the Woolsey fire, fewer and fewer homeowners show up looking for help.
"It's bad," he said, throwing up his hands. "I have friends that sit in there for, like, weeks without working."
Osorio's phone used to ring regularly with requests from homeowners who liked his construction work. Many of them lost their homes in the fire, and now calls from those former clients are different.
"They say, 'Julio, how you been doing?' I say, 'Man, tough,'" he said. "And they say, 'You know what, just come over, wash my cars,' just to help me."
He's not sure how much longer he can live like this. When Osorio can get a job, the money in Malibu is good; better than working a similar job in less affluent cities. But right now, everything is so uncertain. And Osorio's not getting any younger.
"I'm old," he said. "I'm 54 years old, and the idea is to save a little money for the future, and you can't."
Osorio does have a job right now — a painting gig that will last a few more days.
He hopes he won't have to wait long for the next one.