Remodelers around the country are wrestling with a dilemma that could be either an answer to their labor woes or a potential employment nightmare: day laborers. Many contractors see these workers, who gather on sidewalks and street corners to solicit jobs from passers-by, as an inexpensive and convenient source of labor for short-term jobs. “I used to hire them when I was building houses,” says a Washington-area remodeler on the condition of anonymity. “It's cheap and easy.”

The problem is that many day laborers are immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally. Federal law prohibits knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, and although the law is rarely enforced, it exposes remodelers to serious liability issues. “I've got employees in people's houses,” says the same remodeler. “God help me if anything happens.”

A Massachusetts remodeler says he feels “the liability of using day laborers is too high,” adding, “What amazes me is that some of the biggest and most well respected contractors around here are known to use teams of illegal helpers all the time.” The reason, he suspects, is the high cost — between insurance and taxes — of hiring someone legitimately.

Other problems are those of politics and perception. Many consumers and businesses oppose day laborers on the grounds that they undercut law-abiding businesses and threaten public health and safety. Plus, it just looks bad to hire people you can't vouch for personally.

The alternative, when you're desperate for short-term labor? The Washington remodeler uses temp agencies that specialize in manual labor. They're licensed and insured, he says, and they vet workers for legal employment status, drug use, and more. Another option, though still somewhat dicey, is organized day labor centers that offer such services as English classes, job training, and dispute resolution. The U.S. has some 400 of these hiring sites, and most bear the blessings of local officials who see them as a necessary evil — a more publicly palatable alternative to leaving these workers on the streets.