Locals seek to ease day labor problems
It is a familiar dynamic in many communities. A large group of men congregates early every morning in the same location, each of them hoping that a local contractor or resident will stop by and hire him for the day to perform some type of manual labor, such as landscaping or roofing. Often, however, the gatherings give rise to a series of complaints from nearby residents or businesses: the men are urinating in public; they are trespassing on private property; they are disrupting traffic by rushing into the streets toward prospective employers.
In response, some local governments have built facilities to simultaneously help day laborers find work and to end the disturbances they can cause. One published report estimates that about 60 local governments at least partially fund shelters where day laborers can try to find work. Those that have done so have discovered it is a challenging and, at times, frustrating service.
In December 2001, Fort Worth, Texas, opened its 7,200-square-foot day labor center to try to end the congregations of laborers at a site about two miles away. According to Teresa Carreon, the business and community development coordinator for the city and who also oversees the center, finding a site for the facility was a challenge. “It took almost two years to find a location because nobody wanted us [near them],” she says.
The city eventually placed the center in an industrial area that is both too far away from where the workers were gathering and relatively inaccessible by public transportation, Carreon says. Consequently, the center does not attract as many laborers as it should, she says.
Up to 70 laborers visit the center each day, according to Carreon. The typical user is a male between the ages of 18 to 40. Approximately 70 percent of those who use the center are Hispanic. The center does not ask about immigration status, Carreon says.
Upon arriving, the workers are assigned numbers — the smaller the number, the higher priority a laborer has when an employer comes to the building. About 40 percent of the laborers who show up each day find work, Carreon estimates. She hopes that one day the center will be able to offer educational and vocational programs.
Despite the center’s efforts, some day laborers often still congregate at outside locations. When relatively few contractors visit the center, typically during the winter months, the workers head outside, Carreon says.
Arlington County, Va., also has tried to alleviate its day-labor problems. The county provided a community development block grant to a non-profit organization to build the Shirlington Employment and Education Center (SEEC), which opened in 2000. The county provides the center about $160,000 annually, nearly all of the facility’s operating budget, according to Raul Torres, assistant county manager.
In addition to matching day laborers with employers, SEEC provides English and computer classes, as well as health screening services. However, up to 100 day laborers continued to congregate in a nearby regional park. So, the county built a pavilion on county land for the laborers.
The pavilion, which features a portable restroom and a water fountain, opened last October. Located just blocks from the day laborers’ old gathering spot, the pavilion also is a few hundred yards away from SEEC, whose staff manages the site and tries to enroll some of the workers into the center’s skill development programs. Since the pavilion opened, day laborers no longer gather in the regional park, Torres says.
To those local governments considering day labor centers, Carreon says the most critical factor is location. A facility should be as close to the laborers’ gathering spot as possible. Also, it should be located on or very near bus lines so workers can reach it fairly easily. Garland, Texas, has a center that incorporates the recommended factors, Carreon says, and it draws significantly more workers than Fort Worth’s facility does.