More Workers Than Work

Tyche Hendricks, San Francisco Chronicle, sfgate.com, Jul. 15

On Concord’s Monument Boulevard, clusters of immigrant men linger outside the 7-Eleven, the McDonald’s and the local lumberyard, hoping to land a day’s work gardening, painting or bricklaying.

The day labor center down the street has reached its capacity, and these men are back on the streets looking for work as a result.

Meanwhile, nearby residents grow more frustrated because there is no quick-fix solution to the increasing presence of these day laborers.

“They are our neighbors, and I don’t want to shoo them out of the area, but I’d rather not have them seeking work in my neighborhood. My wife doesn’t feel safe walking to the grocery store or the park,” said Josh Peterman, a resident of the Cambridge Park area. “The high concentration of day laborers seems to make the neighborhood less attractive to prospective buyers and businesses.”

Persistent tensions in Concord over the situation led to a new location and new management for the city’s day labor center, Monument Futures, this year. Though the new center operates with strict discipline, scores of would- be workers still congregate on street corners.

“Our business has dwindled. The whole shopping center has been affected,” said Jerry Sharrock, grocery manager at an Albertsons supermarket on Monument Boulevard. “We get customer complaints, and I’ve had to call the police a number of times.”

Similar conflicts are playing out all over the Bay Area and California. Migrant workers, most from Mexico and Central America, are drawn to the region in search of opportunity while the economy has produced few jobs.

The number of day laborers “is related to a very complex set of factors not in our control,” said Mark Deven, Concord’s director of parks and recreation, who oversees the city’s contract with the day labor center.

“It may be related to employment (in the Bay Area), economic conditions in countries where people come from, and economic conditions to the north or south of us,” he said.

Bay Area cities have taken a range of different approaches to the day laborer situation. But local officials, activists and scholars agree that there is no easy answer.

“The neighborhood tensions in Concord reflect what happens across the country,” said Renee Saucedo, director of San Francisco’s day labor program.

In 1995, Concord passed an anti-solicitation ordinance in an attempt to reduce the presence of day laborers on the street. In 2000, the city added a hiring center, operated by a nonprofit group. But neighbors complained that laborers loitered outside the center, drank and urinated in public. Some laborers avoided the center, saying it was poorly run and that managers favored friends or accepted bribes to move a person’s name to the top of the daily hiring list.

Last year, the Concord Community Economic Development Organization brought in a new director, Molly Clark, to overhaul the program. Clark convened focus groups to learn about community concerns and the needs of the day laborers themselves, and she relocated the center to a store-front up the road.

Day laborers, or jornaleros, as they are known in Spanish, sign a contract agreeing not to look for work on the street, not to use drugs or alcohol, to wait for work inside the center, to pay a $20 monthly membership fee, and to volunteer two hours a month to maintain the center.

“In return, they have access to a good, safe place to wait for work,” she said.

Monument Futures can provide jobs for about 40 percent of the 60 or so workers who show up each day, Clark said.

“I get work about twice a week, because there are a lot of us, so the list rotates,” said Tomás Solís, 42. “The rule that you can’t look for work on the street is fair because we need to encourage the bosses to come here, not the street.”

Another worker, 20-year-old Omar Torres, added that although the center doesn’t always have a job for him, he knows he’ll earn more when he does get work.

“The guys who are on the street are desperate for work, so when someone offers $6 or $7 an hour, they take it,” he said. “But it devalues the work for all of us. Here bosses know they have to pay at least $10 an hour.”

Though the men at the center said the system works well, the program has reached its capacity, with 120 members.

Other cities, including Oakland and Los Altos, have tried to get day laborers off the street with similar combinations of anti-solicitation laws and day labor centers. But none has fully succeeded.

The Los Altos law was ruled unconstitutional last year, said Maria Marroquin, director of the Day Worker Center.

Marroquin said she can find jobs for about 45 of the 120 workers who come through her center each day.

In Oakland, the day labor center at High and San Leandro streets takes calls requesting workers from a few employers every day, said director Emilia Otero. In addition, close to 100 men gather outside early each morning, and by midday the majority of them have gotten picked up by contractors or owners, she said.

Saucedo’s center has been based in a portable trailer in San Francisco’s Franklin Square Park for a decade, but her staff must do constant outreach to try to connect with the hundreds of workers who line Cesar Chavez Street a mile away.

Berkeley city officials were spurred to do something after complaints mounted from merchants in the tony Fourth Street shopping district, which intersects Hearst Avenue where the day laborers congregate.

City leaders decided against building a hiring hall, opting instead to install portable toilets and trash cans, and creating several “white zones” along the curb where employers could pick up workers. Then Berkeley contracted with a Catholic nonprofit group with ties to the city’s Latinos, to mediate between the workers and the community.

Paula Worby, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate who has studied day laborers, said fierce philosophical debates rage in cities and among immigrant advocates.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what the model is,” Worby said. “What matters is the overall economy. All of these models were working when there were jobs, and then they all hit crises.”

Worby insists that it is important for communities to have some plan for handling conflicts concerning day laborers.

“Compare (Berkeley) to the El Cerrito Depot, where the police don’t know any of the laborers,” he said. “If you have no relationship, then when you want folks to move, you shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t cooperate.”

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