More Cities Turn to Hiring Halls to Solve Day Laborer Problems

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first, the city of Orange resorted to force to try to stop day laborers from congregating along East Chapman Avenue.

In an all-out assault three years ago, the Orange police arrested hundreds of the mostly Latino laborers on misdemeanor violations and turned over almost all of them to the U.S. Border Patrol for deportation. The next day, laborers again flocked to Chapman Avenue.

These days, the city is planning a gentler approach to the problem of day laborers, whose presence has drawn complaints from local residents and businesses. Last week, the City Council voted to open a hiring hall to match laborers with jobs.

By so doing, Orange joins a growing number of Orange County cities which, after trying everything else to discourage growing congregations of day laborers, have reconciled themselves to living with them and opened hiring halls to get them off the streets.

But the halls are widely diverse in operation and none has succeeded in ridding the streets entirely of day laborers. Some of them also create the same traffic congestion that prompted complaints about the workers in the first place.

"One of the obvious limitations of such a hiring hall plan is that this is difficult to do without simply moving the 'problem' from one geographic location to another," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, in a report to local cities last year.

"Complaints about workers rushing up to vehicles may continue. Also, it is very difficult to control employers and those seeking employment. They often eventually drift back to the original pickup site."

City officials, though, say that hiring halls are better than having nothing at all.

"It is a win-win situation for everyone involved," said Karen Nobrega, assistant to the city manager of Orange. "It's effective for business owners who complain about large groups congregating. Employers have a central location that they can drive through. And it is a good place for the laborers because the employers are there."

Cities, too, are trying to learn from each other's experiences.

The city of Costa Mesa started Orange County's hiring hall trend in October, 1988, as the worsening economies of Latin America and other factors propelled hundreds of workers onto street corners throughout Southern California.

Since then, Laguna Beach has established an outdoor hiring hall; Dana Point began a telephone placement service, and Brea plans to open a hall this spring. All of these programs are operated at city expense.

Orange officials expect to open their hall on March 26 and to pattern it after Costa Mesa's, where only legal residents of the United States are welcome. And like both Costa Mesa and Dana Point, Orange has also outlawed solicitation of jobs on the street.

"It won't solve the problem 100% but we think it's the right way," Orange Mayor Don E. Smith said.

But if Costa Mesa's experience is any indication, Orange may run into trouble.

Costa Mesa is fighting two lawsuits brought by human rights groups challenging the constitutionality of its day-laborer ordinance. Both suits are pending in Orange County Superior Court.

And by excluding workers without green cards, work permits or other documents showing legal residency, the Costa Mesa plan literally is leaving some workers out in the cold.

Despite the city ordinance and near-freezing temperatures one morning this past week, some two dozen Latino men stood shivering in Lions Park--directly across the street from the Costa Mesa Police Department--as they have done for countless mornings in search of work.

"We are here because it is a necessity," said Abraham Martinez, 41, an undocumented immigrant who sends money home to his wife and two children in Mexico City. "If I don't make money for my family, they don't eat."

At the Costa Mesa Job Center about a mile away, more than two dozen legal immigrants waited patiently as contractors drifted through to pick up workers. The jobs are doled out by lottery. Although the workers said finding work is much easier through a hiring hall, they sympathized with the others such as Martinez.

" All of us need to eat," Pedro Estrada, a 56-year-old immigrant from the Mexican state of Michoacan, said with an expansive sweep of his arms. "They need to open the doors of this center to everyone."

"Yeah, it's really sad," agreed Christina Sanchez, coordinator of the Costa Mesa Job Center. "But it's the city's rules and we have to follow them."

But U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, under criticism by some cities for not doing more about day laborers, tout the Costa Mesa plan as a national model.

Donald B. Looney, INS deputy district director in Los Angeles, said the program helps legal residents and discourages illegal ones. He predicted that undocumented workers eventually would drift away as employers become increasingly reluctant to hire them.

Under the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act, employers face penalties, including seizure of their vehicles, for hiring undocumented immigrants. With that law in mind, many employers say they like the idea of going to hiring halls where the workers have already been screened.

"It is peace of mind knowing that they have ID," Don Hanson, a contractor from Costa Mesa, said as he picked up two workers at the Costa Mesa hall on a recent morning. "I just drop by whenever I'm short a man."

But in Los Angeles, Laguna Beach and eventually in Brea, hiring halls don't require papers. The advantage of that, said Kennedy of the Human Relations Commission, is that they move more day laborers off street corners. Studies by the INS show that, depending on location, between 10% and 80% of day laborers are illegal.

Some cities have found that, regardless of whether they check documents or not, a hiring hall simply won't work if it's placed in the wrong location.

Anne Kamsvaag, an attorney for the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights in Los Angeles, said the city of Glendale's hiring hall failed recently because it was in an out-of-the-way industrial location. Seeing that employers were not following them to the hall, the workers slowly began returning to their old pickup site in a retail district, Kamsvaag said.

Laguna Beach ran into a similar problem when, two years ago, it set up an informal hiring hall on a remote stretch of Laguna Canyon Road for dozens of workers who had been gathering outside a convenience store in North Laguna. Even with free shuttle buses between the store and the parking lot site, city officials found that many of the workers preferred to remain near the store.

Although the majority of day workers eventually drifted to the Laguna Canyon Road site, City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said that a few laborers still show up each morning at the old location.

Unlike cities with indoor hiring halls, Laguna Beach chose the low-budget approach of simply designating a pickup site for workers. But the city ran into major problems when the workers began darting in and out of busy Laguna Canyon Road after prospective employers, Frank said. Three of the workers were struck by vehicles and injured.

"We used to hear screeching brakes all the time," said Joe Jahraus, owner of Laguna Beach Lumber across the highway from the lot.

The City Council responded to the safety problem by spending nearly $9,000 to upgrade the lot so workers will not need to leave. The upgrading, completed two weeks ago, included installation of a toilet, benches and a paved entrance and exit for the lot. Jahraus said the workers don't dash into the street any more.

One of the most successful and inexpensive hiring programs in the county has been the telephone job bank started last August in Dana Point.

Councilman Mike Eggers, chief architect of the plan, said workers and employers call a special line staffed by volunteers and a part-time coordinator and are matched according to need. As of Oct. 6, a city report found that the job bank was placing 74% of its workers.

The Telephone Hiring Exchange, as it is called, costs $9,000 a year. Orange's hiring hall will cost an estimated $95,000 to open, while Brea's is expected to cost $37,000. Costa Mesa spends about $20,000 a year on its program.

As successful as it is, a telephone hiring hall has geographic limitations that would prevent it from being effective on a more widespread scale, Kennedy said. Eggers also admits some workers still gravitate to an old pickup site on Doheny Park Road in Capistrano Beach but in far fewer numbers than before.

Whatever their approach, city officials throughout the county agree that the day-laborer problem is not going away any time soon.

"The lure of Southern California to those living in villages in Mexico and Central America is almost overwhelming," Eggers said. "As long as we continue to create this paradise in Southern California, one of the results of that paradise is going to be the lure of immigrants to this area."

HIRING HALLS IN ORANGE COUNTY

COSTA MESA: Opened Job Center in October, 1988. The center assists only those workers who can furnish documentation of legal U.S. residency. The city has adopted day laborer ordinances that make it a misdemeanor to solicit employment on the street, hire anyone off the street or have the intent of soliciting employment. Plan aimed at reducing number of workers who gather in Lion's Park for work. Cost: $20,000 a year.

LAGUNA BEACH: Designated city parking lot as outdoor hiring hall for day laborers in December, 1988. Original site was on the Act V parking lot on Laguna Canyon Road but was moved last year to a nearby parking lot on the same road. Council recently authorized $9,000 in improvements to the lot, including installation of a portable toilet, benches and paving. Program aimed at reducing congregations of workers outside Circle K store in North Laguna. Cost: $9,000 for improvements.

DANA POINT: Started Telephone Hiring Exchange Aug. 28 to match dayworkers with jobs. City does not attempt to verify legal residency. City also enacted ordinance prohibiting street solicitation of jobs. The telephone hiring hall is aimed at reducing worker congregations on Doheny Park Road in Capistrano Beach. Cost: $9,000 a year.

ORANGE: Will open hiring hall March 26. It will be open only to workers who can furnish documentation of legal residency. The city has also enacted a day-laborer ordinance that makes it illegal to seek work on the street during posted hours and in designated locations. Ordinance will be enforced 30 days after the hiring hall is open. Plan is aimed at reducing number of workers who gather along East Chapman Avenue. Cost: $95,000 to start up.

BREA: Plans to open indoor hiring hall this spring for both documented and undocumented workers. Council in December began soliciting bids for a nonprofit agency to run the hall. Program is aimed at reducing worker congregations on Walnut Avenue at Imperial Highway. Cost: $37,000 a year.

Source: Individual cities

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