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Victims of the Economy : Doubt Over Hiring Hall’s Future Adds to Day Laborers’ Concerns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jose Garcia doesn’t know what he will do if the city job center closes.

“We’ve heard and we can see for ourselves that this has been a bad year, economically speaking,” said Garcia, who was born in Mexico 50 years ago and now lives in Costa Mesa. “We know because we’ve only been able to work two or three times a week.”

Garcia was among 162 predominantly Spanish-speaking immigrants who lined up at the center Wednesday--some arriving as early as 3:30 a.m.--for a chance to find employment. On this day only 25 landed work.

“There are no longer any big construction jobs for us,” said Margarito Rojas of Costa Mesa, who struggles to pay the rent and food bills for his wife and three children. “Now, it’s mostly small painting, clean-up, and landscaping jobs. But even those jobs are few.”

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Soon, the hiring hall itself could fall victim to the economy.

A proposal by the state in January to take over the hall at 1697 Placentia Ave. has fallen through because of a lack of money and staff members. That has prompted city officials to question whether they should continue paying the center’s $60,000-a-year operating costs out of their own dwindling municipal budget. The City Council has delayed a decision for at least two weeks.

“Right now we have enough funds to carry the center through about mid- to late September, keeping costs down,” said Allan L. Roeder, Costa Mesa city manager.

The existing lease expires at the end of September, Roeder said, and the city needs to know by Sept. 1, “whether we’re going to renegotiate that lease,” drop it or rent on a month-to-month basis.

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“I think the job center is a necessary function for our community,” said Councilman Jay Humphrey, who explained that he and his council colleagues put off a decision only because their meeting on Monday had already gone beyond midnight.

Since its inception in 1988, the center has been controversial. It was established, in part, to discourage immigrant day laborers from congregating at Lion’s Park and on many of the city’s street corners. It was among the first Orange County centers, if not the first in the United States, to help immigrant workers, and a rule restricting services only to legal residents drew praise from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In practice, however, the legal resident rule limited the program’s success. Workers continued to show up at Lion’s Park until the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to solicit work there and in certain other areas of the city.

Part of the solicitation ordinance was eventually struck down by an Orange County judge who found it unconstitutional. The city dropped its legal resident rule in February when the state’s Employment Development Department proposed taking over the center. Since then, daily use of the center has increased. According to the city, the center finds work for an average of 27 people a day out of an average of 75 workers seeking employment.

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Michael Potts of the Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, said many unskilled laborers came to Orange County during the past construction boom and now, amid the recession, “they remain on the bottom of the heap.”

Part of the problem, Potts said, has been more contractors competing in a “smaller arena.” While many workers go unhired, some of those who find work fall victim to unscrupulous contractors who do not pay their workers or under-pay them on public works projects, Potts said.

Anita MacKenzie, a spokeswoman with the employment department in Sacramento, noted that the department’s services are still offered at the agency’s offices in Garden Grove and Santa Ana.

“I’ve gone to (the) Santa Ana (state employment office) and the only thing they make you do is fill out an application,” complained Placido Cambray, an unemployed painter. “Then they say they’ll call you. That’s all. It’s a waste of time and gasoline.

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“If they want me to go to an office in Santa Ana forget it,” Cambray said. “I’m going back on the street to look for work.”


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