Inside the Brea Job Center, Susan Perlman was holding class. Her props were a chalkboard and a stack of job applications that had been handed out to two dozen Spanish-speaking men and women.
"OK, now we're going to learn the business phone number of the center here," Perlman said, as her students jot down the center's telephone number on the appropriate line of the application. "Good! Are there any questions?"
Welcome to Survival Skills 101.
With the number of day laborers down--due to the recession--at two of three Orange County hiring halls, teaching English as a second language is the latest chapter in Orange County's love-hate relationship with day workers, many of whom congregate on street corners.
Perlman, a social worker, volunteers once a week to help the center's day laborers scale a cultural wall by teaching ESL.
"I believe it's important we teach them how to survive here. Since I live in Brea, it's my opportunity to do volunteer work," Perlman said.
"Our program is not just a job center," said George A. Garza, the center's director. "We're into bringing in job training and workshops and trying to help (the workers) attain a better way of life."
Orange County attitudes were not always as compassionate.
In years past, Costa Mesa, Orange and other cities showered day laborers with restrictive ordinances after residents and businesses complained about hundreds of men loitering with no sanitary facilities, making improper remarks to women and stopping traffic.
Carmen Saldana, director of the job center in Orange, said that her center now schedules workshops on immigration, quitting smoking and planned parenthood, and representatives from the gas and electric companies visit to talk to day workers about home safety.
"I like to have workshops on the work environment because many of these people don't know there's a different culture of work here in the United States than, say, in Mexico," Saldana said.
Skip Berriochoa, director of the job center in Costa Mesa, said that the center used to wait for employers to drive to the center and toot their horn. Now Berriochoa contacts area businesses and actively recruits jobs.
"I think the city of Costa Mesa is being smart. And the businesses of this city are not going to be complaining to try and get these men off the streets if they're working or coming in here looking for work," Berriochoa said.
More than 36,000 people used the Costa Mesa center in 1992, up from 24,000 people in 1991, Berriochoa said. The center had a 19% increase in the number of users for the month of January, compared to the same time last year, he said. About 130 people are currently using the center on a daily basis, compared to 90 people a year ago.
Despite that increase, the number of people finding temporary jobs has gone up only 3% from last year, Berriochoa said. He attributed the low percentage not only to the recession but also to a major shift away from relying on the county's construction industry to employ day workers. Berriochoa said he has seen more out-of-state people at the center. A third of the center's users have been in the area less than six months, he said.
"Many people from other states still believe that California is the Golden State when it comes to jobs, and they're being seriously misled," he said.
In Orange, as many as 130 people once sought work daily via the job center, but only 70 men and women showed up on a recent weekday. Brea had fewer than 50.
Saldana said she believes the lower turnout means that more people have found jobs, but a local economist disagreed with her interpretation.
"Usually at the beginning of a recovery, employers don't go out hiring more people," said Esmael Adibi, director of Chapman University's Center for Economic Research. "They are more conservative and would rather pay overtime than start taking on new projects and hiring more people."
Adibi said the fact that fewer people are looking for work at the job centers bears out a finding that Orange County is a year behind the rest of the nation in shaking off the economic malaise.
Fewer day laborers at the job centers doesn't necessarily mean that they have found employment or that the economy is back on track, Adibi said.
"It's probably a combination of facts, including that some laborers would not show up there because they got discouraged and gave up. And another factor is how effective these centers have been for these people in the past," he said.
The economic rejuvenation and expansion that many county residents are hoping for is not yet a reality, Adibi said. He warned that people have to remember that thousands of jobs have been lost in the past five years. At least 28,000 workers were laid off in 1992 and 46,000 the year before, according to the research center.
For job seekers such as Jesus Garcia of Brea, an unemployed day worker in Perlman's ESL class, something as basic as filling out a job application in English can be the key to survival in the United States.
"Today I learned how to sign my name on the right line, how to put my job skills down and the telephone number of the center," Garcia said.
At the Brea Job Center, Garcia and others arrive about 6 a.m., and each is given a number. Selection of jobs is by lottery. In the past two weeks, Garcia said, he has only worked two days. He was paid $5 an hour for painting.
Center director Garza said that employers are briefed about the center, which serves only as a clearinghouse and does not certify the workers' immigration documents.
"That's up to the employer," Garza said.
Monica Manriquez of the Vine Cluster Church in La Habra hires workers from the center regularly.
"The church owns a block of houses, and from time to time we hire men to trim bushes, paint and move furniture in and out," Manriquez said. "We know that without work, these men have nothing to feed their children. These guys are motivated workers, and that's why we keep coming back."