Dayworker Centers a Mixed Success


“Good morning, sir! Good morning, sir!” yelled the 60 men in near-unison as the driver of a black pickup pulled up to the Costa Mesa Job Center.

Sitting on a metal chair and bundled up against the morning cold, each man leaned forward and raised a number--given out in the order the workers signed up--on a blue piece of paper.

It was 7 a.m., and the contractor needed a handyman for six hours at $10 per hour. But the job required an English speaker; all but a few hands dropped. Just about everyone could say “Good morning,” but only a few could carry an English conversation further.


The lucky worker picked--a man in his early 20s--was holding No. 39. The contractor took him to breakfast before heading to the job site.

“I’m doing a construction job in the area and have been stopping here once or twice a week,” said the contractor, who wanted to be identified only as Dave. “This isn’t totally legit, but it’s as legit as it gets. It works out well for me.”

This is the scene most mornings at city-sponsored job centers in Costa Mesa, Orange, North Hollywood and elsewhere throughout Southern California. Several dozen men huddle, starting before 6 a.m., waiting for an employer to offer them work for the day.

A survey by the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission of day-laborer hiring sites found that 97% of the dayworkers in Orange and Los Angeles counties are Latino immigrant men. Although they are often stereotyped as unskilled laborers, many are electricians, mechanics, masons, roofers and bakers, the study found.

The centers are an attempt by the cities to stop the practice of workers gathering at storefronts and street corners throughout the day waiting to be hired.

Most municipalities have also enacted ordinances prohibiting the solicitation of work in public areas. Orange police enforce the city ordinance aggressively, arresting many workers who are turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol and deported.


The commission’s study found the ordinances ineffective in taking the laborers off the streets. Researchers found that “as long as there are jobs available, the workers will continue to gather.”


According to the survey, which included Southern California and eight states, ordinances are sometimes also applied unfairly.

“Police . . . often abuse the law by harassing Latino men into moving away from places where they have legal rights to stand. . . . Law enforcement also misuses the ordinance to break up employment relationships which may be legal. Moreover, abuse of the ordinance is often discriminatory toward minorities,” the report says.

Officials in Moorpark, faced with complaints from residents and business owners about dozens of men hanging out at Spring Road and High Street, are trying to find an equitable solution.

Bob LeMay, the new police chief of the Ventura County city, said convincing Moorpark officials to build a hiring hall is among his priorities. Despite numerous complaints, there is little his officers can do, LeMay said.

“I am looking for some type of creative solution that will be beneficial to both the residents and these individuals, [who] are only trying to scratch out a meager living,” he said.


At most centers, workers are not harassed by police, but they do need to be able to prove they are in the country legally. But because many are undocumented, only a small percentage actually use the facilities.

“The goal was to get people off the streets and out of the parks and give them a place where we can put employer and worker together,” said Glenn Stroud, who supervises Costa Mesa’s job center. “We’ve been successful, but there’s still a lot of people on the street soliciting jobs.”

At a North Hollywood hiring hall run by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, even illegal immigrants can register. The facility is unlike any other in Southern California.

Most mornings, the workers are provided coffee and Mexican sweet bread. When the coalition began running the hall in 1997, it quickly fostered a sense of belonging among the workers.

Workers tend a vegetable garden and have formed a band, soccer team, theater troupe and marathon team. They also perform community service, such as graffiti removal, and can check out books from the hall’s library.

Robin S. Toma, executive director of the L.A. County Human Relations Commission, said it is foolhardy to allow only legal residents to use the hiring halls.


“It’s a liability if the goal is to establish a site for a more organized method of job distribution. Inclusive hiring benefits everyone: the community, workers, employers and most of all the police, who have better things to do than enforce ordinances and chase people away from street corners and stores,” Toma said.

Jose Campa, who works part time at the Orange Job Center, had to chase off three scruffy men one recent morning who were not registered with the center.

“All they want to do is work,” said Campa, a burly retiree from El Paso, Texas. “But the rules say that only registered workers can be here.”

The three men said they had arrived from Veracruz, Mexico, 15 days earlier and had lost all their money--$200 apiece--to the smuggler who brought them. They were penniless, had not worked since they arrived and were living on the street.

On this particular morning, only about a dozen of the 43 workers who had registered for the day had been hired by the time the center closed at 10 a.m.

The centers aid the workers in other ways: Because city officials keep track of the workers and the contractors who hire them, the workers usually earn more than the $6.25 California minimum wage, and the contractors are less likely to cheat them of their pay. Occasionally, wages are paid in cash with no taxes withheld and no record--other than at the center--that employer and employee met.


“I’ve heard terrible stories from these guys about contractors who work them for three or four days and never pay them. This usually happens with workers who hang out on the street. We’ve had one or two contractors who have done that, but we know who they are and call them,” Campa said.


The commission’s report, due for release this week, quoted from a separate study of Los Angeles-area dayworkers that found 48% had worked for an employer who never paid them and 52% had been paid less than promised at one time or another.

Occasionally, workers will land a long-term job. Manuel Soto recently was laid off after three years from a construction job he got through the Orange center.

“I took advantage of the opportunity. I learned all about construction and after a few months I was made a heavy-equipment operator,” said Soto, speaking a mixture of English and Spanish. “I was making good money until the contracts ran out and I lost my job.”

On this morning, Soto, 30, said he was willing to take any job offered him for the day.

The Orange center uses a lottery system to place workers. The names of those who speak Spanish only are written on slips of white paper and placed in a glass bowl. The names of workers who speak English are written on green slips and placed in a basket. People are hired based on the luck of the draw.

Luis Mandujan, 29, said workers rely on one another to keep order at the facility.

“We don’t allow anybody to get loud or rowdy. Everything is kept very dignified here. The guys jump on anybody who brings beer. Employers don’t want to see people arguing or drinking when they come in looking for workers.”


Not all of the men are craftsmen or laborers.

Campa said a graphic artist from Mexico with computer skills was doing menial work until he was hired by a woman who runs a silk-screening business.

“He’s now doing the company’s computer graphics. I called her a few days back to ask how he was doing, and she couldn’t say enough nice things about him. Stories like that warm your heart,” Campa said.


But in Santa Ana, where day laborers hang out in front of a home improvement warehouse store, the stories are not ones of success but of exploitation.

It was 2 p.m. on a Thursday, and Javier Garnica, 29, Orlando Tapia, 20, and Carlos Lopez, 25, were sitting against a chain-link fence, ready to give up for the day and head to a soup kitchen near downtown to get something to eat. None of the men had been able to find a job all week.

“A lot of people who hire us know that we’re here illegally,” Garnica said. “Many of us get paid $4 an hour. Last week we moved furniture for a lady for 12 hours, and we got $40 each. That’s less than $4 per hour. She didn’t even buy us lunch. Most of the contractors who hire us at least buy us lunch.”

A fourth friend was not there that day because he had fallen from a roof while working for a roofing company.


“He slipped and cut his face horribly. He had a deep gash on his cheek. The guy who hired him told him to get away from the job site,” Lopez said. “He didn’t take him to a hospital or pay him. The next day when he came by he was still bleeding and the cut was becoming infected. We called the paramedics and they took him to the hospital.”

Lopez said that Santa Ana fire and police authorities asked them for the name of the contractor. But nobody knew who the man was.

Garnica said that in desperate moments, he travels to the job centers in Costa Mesa and Orange to try to get hired without registering.

“They’re very strict at the centers. But sometimes that’s the only way for me to get a job that will pay at least $7 per hour,” he said.


Times staff writers Ofelia Casillas and Jenifer Ragland contributed to this report.