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Monday Protests Could Hit Local Economy Hard

Times Staff Writers

Fernando Lopez plans to close his three local Los Angeles-area Oaxacan restaurants for the day Monday after his approximately 50 employees agreed to observe a planned immigrant rights boycott then.

“I am an immigrant too. We are all part of the community of Los Angeles and we are very united,” said Lopez, 46, adding that his suppliers told him not to expect deliveries Monday.

Acknowledging the key role immigrants play in the Southern California economy, some local employers and their workers are preparing for work disruptions or shutdowns stemming from large immigrant rights actions Monday.

Some local employers say they will look the other way if their employees skip work to participate. Some restaurants, grocery stores, garment factories, farmers, meatpackers, gardeners and truckers say they plan to suspend some or all of their operations. That’s out of concern about not having enough workers, or for fear of a backlash.

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Some business owners, such as Lopez, will shut down out of sympathy for those protesting for greater immigrant rights.

Many businesses may not be affected. But businesses with large numbers of immigrant workers, as well as those owned by immigrants and establishments along protest routes, could be substantially affected.

All told, the effect on the local economy could be significant, business leaders say, given the widespread use of immigrant workers. More than a third of Los Angeles County’s population is foreign-born, according to 2000 figures from the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit public policy research organization in Los Angeles. Informal workers, of whom many are undocumented, account for 15% of the county labor force, according to some estimates.

Monday’s planned actions encompass a national boycott of work, school and consumer activity to highlight immigrants’ economic power, with rallies planned in cities across the country.

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In Los Angeles, a noon gathering will be followed by a march to the mid-Wilshire district. Participants also have been urged not to buy anything that day. More than 200 political, labor, business and religious groups helped organize the events.

Predictions vary widely on how many are expected to take part in the general strike. A March 25 immigrant rights rally in Los Angeles drew an estimated 500,000 people, but an April 10 demonstration attracted a far smaller crowd.

Some workers who plan to demonstrate have already taken pains to clear their absences in advance. Many workers not taking part in Monday’s actions are making alternative plans, including working from home to avoid traffic problems.

Rosa Ojeda, a 43-year-old janitor who works at Walt Disney Co., has told her boss she will not be in. She called her decision a “very personal one” and said she respects others who choose not to participate.

Some of the labor groups behind the planned boycott have taken much the same line.

“We’re advising our members to follow their own discretion,” said Mary Gutierrez, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Most local employers say they expect to conduct business as usual, according to a recent survey. But Employers Group, a Los Angeles-based human resources consulting firm, found that many companies anticipate that the boycott will affect staffing levels.

Some gardeners and housecleaners may not make their usual rounds. Individual child-care providers may choose not to work and some commercial establishments may not receive expected deliveries.

Calabasas-based landscaping company ValleyCrest Cos. plans “no retaliation” against absent employees, human resources director Raul Diaz de Leon said.

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Like several other area companies, ValleyCrest has asked employees to notify their managers in advance and take a vacation day. Depending on the number of absences, De Leon said, “we may shut down some locations.”

Some local trucking companies were generally expecting many drivers to stay away from their offices.

“I think the bulk have chosen to respect the protests,” said Ron Guss, president of Intermodal West Inc. in Pico Rivera. “I don’t think they are going to come to work. We have told all of our customers we will be short of power.”

Guss joked that he was thinking about playing backgammon or poker at his offices, then added: “It will be a day for everyone else in the office to catch up with their paperwork.”

Still, many local businesses say they are not expecting service disruptions.

“Nobody walked off on April 10,” said John Stoddard, general manager of the Wilshire Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The hotel employs 600, many of whom are Latino.

“Our employees are very loyal and understand that we’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re not picking up any signals that there’s a lot of support to sacrifice a day’s pay and the gratuities that go along with that to attend this event.”

For many businesses, the boycott presents not just a staffing challenge but also a political and moral one.

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“A lot of our member restaurants are sympathetic to the demonstration,” said Jordan Traverso, communications director of the 22,000-member California Restaurant Assn. Some may close their doors for the day in sympathy, she predicted, or out of fear that by remaining open they may offend some customers.

Economist Dan Flaming thinks employers increasingly appreciate the crucial role of immigrant labor in the area’s economy.

“Many of these workers are long-standing as members of the workforce,” said Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable. “They have been implicitly invited to work in our economy and have in fact created the only area of net growth in our regional economy.”

Many employers say they want to be fair but worry that widespread absences could wreak havoc with customers and their bottom line.

Stoddard said that the Wilshire Grand had notified employees of their responsibility to be at work. “We do have customers and we need to take care of the customers,” he said.

Lonnie Kane, president of Karen Kane, a women’s garment maker, took the same position before the April 10 protest.

“We came up with a policy of telling managers that ... we need everyone to come to work.” As a result, Kane said, “I doubt we had an absence that day.”

His expectation is the same for Monday. And what if workers don’t show?

The restaurant association’s Traverso said many eatery managers anticipate some workers will be absent “but don’t want to fire them for that.” But, she said, “restaurants worry that they set a precedent if they don’t fire someone for an unauthorized absence.”

Both ValleyCrest and the Wilshire Grand will ding workers who fail to report as scheduled with an unauthorized absence.

“We’re not going to fire anyone,” Stoddard said. “If the employee had excessive absenteeism and a poor work record and did not call in Monday, we’d have to address it like any other situation,” he said.

Part of the difficulty for employers and workers stems from confusion over interpretation of federal and state statutes protecting workers who engage in political activity.

Some workers are unsure about what to do Monday.

Lino Ostorga, a Los Angeles carpet layer, said he probably would stay home and refrain from any purchases. His boss and his co-workers, all Latinos like Ostorga, have also said they will stay home.

He supports the protests’ aims but believes that “the boycott is not a good idea at this moment, because the economy is terrible.” Still, the 45-year-old worries that “if you go to work on Monday, it looks like you don’t support” reform.


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