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Opinion

A better day-labor market

The Los Angeles City Council is scheduled to vote today on an ordinance that would help mitigate community concerns over men searching for work at large home improvement stores. This ordinance, which The Times opposed in an Aug. 10 editorial, deserves support as an example of creative and thoughtful local public policy. It is a way to make certain that home improvement stores are a part of the solution by engaging the private sector in a community partnership.

Los Angeles has been at the forefront of effective and innovative policy interventions to address the day-labor practice, including establishing worker centers -- gathering places sanctioned by municipalities that allow workers and employers to come together to exchange wages for work.

The proposed ordinance by Councilman Bernard C. Parks would neither mandate that home improvement stores pay for day-labor centers nor place a new burden on taxpayers. It would only require that if a conditional-use permit is awarded to a big-box home improvement store -- which would be needed for new construction or major renovation -- that a plan be in place to diminish problems that might arise when unemployed men search for jobs near the premises. One of the ways to do this might be to establish a worker center.

For more than 10 years, I’ve researched the day-labor market, including the efficacy of worker centers. My research shows that these centers are the most effective policy response to an otherwise unregulated day-labor economy. Worker centers are low-cost community assets that resolve local tensions while improving worker reliability and increasing worker safety. They help ensure that workplace rights are respected and that employers get the best and most reliable workers. They also involve communities in resolving a local issue that impacts them.

Some of the oldest and most effective worker centers are supported by and located in the city of Los Angeles, including the one outside the Home Depot store in the Cypress Park area north of downtown Los Angeles, and the one located at Exposition and Sawtelle boulevards in West L.A. The methods and programs to create the more than half a dozen worker centers in L.A. have been replicated in other cities because of the host of benefits to both workers and consumers, such as better wages, an orderly hiring process and more reliable workers.

Centers provide a safe place to pick up workers. My studies have found that injuries significantly decrease. And worker centers go a long way toward mitigating some of the misperceptions and tensions that arise over men searching for work in public spaces or nearby industries.

Often such centers have become a focal point in the volatile debate over immigration. But my research on day labor shows that there is an increasing number of U.S.-born citizens participating in this market, not only in Los Angeles but across the nation. This number can be expected to rise as unemployment increases and more workers of different backgrounds search for work through various outlets, including day labor. As our economy continues to falter, alternative employment searches will rise.

Searching for work in open-air street markets has a long history in the United States; think dockworkers, agricultural workers and now construction workers. Its current manifestation speaks directly to our national economy and the demands of employers who prefer temporary workers. As more unemployed workers search for jobs in this manner, policies that promote a fair and inclusive process must be applied to an old problem.

Worker centers are the best approach to alleviating some of the most difficult tensions that can arise when men search for employment at home improvement stores or elsewhere. The goal of resolving community conflicts over day labor requires that all stakeholders, including big-box home improvement stores that attract day laborers, come together and assume their responsibility as community partners.

Parks’ ordinance promotes a creative and humane alternative and ensures that future day-worker centers are created with public, private and nonprofit collaboration.

Abel Valenzuela Jr. is a UCLA professor and the director of the university’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty.

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