Cities begin to crack down on drive-through hiring

At 7:45 a.m., a white four-wheel-drive from Ganzer Construction pulls into the 7-Eleven parking lot, where 50 men - almost all from Mexico - are standing in a light rain. Half a dozen crowd up to the truck's side windows, and then two jump into the back seat, heading for a work project.

But such casual hiring may be illegal here in Suffolk County after next week, when local lawmakers vote on a measure to ban it frim most commercial parking lots and on county roadways.

If the ban passes, Suffolk County will join communities across the United States - such as Marietta, Ga.; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles - that are trying to control the growing pool of day laborers.

The laws are an attempt to regulate the so-called "brown labor" market of mostly Latino men willing to do grueling work for cash - usually $5 an hour - and without benefits.

While Western cities have grappled with the phenomenon for much of the decade, day laborers now are increasingly found in the East. Many communities, such as Marietta, have a long history of day laborers, but these latest efforts to regulate the practice indicate they may be losing patience.

Proponents of the new laws say residents feel uncomfortable walking through a parking lot loaded with as many as 100 men looking for work. They also claim the mass of men degrade a community's quality of life. And many local taxpayers are irritated that the day laborers get paid in cash and evade taxes.

"We needed to do something because businesses claimed they were being ruined by day laborers standing outside waiting for work," says Johnny Sinclair, a Marietta councilman who sponsored the ordinance, which prohibits the hiring of day laborers on city property as of July 1.

The opponents argue the new laws are denying people the right to work, to feed a family. They question the constitutionality of the laws and wonder if some form of racism is involved. And they point out that local residents don't complain when they get some hard work done for them at a price that doesn't tax their bank account.

"The laws won't solve the problem, they will just escalate the war of words - it's all very emotional," says Mayor Thomas Suozzi of Glen Cove, N.Y, which tried to slap on restrictions under a former mayor.

Legal challenges

Courts have already taken up the issue. In Los Angeles County, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) has gone to federal court to challenge restrictions. "We are arguing that it violates the First Amendment rights of day laborers to express their availability to work in public," says Victor Narro, CHIRLA's project director for workers' rights.

But many state courts have ruled that communities have the right to regulate their streets. For example, after Glen Cove passed restrictive legislation in the early 1990s, a refugee group challenged it. Although Glen Cove beat back the legal challenge, it decided to provide the immigrants with a "shape up" center where employers can come to hire them.

Mr. Suozzi (D) says the advantage of the center is that it includes a representative of a local Hispanic organization, which will fight to make sure the men get paid for their labor (sometimes they don't), it gets the men off the streets, and it's self-policing.

When Los Angeles County found large numbers of day laborers seeking work outside of Home Depot stores, it turned to Labor Ready, a supplier of temporary help based in Tacoma, Wa. Now, Home Depots in the suburbs of Woodland Hills and Monrovia send out 80 to 120 workers a day.

"No one is standing around who are undocumented workers in those locations - it solved the problem," says Bill Petersen, southwest area director of operations for Labor Ready.

But the Labor Ready facilities hire only employee-documented workers, and a recent survey by UCLA found the majority of day laborers were undocumented. It's estimated there are 20,000 day laborers in Los Angeles every day.

Some cities that already have tight rules are making them even tougher. Austin, Texas, for example, is considering legislation that would make it illegal to solicit from an automobile to a pedestrian or vice versa. The city already has rules designed to prevent anyone on the side of the road from interfering with the flow of traffic.

Day laborers' hardships

Some workers' rights organizations think the emphasis is all wrong. Randy Jackson, associate director of the Hempstead, N.Y.-based Workplace Project, which fights employment abuse, says the day laborers' life is difficult.

He says it's not unusual for contractors to walk away from paying the immigrants. Workers are left without recourse. "They usually don't have a license-plate number and they are afraid of going to the authorities to complain," says Mr. Jackson.

The workers also don't have any insurance. If they get hurt on the job, they don't get workers' compensation. Instead, they have to sit at home until they can get work again. "The proposed legislation in Suffolk doesn't look at any of this from the workers' point of view," says Jackson.

However, people buying breakfast at the same Suffolk County convenience store where laborers are waiting to get hired are not sympathetic. Rudy Woolmart, who runs his own electronics repair business, says he finds the group of men "extremely annoying." He says he won't hire any for his business.

Artie Russo, who also works in the county, says he objects to the fact that the men don't pay taxes on their earnings. "Hey, we all have to pay taxes," he says.

Then, there's the security issue. "Women are afraid of walking around here," Mr. Russo says.

Down the road from the 7-Eleven, Tower Fasteners has hired a guard to try to stop workers from gathering on its property. "It was an issue of access for our workers, and keeping them off for insurance and security reasons," says Mark Shannon, a Tower vice president.

Day laborers are not sure what all the fuss is about. Daniel Torres, a carpenter from Mexico, says "people look for work - that's it." Miguel, a Mexican in the US for only two months, says he doesn't want to bother anybody. "We just want to work," he says from a construction site. Miguel, who did not want his last name mentioned, was working for Ganzer Construction, which specializes in mason work. "I can't find an American kid - I tried it and they make you feel like they are doing you a favor," says Glen Ganzer.

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