Day Labor Center struggles with demand for work

On a blistering cold December morning last Monday, 20 Latino people—all men, except for one woman—are sitting inside the non-descript mobile home that serves as Portland’s Day Labor Center. The sounds of people speaking Spanish quietly fills  the room. One small space heater, as well as the warmth from the people, go a long way to keep the room, with a concrete floor and high ceiling, warm.

A small group of men are playing cards, slapping down the cards with gusto and laughing at jokes. The woman is leaning her head against her partner’s shoulder. Others are just sitting and waiting.

What they are waiting for is work. Many of the laborers using the Day Labor Center, which is operated by VOZ, a nonprofit advocating for day-laborers and immigrants, may wait days before an employer drives up to the center and their raffle number is picked.

And with Portland’s unemployment numbers well above the national average, more and more laborers are having to wait longer and longer before getting work.

“As soon as this economy went down, the work went down,” says Francisco Aguirre, a coordinator at the Day Labor Center.

“Like today,” says Javier, a 36-year old laborer. He did not give his last name. “Nobody showed up and we’re still waiting for somebody.”

What seems like a growing inability on the part of the Day Labor Center to attract employers is calling into question whether the center is fulfilling its mission. Business owners, police, and neighborhood advocates alike are frustrated and concerned by the continuing presence of laborers on street corners, a practice the center was supposed to end.

“It’s a situation we’re all trying to deal with and figure out, but a solution doesn’t seem to be imminent,” says Terry Taylor, the president of the Central Eastside Industrial Council.

Bob Wentworth, the co-owner of Wentworth Subaru which is located blocks from the Day Labor Center on MLK Jr. Blvd., says that having laborers stand on the corner outside of his business has been “an ongoing problem for 10 years,” and has “affected” his business.

“When you have a large gathering of men standing on the corner, it can be intimidating,” he says.

“We were hoping (when the center began) that everybody would go there …(and) keep people from going to the street corners,” says Taylor.

Javier, who has been going to the center for the last 6 months, says that he never stands out on the street corners.

“I don’t like to run behind cars,” Javier explains, saying that many employers do not stop their cars for a laborer on the street, forcing them to run to get inside.

He says what it all comes down to for someone waiting at a corner is simply wanting a job.

“They stay here and then they go there…to see if they have a chance over there,” says Aguirre.

“Sometimes they get a job there, but sometimes they come to the center to get a job,” Javier says.

(This reporter attempted to get the perspective of laborers who choose to stand on the street and not use the Center, but when I approached a group of men on the corner of MLK Jr. Blvd. and I-84 for this article, they refused to be interviewed unless they were paid $100.)

Mike Reese, the commander of the Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct, says the police are concerned about drug dealing among groups of laborers on street corners, particularly heroin dealing. Reese notes that it is not necessarily laborers who are dealing or buying heroin, but people intermixed with the group.

Reese says that the police got involved with issues surrounding the Day Labor Center after the area surrounding the center became incorporated into Central Precinct, which took place in July.

“The police that were in Central Precinct wanted to become more familiar with the Day Labor Center. That’s why there became this resurgence of interest,” says Megan O’Keefe, the board president of the Kerns Neighborhood Association, where the center is located.

Meetings between the Day Labor Center, business owners, police and other constituents have begun in the past few months to find a solution and lessen the impact of laborers waiting on street corners. But Havilah Ferschweiler, a crime prevention specialist at the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, says “there’s not a quick fix to this.”

No one can force the workers on the street corner to go to the center, says Ferschweiler, who adds that whatever the solution is, it will be a collaborative effort, not something punitive or enforced with the center unwilling.

“How do we, as a community, help make the Day Labor Center as successful as possible so that people want to go there? That’s where the conversation is going,” Ferschweiler says.

Sosa says that since the center opened in 2008, 10 people have found permanent jobs through using the center. An average of 60 to 120 laborers come to the center every day. In the past year, 3,500 jobs have been created through the center, and Sosa says that between 15 and 42 jobs come in every day.

The center also offers a number of services to laborers waiting for work, such as English classes and workshops in safe workplace practices. Javier says that is something he likes about the Center. “(If I don’t get work), I stay here and learn some English,” Javier says.

Aguirre says that the center has not turned into a de facto community center with the lack of work, and does not agree that the focus of the center is shifting because of the recession.

“We are focusing on work, not on any other stuff,” Aguirre says. “We don’t want this place to be like the mission. We want this to be a worker center.”

One of the possible outcomes of the meetings may be changing the Good Neighbor Agreement with the Day Labor Center. Ferschweiler says the part of the agreement that is in question are the boundaries of the center’s “impact area,” an area where the center is responsible for engaging workers on the corner and getting them to use the center.

Currently, the borders of that area are I-84, East Burnside Avenue, Second Avenue, and Sixth Avenue. Fershweiler says the hope in broadening the area would be to increase the Center’s ability to engage more workers.

Sosa admits that more needs to be done to attract employers, and says that is the main focus for the center in the next year. However, he did not offer any concrete ideas or plans about how that was going to happen. Currently, workers post fliers around the neighborhood, and the center frequently uses Craigslist to advertise.

“Well, hopefully they can find more employers for the people looking for work,” says Wentworth.

“I think that they are trying to do as much as they can,” Taylor says. “(But) one way or another, they are going to have start educating employers about what the situation is.”

Sosa says that three times a week, the center sends outreach workers out to street corners to talk to workers and convince them to come to the center. “We are trying to reach out to new people at the corners,” he says.

If the center increases the number of employers, Aguirre says the results would be starkly different than the current situation. “All of the day laborers will be here,” he says.

But, he says, community members and business owners cannot view the center as a catch-all organization for employing day laborers

“This place is another option,” Aguirre says. “It is not the solution.”

At this point, Ferschweiler says it has not been decided that amending the Good Neighbor Agreement is the correct path to take. Another meeting between stakeholders is scheduled for Jan. 11. At that point, she says, amending the agreement may seem like the best option.

“We hope to have a good neighbor agreement that allows us to have ongoing conversations about it,” Reese says. (Beginning Dec. 10, Reese will no longer be Central Precinct’s commander, but East Precinct’s. That means Reese will not be in charge of any enforcement strategies regarding the Day Labor Center).

“It’s not a done deal,” Ferschweiler says.

By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer

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