Don't Fence Me In

Same Old Story

Schreiber says the city's struggle over where to put the day laborers is nothing new. "There was an impromptu site at I-35 and Cesar Chavez for many years but it became a problem for the Palm Elementary School staff," she says. "This finally came to a head so the city decided to build the Day Labor Program site."

The city launched the Day Labor Program in April 1998 to try to manage the increasing number of day laborers coming to work in the city's bustling construction industry. The program attempts to match workers' skills with employers' needs. It also issues each worker an ID card and takes down each employer's license plate to ensure that the laborers are paid. And more importantly, it keeps the laborers from fanning out across city streets to compete with one another for work.

Maria Loya, director of community development at El Buen Samaritano, an Episcopal mission that provides assistance to Hispanic immigrants, says that in the past few city meetings she has attended, downtown business representatives have voiced concerns over the number of laborers on the street. "They say the laborers make the downtown area look bad," says Loya.

With some frustration, Miguel Rodriguez, a community organizer also with El Buen Samaritano, has followed the laborers' plight. "They didn't want them near the Convention Center so they moved them over here," to Second and Guadalupe, he says. "And now the business owners don't like the laborers in front of their shops so they'll move them again."

Sam Allison, program manager of the Downtown Austin Alliance, would like to see more laborers join the program. "We support the mayor's initiative that more of the workers find the site," he says. To convince laborers to join the program, MHMR has hired two Latino community advocates, Pedro Matias and Edelmira Mendez, to ease the workers' suspicions."We try to relate with them and invite them in to take advantage of the program," says Matias. "But it's difficult. Most would rather stay on the street where they can compete for jobs."

What the Laborers Say

José, an undocumented worker from Michoacan, Mexico, says he would rather take his chances getting a job on the street than join the Day Labor Program."It's just politics," he says."I don't trust that the city of Austin will really help us."

Another worker from Honduras says he, too, would rather remain independent. "At the program you have to sign up and wait for the employer to choose you," he says. "But on the street you have the freedom to negotiate your work and pay, and you can get a job quicker."

On a recent Wednesday at 8am, this same Honduran was just one of at least a hundred men waiting for work outside the Day Labor Program's fences. Despite the number of workers on the streets, however, some say they prefer obtaining jobs through the program. On this same Wednesday morning, 55 laborers had signed up for work. A majority of these men say they chose to join because they felt better protected. "I feel safer and they make sure that the employers pay you," says Nixon Maldonado, 22, a recent arrival from Honduras. Of course, Maldonado has an advantage many other workers don't -- he's not worried about an Immigration and Naturalization Services raid because he has an 18-month work visa.

The fence recently erected around the day labor site has not helped to win the laborers' trust. Some worry they might be trapped inside by the INS and deported. "Some people have asked for the fence to be lowered so that they can jump if the INS comes," says Miguel Rodriguez.

"If we are hidden away behind a fence, the INS can do what they want with us," says a worker from Michoacan.

Schreiber says the fence was built to protect the workers, not to trap them. Because the program is right next to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), there have been fights and violent confrontations in the past between the homeless and some of the laborers. To keep trespassers out of the fenced area, security guards have been hired. "The fence is there to make sure that the only people inside it are looking for work," says Schreiber."We'll enforce the trespass law if we have to."

Many of the workers and employers say they'd like to see the homeless population further separated from the day laborers. "A lot of the workers worry that they are being associated with the homeless population," says Schreiber, "and that employers will think that they are less able to work."

But an alternative location for ARCH is also in the works to make room for the city's big overhaul of this lakefront neighborhood. Current plans call for ARCH to team up with the Salvation Army when that facility expands on the eastern end of downtown (see "Safety First," p.19).

An Out-of-the-Way Place

If the Day Labor Program is relocated to the new site at 4916 N. I-35 -- a move that will require City Council approval -- many laborers, most of whom don't have cars, worry that they won't be able to get there. "We did a survey and found that most of the workers are coming from South and East Austin," says Melissa Mason, coordinator for the day labor program."On average, it would take two or three buses for them to get to the new location." And the new site isn't even linked with a direct bus route. The closest bus would drop the laborers off at Airport Boulevard, eight or nine blocks from the new site.

There has been some discussion with the city and Capital Metro about creating a new bus route to transport the workers, however. "The issue of transportation to the site will be of major concern to the city," says MHMR's Schreiber.

Many of the laborers also worry that employers won't use the new site either, because they won't know about it or it will be too inconvenient for them to go there. So the workers wonder how the new location will figure into their ability to get jobs. "I'll go where the employers are," says a laborer from Veracruz. "Whether there is a day labor site or not."

"They want to move us far away from downtown where there is a lot of traffic," adds a Honduran laborer. "And the employers won't want to go there."

"I think relocating is a bad idea," echoes a worker from Mexico."I doubt the employers will follow."

But the proposed site must first clear a series of bureaucratic hoops. The City Council is expected to discuss the relocation and land lease issue today, Thursday, April 1, in executive session. At least one city councilmember, Gus Garcia, doesn't see a problem with relocating north, however. "These guys will go where they have to," he says,"and the employers will too -- they need the laborers."

So what happens if the city moves its Day Labor Program north and no one follows? In an effort to answer this question, Garcia went to Plano, Texas, to see how the city has dealt with the situation. "They have a very well-structured program," Garcia says."In Plano, if a laborer is waiting for work in any place other than the designated labor site, he'll be fined, and the contractor will be fined for stopping." Garcia wanted to do the same in Austin, but the city's legal department rejected the plan, considering it unconstitutional.

Still, some say that enforcement of pre-existing traffic laws against jaywalking and stopping in traffic have already been beefed up. Recently, six laborers were fined for jaywalking as they crossed the street to an employer's truck. Contractors have also been fined for stopping in traffic to pick up laborers.

Timing Is Everything

Last week, men in hard hats showed up to drill some holes in the fenced area where the laborers wait for work. Mason, the program coordinator, says it's clear to everyone at the program that the city is anxious to get them out. And Mason doesn't mind going; she just wants to make sure that the men the program has worked so hard to win over aren't getting a raw deal.

"We're dealing with men who have a lot of pride, and to some degree it's controlling them," she says."The laborers can't afford to wait for the program to catch on -- they need to feed their families now."

Mason also worries that in the city's haste to move the laborers out, the program will lose its hard-won clients. It took a year to organize the Day Labor Program before it could officially open its doors in 1998. Now the city wants a whole new site opened in a few short months.

"It's going to take a lot of work," she says."We need someone with a public relations background to help us. We've tried to publicize the program in the past but didn't get very good results."

"To tell you the truth," says Alan Zezulka, an employer who uses the program,"I had no idea it even existed -- I found it by accident."

Mason believes success will rely a great deal on how many employers participate. The program did do a mass mailing to alert employers in the past. This helped boost the number of employers enrolled to 777. Still, she says, they haven't enrolled as many employers as they'd like.

"More need to be recruited. Yet some don't like us asking who they are or how much they are going to pay the workers," she says."They are suspicious of where the information will go."

Day Laborer Program or no, one thing is certain: Austin's rapid growth and booming construction industry have increased the demand for day laborers willing to work for modest wages. Councilmember Garcia says Austin's Day Labor Program is a realistic way of meeting employers' demands for labor. Still, as a veteran of city politics, the irony is not lost on Garcia that the same men the city is attempting to move up north will have to turn around and head back downtown every morning for work. "I can guarantee that when Computer Sciences Corp. starts building," he says, "you'll see those same day laborers working on its site."

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