Men at Work

Day Laborer Program Sees Progress

Day Laborer Program interim director Scott Lyles
Day Laborer Program interim director Scott Lyles (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Austin's day laborers, the mostly Hispanic, mostly young men who congregate before 6am each day to seek short-term work, want to know what you think of them. Viewing a visiting reporter as an important link to the community with which they are interdependent, they quickly turn the tables and start asking their own questions: "What do the people in Austin think of us?" asks one. These day laborers understand that appearances matter -- especially after the bruising battle over relocating the site from downtown to North Central Austin -- that took place between the city and a neighborhood that had checked out the day labor scene, and didn't like what it saw. Of course, the way things were at the old day labor site, few would have invited it warmly into their neighborhood. Day labor in Austin had been troubled from the start, due largely to the deleterious mixture of workers and the homeless and transient population that mingled together on the downtown streets. Only about 30 or so men a day were getting work inside the site. Outside, there was chaos. There was crime. And there was the general feeling of menace to the citizenry that the sight of a collection of shabbily dressed men of color walking the city streets often provokes.

But when last spring's Computer Science Corp. deal forced the program off the city-owned land at Cesar Chavez and Lavaca to I-35 and 50th, where it faces the freeway but backs up to a residential neighborhood, the attendant uproar caused city leaders to focus on the program long enough to see that it had to change. And change it has.

If you drive onto the day labor site on a typical morning at peak time, between 6-7am, no clusters of workers will rush your car. Instead, you'll see the site director, Scott Lyles, or the labor organizer, Jose Briseño, as well as workers wearing orange safety vests who have volunteered to help "run the list" -- that is, check the list of workers and match them with employers as they come in. Inside the building where the workers wait for jobs, the atmosphere is that of an early morning senior high school assembly: over 100 young men sit in folding chairs, in varying states of quietude.

Some have whispered conversations with their neighbors, some play checkers, a few watch television. But mostly they are looking toward the front of the big room, waiting. The high school analogy doesn't go much farther, of course: The workers aren't waiting for a report from the headmaster, but for the signal that they have been chosen to go to work. And the biggest difference between high school and day labor is autonomy -- the workers themselves have collaborated to write the set of rules to which they voluntarily subject themselves.

A little over three months into the operation of the new, nonprofit First Workers Corp., the number of workers getting jobs is more than double what it was at the downtown site. Employers say they're pleased with the new, more organized format. The neighborhood protestors who picketed the site in its first days of operation have gone home. Officials of the Austin Police Department, INS, and the city of Austin have all expressed pleasant surprise at the way the program is going.

Lynn Svensson, the consultant who has presided over a string of day-labor overhauls in California, and whom the city hired to help remake day labor in Austin, is not surprised by the reaction. "This is the thing about this program," she says. "You come into the town and everybody hates the day laborers. Everybody hated them everywhere I went." After the change, Svensson says, "everybody loves them. It happens everywhere."


Worker Consensus Rules

This is what everyone hoped, but many doubted, would happen when the day labor site moved from its downtown home. Why the turnaround? Mostly everybody agrees there are two main reasons: First, the program moved away from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, thus isolating the challenges of day labor from the often more complicated ones faced by Austin's homeless population. And second, the program is now run by the workers themselves. According to the model instituted by Svensson, anything that happens at the center is a result of consensus on the part of the workers. More than just a majority vote, consensus is the agreement of "everybody except for one or two people," according to Svensson. Such consensus is reached through meetings with all the workers, which are usually held at the beginning of the day, before most men have left for their jobs.

Workers participate in the administration of the site, helping run the all-important "list" that contains the order of names for the day, and decides who goes out to work when. They also patrol the neighborhood in crossing guard-orange safety vests to make sure nobody is loitering about in the neighborhood or -- horror of horrors -- soliciting work outside the day labor site. It was such a consensus process that led to the creation of all the center's policies and rules, of which the most important are:

These men wait for employers to come to First Workers Corp., the new city day labor site. The site generally receives about 120 workers per day, the vast majority of whom receive jobs.
These men wait for employers to come to First Workers Corp., the new city day labor site. The site generally receives about 120 workers per day, the vast majority of whom receive jobs. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

  • The minimum hourly wage for day laborers is $8 an hour. The minimum wage for less than three hours of work is $10, and no laborer can be paid less than $30, no matter how short the assignment.

  • Alcohol and drugs are not allowed at the center, and workers can't stay if they show up drunk or high.

  • Only day laborers, people who would otherwise look for work out on the street, are permitted. Basically, this rule is designed to prevent the day labor site from becoming a makeshift temporary agency, something that rising wages for day labor has made more likely. Organizers emphasize that the site is for those who would otherwise be soliciting work on the street, not for the temporarily unemployed or those who would find work through other means.

  • Finally, workers agreed not to allow free food to be handed out at the site. At the old day labor site, there was a tradition of individuals donating food, often breakfast tacos, to the men while they waited for work.

    But laborers say that they come to the site to work, and do not want charity. Now a vendor sells breakfast tacos to day laborers, and they take pride in paying their own way. (In fact, workers plan to eventually start paying dues to use the site, in hopes that it can become self-supporting.)

    All this is not to say there are no longer problems within the day labor program. Though most employers seem to be satisfied with the laborers they hire, one recently complained that workers he hired got drunk on the job. Nevertheless, he said, he wouldn't "let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch," and he returned the next day to hire four more workers. (The offending workers will have to go before the site's "discipline committee," in which laborers are subject to punishment devised by a committee of peers, including English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and bilingual representatives.) The workers have concerns, too. Some worry about employers who take advantage of their workers, but most are concerned with the behavior of other workers, and how that might affect the viability of the day labor program and its reputation in the community at large. Those who work for less than $8 an hour, those who are lazy or don't want to work, or those who arrive at the site before the official 5:15am opening time (workers may arrive at 5:15, but the site opens for employer pick-ups at 6am) in order to be first on the list of workers, are of greatest concern to the other laborers.


    Racial Divide

    Then there's the issue of race relations. There has always been racial unrest surrounding day labor, and that's not likely to change. At the old site, allegations from both black and white day laborers were leveled against Hispanics -- that they conspired to get the best jobs -- really, all the jobs -- for themselves; that black employees were let go in favor of Hispanic ones; and that the atmosphere was generally hostile to all but the Hispanic majority.

    Hispanic workers are still clearly in the majority at the day labor site. On a typical Tuesday morning last week, there were about 85 day laborers at the site. Of those, between five and 10 were black, and even fewer, maybe three or four, were white. Some of these laborers, even some Hispanics who speak English, charge that Briseño and the day laborers who volunteer to help match employers with prospective employees play favorites, sending their particular friends out on jobs while others languish for weeks without getting work.

    Getting work the old fashioned way at the corner of San Marcos and Cesar Chavez
    Getting work the old fashioned way at the corner of San Marcos and Cesar Chavez (Photo By Jana Birchum)

    One worker, on condition of anonymity, said that the Mexican nationals (mostly undocumented immigrants) feel that Americans and legal immigrants should not be using the site, because their legal status allows them to easily get work elsewhere. Anglo and black workers tend to stick together at the site, as during one recent consensus-building meeting called to establish new rules to prevent favoritism in job distribution. Though Briseño conducted the meeting in both English and Spanish, English translation would occasionally lapse as Briseño conversed with workers in Spanish. And that was a good day, according to one worker, who said, "he doesn't usually translate even this much."


    Marketing the Program

    Another thing the laborers want more of is marketing. Though the program has been largely successful in getting laborers off the streets, there are not enough jobs to go around, and some workers have left the site in frustration after repeatedly finding no work there. Laborers believe that if employers only knew about the day labor site and what kind of workers are there, employer participation would be much greater.

    If marketing is what the day laborers want, they may have found their man in interim director Scott Lyles. Lyles has a marketing background, and is given to using business analogies to inspire workers. At a recent meeting, he encouraged them to talk about the day labor site throughout the week, promoting it wherever they go. "We want to be everywhere, like Coca- Cola," he says. Lyles practices what he preaches, talking up day labor wherever he goes -- like when he rides the bus on ozone day. Then there was the time he took a laborer who got hurt playing soccer to the doctor's office. After talking with Lyles and the worker, the doctor asked who they were and what they did. Upon hearing they were from the day labor site, Lyles says, the doctor said that he "didn't realize you had workers like this," and that he would come to the site on two consecutive Sundays, and hire workers for a home improvement project at $10 an hour.

    A newcomer who hit town this August, Lyles missed all the upset over the program's relocation. He came to the site as a volunteer on its first day of operation, after hearing about it on the evening news, and was soon hired on as a part-time employee. When the center's original director, Waco resident Joe Medrando, resigned after just a few weeks on the job, Lyles took over as interim director. Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner says the city and the board are beginning the process of looking for a permanent director. Lyles says he wants to develop a volunteer program for the center. He could use people to help with administrative work, as well as with English as a Second Language classes for laborers. The site currently has one daytime ESL class, with an instructor provided by Austin Community College. Lyles says he's working with ACC to develop a Spanish class for contractors to be held at the site -- and if there was room left over, he says, members of the surrounding community could attend too. Lyles is also organizing a book drive, for Spanish-English dictionaries and textbooks that could help with translation and with educating the day laborers.

    Some eyebrows have raised at the initiative he has taken -- all his big ideas are supposed to be worker-generated, they charge -- but Lyles believes that such initiative is necessary to have a successful site. He would never enforce a policy change over the objections of the workers, he says. "This is not a Scott Lyles-run site," he says. Indeed, Lyles seems to have the support of the workers, and he consults them frequently on decisions regarding site management. If he receives complaints -- either from the workers or through Briseño, their organizer -- the issue is talked through in a consensus-building meeting.


    Neighborhood Relations

    So far, an uneasy peace has prevailed between the neighborhood and the workers; confrontations between neighbors and day laborers have been virtually nonexistent. In fact, to this point, in the only day labor-related incident between neighbors and laborers, it was a neighbor who got cited. Fred DuPuy, president of the Eye-35 Neighborhood Association, was cited for trespassing after entering the site with a video camera without permission from the site administrator. Though a witness' report quotes DuPuy as "coming to see how many illegal aliens are here," DuPuy says he never said that. Instead, he said, he was trying to ascertain whether printed materials at the site had been translated into English, after being tipped off by an Anglo worker who had tried to use the site that it was rigged in favor of Hispanic laborers.

    Assistant Police Chief Bruce Mills says that although APD has not yet put together crime statistics to be compared to the neighborhood crime level before the site opened, "So far, it has been without incident." But one incident with still ambiguous implications -- a daytime burglary only blocks from the site -- has everyone worried that the honeymoon could be over. Officer Juan Suarez, who is assigned to the day labor site, says he doesn't think the house was broken into by a day laborer, and even DuPuy is not making any accusations, beyond saying that it looked like "a professional job." Suarez was assigned to monitor the site 40 hours a week, its hours of operation, as the result of a compromise between the neighborhood and the city. While the APD had planned to assign officers to the site on an as-needed basis, the neighborhood wanted an officer assigned to the site at all times.

    So now Suarez is there when the laborers are there. But instead of having to police the workers and protect the neighborhood from them, he says, his major activity is protecting the day laborers from contractors who might try to take advantage of them; some are emboldened to steal the workers' labor because employers suspect they are illegal aliens, and thus will have no way to retaliate.

    According to DuPuy, the city has kept up its part of the bargain by keeping workers off the streets. But still he objects to the "intangible" damage that the presence of the strangers inflicts on the neighborhood. He says that his girlfriend has been whistled at in his front yard by men he suspects could be day laborers, and that such encounters affect the atmosphere of his neighborhood. But in another sense, he adds, the day labor experience has had a positive impact on his neighborhood, in terms of hard-won political awareness and clout.

    Juan Briseño does intake for First Workers Corp., the new city-run day labor site.
    Juan Briseño does intake for First Workers Corp., the new city-run day labor site. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

    Already weary from the nuisance created by the Rio Motel down the road, they organized, creating the Eye-35 Neighborhood Association to protest the city's plans. A residential setting is the worst possible place for such an outfit, they argued, and they managed to elicit a promise from city leadership that the site's term of operation would be only one year. After nine months of operation, the program and its effect on the neighborhood will be evaluated based on a set of performance measures adopted by the council in September. But it won't be easy to oust the day laborers on the basis of "intangibles," as the performance measures the council adopted are highly objective, including the number of laborers getting work and the level of crime in the surrounding neighborhood.

    Though, on the one hand, the standards could protect the day laborers from unfounded accusations, on the other, they could be setting the site up for failure. "I don't think there's ever been a program anywhere that's been so strictly evaluated," says consultant Svensson. "It's asking way too much for a program like that." Nonetheless, she remains optimistic. "I think they'll be able to live up to [the standards]," she says, adding, "Every time here they've put one in a neighborhood, it's improved the neighborhood. You just don't get the crimes" that people expect.

    For his part, DuPuy says the evaluation criteria are not useful to the neighborhood, since any change in the site's location would be subject to council approval. Not only that, he says, but the First Workers board established to govern the center is stacked with government employees and day laborers, who are predisposed to keep funding the program in its current location. "When they first decided to form the board, for the first few meetings, it was like they were stroking our ego, saying "You guys are going to be able to make all the decisions.' They made it seem like we had the power to decide if it was or wasn't working with this review process -- Really, it's just a way for them to keep us spinning our wheels." (The First Workers board is currently in the process of developing a media relations policy, and would not comment on the site until the policy is completed, which will likely be at its November meeting.)


    The Threat of La Migra

    There's another uneasy peace currently reigning at the day labor site, and that's among the workers, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Austin Police Department. Remarkably, all parties seem more or less satisfied with the way things are going. The INS, whose business it is to enforce immigration laws, is conspicuous in its absence at a place known to contain a large concentration of transgressors of those laws. (The dirty little secret of the day labor program being, of course, that many of the men who seek work there -- as many as 80%, according to one estimate -- are illegal immigrants from Mexico.)

    Austin has long had a complicated relationship with Mexican nationals, who are currently supporting the city's monster construction boom with their labor, but who are commonly viewed as interlopers who take away jobs from the poorest Americans and drive down wages for the rest. That is not the prevailing philosophy among the city's leaders, however. In 1997, to take one important example, the Austin City Council passed a resolution declaring the city a "Safety Zone, where all persons are treated equally, with respect and dignity, without regard to immigration status."

    This means, more or less, that immigrants will not be questioned about their status when applying for social services, say, or seeking day labor. The APD, likewise, doesn't do the INS's work for them. According to Assistant Police Chief Mills, "Generally, it has been a long-held policy that we don't enforce immigration laws." In the case of a roundup by INS, he says, "we would not participate. What we would do, and have done, we might work the perimeter to make sure [no one gets hurt] -- If INS decided to come to day labor, we would open the doors and say come on in. But we do not actively enforce the immigration laws."

    Some take issue with this policy, due to a basic philosophical difference -- the belief that illegal immigration should not be tolerated, let alone rewarded with the facilitating and subsidizing of illegal immigrants' job searches. But for now at least, the prevailing wisdom is that Austin is operating at full employment, meaning that more or less all those who want jobs have them, and that the jobs the day laborers are filling are the ones no one else wants.


    Last-Resort Ordinance

    Svensson says that the primary measure of a day labor program's success is whether or not it gets workers off the streets and into the official day labor site. By those standards, how is Austin doing? Not bad, but not perfect, either. Though the old day labor site downtown is finally evacuated of workers, another makeshift site in East Austin, at Cesar Chavez and San Marcos, continues to give the authorities trouble. And unconfirmed reports have another makeshift site operating in Montopolis, where some workers work and employers employ -- the temptation to save the trip into town is presumably too great.

    The solution: A combination of eternal vigilance on the part of the APD and the solicitation ordinance adopted by the council this summer has had some success. While not illegal to stand on city streets soliciting work, it is illegal to enter a prospective employer's vehicle -- a misdemeanor that could result in both employer and worker getting ticketed. So far, only 14 citations have been issued under the solicitation ordinance, which Mills says is not surprising. "We hoped we never had to write one" ticket, he said, because the solicitation ordinance "really is the last resort." Since police only write tickets when they see a deal for work made between an employer and a worker, workers simply standing on street corners waiting for work are not in violation of the ordinance. In those cases, Officer Suarez and organizer Briseño head out on an education mission, passing out flyers and encouraging the wayward workers to come to the official day labor site.

    Would things be better if, as some have suggested, the solicitation ordinance were enforced citywide? The workers have voted to request a citywide ordinance, in order to promote additional use of the site. But the authorities aren't sure yet. Assistant Chief Mills says, "That's up to the city council. I don't think it's necessary -- It's not a tool we need." The ordinance may have to go citywide, however, if tentative plans for a second day labor site in South Austin come to fruition. City officials say that signs currently point to the likelihood of such a site, and Assistant City Manager Conner says that the city currently has realtors out scoping possible locations. A southern site might improve things for south-side workers who, according to Briseño, are unable to reach the site by bus before 7:30am. By that time, he says, the chances of getting high enough on the list to get hired for the day are slim to none -- though they can compensate by periodically serving as volunteers, which gets them moved to the head of the list for the following day.


    Conner's Save

    The site's initial success is a coup for Conner -- who took no end of heat from the neighborhoods during the relocation process -- but she remains somewhat embattled. DuPuy says that Conner "presides over the board meetings, and sets the agenda," not giving neighborhood representatives a large enough stake in the decision-making process. But program participants give Conner high marks for going the distance to make the program work. Svensson says she was impressed with Conner's performance at the opening of the new site. "She was out there dealing with the employers, getting great wages for [the workers]. I never expected to see her doing that."

    Indeed, the laborers feel that Conner has done right by them: This summer, after the Chronicle ran a story that was perceived as unflattering toward Conner, the laborers sent her flowers "and a nice letter of support," said Svensson, adding, "They told her that they knew what it felt like to have people say bad things about them that weren't true." But Svensson says that while outside leadership is important for the success of day labor, it means little without the leadership of day laborers themselves. "Give the credit to the day laborers" for the successful program, she says. "There's a lot of people that want to take credit for it now, but it belongs to them." end story

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