Men at Work 

Day Labor Site Organizers Defend Charges of Failure

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ONLY A MONTH AFTER Portland's first day labor site opened—to media frenzy and a lone protester—the site's organizers are battling criticism that the center is a failure.

While the site has found jobs for roughly 20 workers a day, many folks (mainly immigrants, mainly men) still continue to seek work by waiting on street corners around E Burnside's industrial area, resulting in the blaring headline "Day-Labor Site Falls Down on the Job" in last week's Portland Tribune.

But organizers for VOZ, the organization that runs the site, say it's too soon to judge success. Moreover, those involved with the pro-ject say that the site is beneficial even if there are still workers on the street corners.

"Truly, I don't think we're going to have 100 percent [of workers] in the center," says Ignacio Paramo, as he stands in the middle of the site he directs for VOZ, built on a gritty asphalt lot on NE MLK. "There will always be some people who don't want to follow the rules."

As some home owners and construction site managers looking for cheap daily workers continue old habits of hiring from street corners, the number of men standing on sidewalks has not visibly decreased since the center opened a month ago. Workers who go to the center put their names in a lottery for available jobs, and typically more than half of the 40 to 80 day laborers who turn up in the morning wind up without work.

"We need to educate not just day laborers, but also employers. That takes time," says Paramo. "As soon as we have more jobs here, we will have more workers coming."

To be sure, some neighbors expected the day laborer site to get workers off the corner entirely, thereby improving the image of the neighborhood and, area business owners hope, improve their business. The mayor's office buoyed that idea: "A day laborer hire site offers a number of solutions to all those affected.... Small businesses benefit from no longer having workers congregate on streets or impede business traffic," Mayor Tom Potter's website notes.

"The whole idea of the grant was to eliminate those two spots, it was not to make a third," says Darrell Chasteen, who owns Precision Motors near the site and says he is frustrated—not with workers or VOZ, but with the city for granting money to a venture he believes could never work. "I drive by these places every day and I've seen no change in the number of guys out there."

But creating an alternative to street corner hiring, rather than eliminating it entirely, is exactly what day labor sites are able to do, judging from other cities' examples.

"From the very beginning, it's very important to not have the expectation that [hiring sites] get everybody off the street. That has never happened anywhere," says Hilary Stern, executive director of Seattle's CASA Latina hire site. In 1999, CASA Latina opened the day labor center in Seattle that Portland now looks to as a model.

"A center should never be measured by whether it gets people off the street. It's a safe alternative for people who choose to use it," says Stern, pointing out that CASA Latina provided a place for communication between day laborers and the area's residents and business owners.

Even after nine years of operation, CASA Latina's hiring statistics resemble those of Portland's fledgling site: every day, between 25 and 30 percent of workers who turn up looking for work actually get hired. To get to that point, Stern remembers CASA Latina volunteers chasing down trucks which stopped to pick up workers on street corners, to hand them flyers with information about the hire site.

Paramo points out that the center is succeeding at things that matter to the workers. Most significantly, Paramo says the day labor site has not had a single day laborer hired at the site complain about mistreatment by employers (who give their info to site staff). Workers at the site recall stories of getting shortchanged by bosses who pick them up from the corner—one Spanish-speaking man who now opts into the center's daily job raffles once spent a week building a deck, only to be refused payment at the end.

Like the site organizers, Precision Motors owner Chasteen agrees that getting employers to utilize the site is the key to fulfilling the promises the city made—like reducing the number of workers occupying street corners. "If those corners don't go away, I'd never sign off on this again. It's not working," says Chasteen.

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