Under the red neon sign of Wentworth Chevytown at E Burnside and Grand—near a Plaid Pantry and a Subaru dealership—day laborers congregate each morning, hoping an employer will pull up and offer them a job.
Both the city and area businesses turn a blind eye to the immigration issue—many day laborers are in the country illegally. But lately, the businesses aren't ignoring what they're calling neighborhood livability issues.
Explains Randy Lauer, who sits on the Central Eastside Industrial Council business association: "Drive by there, stop your car, and see what happens. They'll come up to your car and see if you have work. They don't mean any ill will, but it's obviously intimidating." One police commander says, "We've had day laborers jumping into the cars of 80-year-old women, for example." Businesses in the immediate area, Lauer says, "would really like to move them away from there." (Business owners reportedly up in arms over the laborers did not return the Mercury's calls.)
Lauer and his colleagues have a solution, and it's one day laborers are on board with—they want a center for day laborers, so the workers have a place to wait "that doesn't interfere with any residential neighborhoods or businesses," Lauer explains. "We're not trying to be detrimental to the day laborers. We're trying to make it easier for them to exist."
The city hopes to provide money for a day laborer center as part of the mayor's Street Access for Everyone (SAFE) group—but there's no indication of when money might materialize. The mayor's office did not return a call for comment.
Meanwhile, the relationship between businesses and day laborers is growing more strained. Day laborers' advocates have been sitting down with business leaders, along with cops from Southeast Precinct, at monthly Community Policing Action Committee meetings, in an effort to foster positive relationships.
"But the meetings have been very tense," says VOZ director Romeo Sosa, who represents the day laborers. "The business people have been angry with day laborers, saying it's time to move on from the corner. And now they're trying to use police to get rid of day laborers."
Indeed, while most cops are very understanding of the laborers' plight—Officer Mike Castillo is even nicknamed "El Superman" by some who feel he sticks up for their interests—the laborers say another cop, Sergeant Vince Ellmore, appears to be responding to the business community's concerns by putting more pressure on the day laborers to move off the corner.
At a meeting last month, Sosa alleges Ellmore told him, "I promised the business community a year ago I would solve the day laborers problem."
Sosa says Ellmore has been dropping by the corner on a weekly basis, telling the laborers that local businesses want them to move along.
Ellmore has been on vacation for the past week, but his boss, acting Commander Bob Heimbach, says he does not think Ellmore has been overly harsh.
"I've attended a couple of meetings and watched him interact with the day laborers, and I find [the allegations] surprising because it's not what I've seen," he says.
The two sides disagree on the laborers' right to wait for work on the sidewalk. If a center doesn't open, "police [can] just tell them they can't be there," Lauer says. "They don't have a permit to congregate on the sidewalk, and the police have the authority to move them somewhere else."
But Sosa says there is "no law prohibiting people from standing on the sidewalk looking for work. We are not committing any crime or breaking any law." (City Attorney David Woboril weighs in: "There's no law against a number of people congregating on a sidewalk as long as they don't block sidewalk traffic.")
Now, in an effort to diffuse tensions—and perhaps work together on the center, "to try to get the mayor moving a little faster," says Lauer—VOZ has sidestepped the cops and arranged a face-to-face meeting between the business owners and day laborers. The meeting's slated for Thursday morning, May 3, right on the corner of 6th and Burnside.
"We think it is going to be a little bit tense, but at the same time we want them to listen to us, too," says Sosa.