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Around the Foothills

No one knows just who the employers are and little is known about the workers.

September 22, 1988|DOUG SMITH

The daily search for work takes starkly different forms at two not-very-distant spots on East Broadway in Glendale.

One is visible, provocative and, consequently, high in public consciousness. The other is drab, unassuming and virtually unknown.

The first, in spite of its high profile, has no name. It's the corner of Broadway and Jackson Street where men stand, often from early morning to early afternoon, waiting to jump into the truck or car of a contractor or homeowner seeking casual labor.

The other is a hole-in-the wall called the American Work Force Inc., an operation that accomplishes almost the same function so smoothly it almost doesn't seem to be there.

A comparison of the two may throw some light on the tricky field of conflicting values on which the city stands in its effort to quiet the storm over the activity at Jackson and Broadway.

Often there are 30 to 50 men there. They show extraordinary patience, standing for hours when no one comes, then running from all directions to surround any car that slows to look them over.

It's a system that no one has designed. The spot emerged on its own outside a paint store.

No one knows just who the employers are and little is known about the workers except what can be observed, that they range from the very young to middle age and mostly speak Spanish.

No one knows how much they earn or what their work conditions are. It's all worked out each time in an unfettered manner that should please the free-market conservatism that runs deep in Glendale.

Instead, however, the practice bothers people. Businessmen and pedestrians complain that the men are disorderly and uncivil. Their numbers alone intimidate. Deeper lies the presumption that they pay no taxes, are not legally entitled to work.

The city once considered simply outlawing the solicitation of work on the sidewalk. It was dissuaded by Latino groups arguing that a ban would be inhumane.

Now city officials are fiddling with the idea of moving the entire spot somewhere else.

City officials probably wouldn't mind moving the men just a few blocks east, to the American Work Force Inc. There, everything is prescribed.

"If your work shoes are not on your feet, do not come in the office for work," a sign on the door commands.

Inside, 20 folding metal chairs are empty by 6:30 a.m., except for a couple of stragglers.

In the hour since its door opened, the employment agency for the unskilled has moved about 60 men and women into the field.

A serious young man named John Fasana sits at a desk behind a half-glazed window, wrapping up loose ends. His tools are a phone, a bucket file of yellow ledger sheets and a stack of work orders.

Fasana and the others who staff the office from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. work from a list of companies who need day laborers for light industrial jobs: stacking, stuffing, drilling, assembling.

The pay is from minimum wage up to $5.50 an hour, paid daily or weekly. Fasana calls the worker in only when a job is available. The worker does the job, then brings a signed work order back to Fasana. He has a check waiting.

On the wall, a hand-painted list of rules and information includes the all-encompassing dictum:

"If problems arise on job assignments . . . call us. We will take care of all problems."

For each employee, Fasana has on file a federal Employment Eligibility Verification Form, establishing the legal requirements to work in the United States.

Though his workers defy a collective label, Fasana has a pretty good idea who they are: unskilled laborers who need a paycheck now until something better comes along. Very much like the men down the street.

Unfortunately, a merger would never work.

Aside from the probability that the street solicitors wouldn't go, or couldn't meet the requirements, the American Work Force won't deal with the employers who hire them.

Karen Sprow, operations manager for the agency's six offices in Southern California, said contractors are unreliable, often failing to reimburse the agency, which pays its workers up front. Another problem is the high cost of workers compensation insurance for contracting work.

So, city officials had to look elsewhere. This week, they worked out a tentative agreement to move the laborers to a less visible spot at the Catholic Youth Organization in an industrial section of San Fernando Road.

Those who worked out the compromise are optimistic that it will allow the contractors and laborers to continue finding each other without offending the values of Glendale.

Still to be answered, however, are many seemingly important questions that are up front daily at the American Work Force:

Who are these people? How much are they paid? Are they entitled to work? Do they pay taxes? What happens if they are hurt on the job?

And, probably the only one of all these questions that is likely to be answered: Will they accept being uprooted from a system that has no rules?

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