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Toil and Trouble : Employment: Day laborers say they only want to make an honest living, but some merchants and residents want them banished. The conflict in Ladera Heights has prompted an effort to restrict job seekers.

March 06, 1994|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dawn has barely broken, but Pedro Ortiz is already at his regular spot, hoping to be among the lucky few picked up for work that day.

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It has been a week since his last job, yet the day laborer says he has little choice but to keep returning to the Ladera Heights street corner. He has a wife and three children to feed, and he has been unable to land a regular job.

The Salvadoran immigrant is one of dozens of men who gather daily near the HomeBase home improvement store at Slauson and Fairfax avenues. Like fans spotting their favorite star, the men rush each vehicle that pulls over, competing for the day's prize--a chance to earn $20 to $50 for anything from cutting grass to busting concrete.

The scene is repeated every day at street corners and vacant lots across Central Los Angeles and the Westside, where hundreds of predominantly Latino immigrants satisfy a steady demand for cheap labor. But their presence has also fueled controversy and resentment.

At sites from Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles to Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, residents and business owners complain about what they say are unruly laborers. Nowhere has the conflict been more intense than in Ladera Heights, where the complaints prompted a proposed county ordinance that would ban day laborers from many sidewalks and streets in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

Ladera Heights residents say the workers litter the area, urinate in public, gamble, obstruct traffic and harass women. About 200 residents showed up at a community meeting last year that was held to "take back" the neighborhood from day laborers.

The day laborers and their advocates counter that the workers' behavior has been blown out of proportion and that they are being unfairly blamed for the actions of a few bad apples. They charge that some of the criticism is motivated by racism and intolerance.

"We come here because we have to," said Ortiz, 26, who added that day laborers do the jobs that many others refuse to do. "We have a right to be here."

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The proposed ordinance was introduced last year by county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose 1st District includes Ladera Heights. Under the measure, which the Board of Supervisors is expected to consider Tuesday, day laborers would be prohibited from soliciting work on public rights-of-way within 500 feet of churches, schools or residential areas. The ban would also apply to commercial parking lots, although it could be waived if a property owner authorizes day laborers to use the area.

About 30 immigrant-rights activists gathered at Burke's Inglewood field office last week to protest the proposed ordinance.

American Civil Liberties Union attorneys have vowed to challenge the ordinance in court on the ground that it would violate state and federal constitutional rights to work and solicit employment. The ACLU, in the 2nd District Court of Appeal, is already challenging an Agoura Hills law that prohibits day laborers from soliciting work on public thoroughfares.

The day labor phenomenon has its roots in the decades-old California tradition of relying on inexpensive Latin American labor, which dates back to the bracero program of the 1940s, said David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Alta California Research Center, a Los Angeles think tank that studies Latino issues. Under that program, thousands of Mexican citizens were brought to the state to work the fields during the growing season. Hayes-Bautista said day laborers began appearing in rural areas in the early 1960s and had spread to urban communities by the mid-1970s.

Located between Baldwin Hills and Inglewood, Ladera Heights is an affluent, largely African American community known for its spacious hillside homes and sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

Ortiz and other day laborers, who work two or three days in a good week, gather in the HomeBase parking lot because the flow of customers guarantees prospective patrones (bosses) looking for workers.

"I do not want welfare. I want work," Ortiz said as he pulled his jacket collar over his neck, guarding against a cold morning wind. Laid off two years ago from a Carson factory, Ortiz was the first person at the HomeBase site that day, arriving shortly after 6 a.m. Within two hours, he was joined by about 30 other men, mostly immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras.

About 10 a.m., a gray BMW pulled into the parking lot. Out stepped a mustachioed man who identified himself as Mikio, a Ladera Heights resident, offering $5 an hour to scrape and paint his home.

"Six dollars! Seven dollars!" shouted about half a dozen workers. Mikio remained firm, and only one worker jumped into the car.

About seven hours after the day began, only five laborers had landed jobs. The rest, including Ortiz, waited.

It is that idle time, residents charge, that has led to many of the problems in the neighborhood.

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