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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Waiting for Work

Hiring Halls Keep Job Seekers Off Corners, but County Has Yet to Build One

February 26, 2001|H.G. REZA and JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOORPARK — Every day, as early as 4 a.m., Mario Hernandez is on the corner of Spring Road and High Street, in front of the Tipsy Fox convenience store looking for work.

The 27-year-old Hernandez, with a wife and 1-year-old to provide for, says this busy corner is his only real option for a decent wage.

It's a similar story in Thousand Oaks. At Fairview Road and Crescent Way, dozens of mostly Latino men wait on a dirt shoulder for a chance at jobs that range from raking leaves for an hour or two to a full day of construction work.

In both cases, nearby residents and merchants have consistently complained about the workers--calling the gatherings an eyesore or safety hazard--and have attempted to relocate them.

City-run job centers and hiring halls in other parts of Southern California--such as Costa Mesa, Orange and North Hollywood--have sprung up to address the issue in those communities, but have met with mixed success.

"The goal was to get people off the streets and out of the parks and give them a place where we can put employer and worker together," said Glenn Stroud, who supervises the Costa Mesa job center. "We've been successful, but there's still a lot of people on the street soliciting jobs."

While such facilities help workers land day jobs quickly, officials have found that only a fraction of the day laborer pool uses the centers. Most centers require workers to prove they are in the country legally to register for work, and many of those seeking the jobs are illegal immigrants.

A groundbreaking study by the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission of day laborer hiring sites in Southern California and eight other states shows that black and white workers make up 14% of the men who use the Costa Mesa center. The report, due for release later this week, found that 97% of the day laborers in Orange and Los Angeles counties are Latino immigrant men. No statistics were included on Ventura County.

Although workers are often stereotyped as menial laborers, the study found that a surprising number are skilled electricians, mechanics, masons, roofers and bakers. Officials at the Orange center said one immigrant was skilled in computer graphics.

The centers are an attempt by cities to stop the practice of workers gathering at storefronts and street corners throughout the day waiting for an employer to hire them.

In Thousand Oaks, Councilman Andy Fox vowed to tackle the day laborer issue in September after frustrated neighbors crowded into City Hall to voice their concerns. Five months later, Fox said that despite close study he still does not have a specific location to suggest for a job center.

"We're on track, but it's taking time," he said.

Moorpark Still Looking for Solution

Creating a hiring center has been a goal in Moorpark for years, but little progress has been made as proposals fell through and experiments failed, city officials said.

Ventura County Sheriff's Capt. Bob LeMay, who acts as Moorpark's police chief, said he will make creating a center a priority. The department gets steady complaints about the workers at the Tipsy Fox, but he said there is little an officer on the street can do.

"I am looking for some type of creative solution that will be beneficial to both the residents and these individuals [who] are only trying to scratch out a meager living," he said.

Meager is an understatement, Hernandez said. Some days, he gets lucky and a construction contractor will pick him up for a $70-per-day job that lasts weeks. Other days, he just sits as disapproving store patrons file in and out of the Tipsy Fox, sometimes letting the clusters of workers--sitting on stumps and leaning against walls--know how they feel about their presence.

"A couple of weeks ago, someone came here and told us, 'Go back to Mexico and stay there--nobody wants you here,"' said Hernandez, who has lived in Moorpark for seven years and speaks limited English.

He said he wishes there was an official place where he and his fellow laborers could wait and not be harassed, and where potential employers would feel more comfortable picking up an extra worker.

Most municipalities have enacted ordinances prohibiting the solicitation of work in public areas. Orange police enforce the city ordinance aggressively, arresting many workers who are later turned over to the Border Patrol and deported.

However, the Human Relations Commission's study found the ordinances to be ineffective. Researchers found that "as long as there are jobs available, the workers will continue to gather."

According to the study, ordinances are sometimes also applied unfairly.

"Police . . . often abuse the law by harassing Latino men into moving away from places where they have legal rights to stand. . . . Law enforcement also misuses the ordinance to break up employment relationships which may be legal. Moreover, abuse of the ordinance is often discriminatory toward minorities," the report said.

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