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Pasadena Cracks Down on Laborers

Officials ban informal site on Fair Oaks and hope to promote a hiring center. But workers say they're just going where the jobs are.

March 27, 2003|Cara Mia Dimassa and George Ramos | Times Staff Writers

The sign appeared more than a month ago along a stretch of Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena, just north of the Foothill Freeway. Amber lights that usually broadcast information about traffic collisions or street closures flashed an order instead: "No Hiring Day Laborers Here."

For almost 20 years, the location near the George L. Throop Co., a lumber and hardware store, has been a magnet for day laborers, mostly immigrant Latino men, and for the people who hire them.

But recently, the city of Pasadena began a campaign to solve a problem that has gone from bad to worse, according to city public information officer Ann Erdman.

Complaints were lodged that workers urinated on lawns, that fights broke out among laborers who had not been hired and that those waiting all day left trash, she said.

Citing problems with public safety and traffic, the City Council asked the city attorney earlier this week to prepare an ordinance prohibiting business and commercial activity in public rights of way.

The city has also helped fund a nearby job center, where workers can take vocational training and English classes and employers can hire laborers who have been screened and are skilled at specific types of work.

But despite these efforts, a dozen or so men were gathered around the corner from the flashing amber sign at midday Wednesday. This is where the employers know to go, they said. And so it is, despite the city's efforts, where they will wait.

"We want to be here to get work," said Angel Hernandez, 37, a Guadalajara native. "People don't know about that job center. This area is well-known."

Hernandez and the other men, mostly recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, said that they are there almost every day, waiting for the gardeners, the contractors and others who hire them. Hernandez said he arrives at Fair Oaks and Villa Street as early as 5 a.m. each day and often stays until 7 p.m.

George L. Throop III, co-owner of the store that bears his grandfather's name, said that he is in favor of the day laborers looking for work, "but not in front of the homes and businesses along Fair Oaks and Villa." If the city can find a location where the workers can gather and enforce it, he said, "then the city has got something they can work with."

In February 2001, the Pasadena Employment Job Center opened in a commercial storefront that has served as campaign headquarters for the local Democratic and Republican parties. It was created in partnership with community leaders and the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California. A $140,000 community block grant from the city helped pay for rent and staffing. But since its inception, the job center has been saddled with problems, including the fact that many laborers avoid it. Some prefer to wait for potential employers along the streets. Others believe that the center does not provide equal opportunities to all who use it.

Raoul Anorve, executive director of educational institute, said that in part it's because many independent-minded laborers chafe at the center's rules.

But geography may be the biggest challenge facing the center. It is 11 blocks from the center to the site where workers were originally stationed.

Carlos Preza, lead organizer of the day laborer program, said he fears that the center's location is a liability. "Since the beginning, we've asked the city to get us a place around Fair Oaks and Villa," he said.

The educational institute has also come out in opposition to the ordinance that could potentially drive customers to its center, saying it attacks employees' rights by interfering with their ability to find employment. "We are against anything that looks like it will interfere with the dynamic of supply and demand," Preza said.

The city is seeking the ordinance, according to a report prepared by the city manager's office, because "it appears that without additional legislation, the opening of the Job Center alone will not alleviate the commercial activity."

Other areas have tried to curb day labor activity using legislation and community organization with varied levels of success. A Los Angeles County ordinance that made it a misdemeanor for any pedestrian to solicit employment, business or money from people in moving vehicles was repealed after a judge decided in late 2000 that it was in violation of the 1st and 14th amendments.

The city of Los Angeles implemented a day laborer program, administered by the Community Development Department and operated by educational institute and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which provides three sites similar to the Pasadena job center where workers can learn skills and be matched with employers. Two more are in the works.

Laguna Beach made it illegal to solicit work except in a designated area on Laguna Canyon Road.

The city fixed the site up, adding portable toilets, shade trees and benches, and contracted with a local nonprofit to help run the site and make sure that workers were given equal opportunities for potential jobs.

Pasadena hopes to avoid any constitutional problems with its ordinance by adding penalties to vehicle codes already on the books. The city is also exploring ways to establish a permitting process for those seeking employment in a public right of way.

But these efforts barely seem to make a dent in the daily lives of the day laborers. They will go where the work is, they say. The work is what guides them.

Alfonso Garcia, 44, moved to Pasadena from the Mexican state of Colima almost two decades ago. He has supported himself as a day laborer ever since. As he stood under the shade of a tall tree, waiting for someone to drive by and hire him, he reflected on why he continues to return to the corner.

"I want to work for a living. It's all that I want to do. That's why we are here."

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