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Cost of Daily Hiring Jumps

Day laborers in Agoura Hills demand at least $15 an hour. `We deserve it,' one immigrant says.

July 15, 2006|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

The immigrants soliciting work along a dusty roadway in Agoura Hills are taking a chance -- one that could significantly boost their pay or cost them jobs.

They are refusing to work for less than $15 an hour, more than double the California minimum wage of $6.75.

"We deserve it," said Daniel Lopez, 31, who works primarily in construction and landscaping and regularly sends money home to his wife and three children in Mexico. "They are tough jobs."

Several other day laborer sites have set minimum wages of $8 or $10, but the rate in Agoura Hills is believed to be the highest in the nation.

Occasionally, potential employers balk at the idea of paying workers -- frequently illegal immigrants who don't speak English -- so much money. But many employers, laborers say, agree to the fee.

"Even though we are a little expensive, they still come looking for us," said Santos Ixcoy, 25, a Guatemala native and corner regular since sneaking across the border about three years ago. "They need us, just like we need them."

Pablo Alvarado, head of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the minimum wage shows that day laborers are demanding more respect, and more compensation, for their work. At the same time, they also are taking more responsibility for their sites, keeping them clean and orderly. And they are working with businesses and residents to foster better relations.

Alvarado thinks other day laborer centers will follow the lead set by Agoura Hills and raise minimum wages, but maybe not as high as $15. The Agoura Hills site is unique, he said, because the workers are highly skilled and it is about five miles from any other day laborer corner.

The workers at the site have a long history of struggling for their rights. In 1991, the city passed an ordinance banning day laborers from soliciting work along roadways. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the ordinance in state court but lost.

The Sheriff's Department began arresting the workers en masse, prompting a sharp drop in the number of laborers at the site. About six years ago, the city stopped enforcing the ordinance after a similar one in Los Angeles County was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court, Alvarado said. Workers began coming back to the site, at the corner of Agoura and Kanan roads.

The workers "know what it is to fight," he said. "They have taken ownership. They are going to do whatever it takes to make sure they get good pay."

About three months ago, the Agoura Hills laborers held a town hall meeting at the site and voted 85 to 15 to increase their minimum wage from $12.50 to $15. After the vote, leaders distributed fliers to the workers, urging them to stick to the new wage and warning those who accepted less that they would be monitored. They also handed out fliers to employers, explaining that the increasing cost of living made it "very difficult for a working family to live with dignity."

Since then, some workers say, the number of employers has dropped as word of the new rate spread. For several hours Friday, about 20 workers waited for jobs but no one stopped to hire them.

Nevertheless, Alfredo Marroquin, 45, said he gets work at least a few days a week. When he does, the new wages make it easier for him to support himself here and send money back to Guatemala. He takes a bus nearly every day from Los Angeles to the Agoura Hills site.

"Everything here is expensive," he said. "There are rich people and poor people. For the rich people, $15 isn't a lot. For the poor people, it is."

But not everybody supports the higher rate. Workers said friction has developed between those who will work only for $15 and those who will accept less.

Guatemalan immigrant Martin Gomez, 37, said he thought the rate should depend on the type of job; breaking concrete with a jackhammer should pay more than picking weeds. Gomez added that not all workers are skilled and therefore shouldn't demand such high payment.

Wilmer Lopez, 19, sneaked across the border in April and still owes $3,000 in coyote fees. Lopez said he is willing to take jobs for as little as $10 an hour so he can finish repaying his debt by the end of the year.

"I want to work," said Lopez, also from Guatemala. "If I let the [employers] go, I can't work."

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