More than a year after day laborers began waiting for work at a Woodbridge 7-Eleven, Prince William County has been drawn into a contentious debate about whether localities should fund day laborer centers and if it matters that some of the workers may be in the United States illegally.
Across Northern Virginia for the past 20 years — with varying degrees of success — communities have dealt with the presence of immigrant day laborers who wait for work at regulated and unregulated sites.
“It is everywhere, it is out of control and we’re just trying to do what we can as a locality,” said Elizabeth Hagg, director of neighborhood resources for the town of Herndon.
In Northern Virginia, most day laborers are Hispanic men who have helped fuel the area’s construction boom, said area officials familiar with the issue.
A June 2004 survey of day laborers at four sites in Fairfax County found that more than three-quarters of the workers are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
In Woodbridge, complaints about day laborers at the 7-Eleven on Longview Drive led to the arrests of approximately 25 workers on loitering charges in October. Half were released immediately and three were eventually turned over to federal immigration officials.
The fallout from the arrests was demonstrations, several public meetings and, finally, the formation of a task force that last month recommended creating a workforce center.
However, even before Prince William Board of County Supervisors formally considers the proposal, a key element to its success is in jeopardy.
Several other Northern Virginia communities have dedicated public money to similar centers, but that prospect appears dead on arrival in Prince William County.
“The one thing I do know is not going to happen is there’s not going to be any county tax dollars in it, because there’s not one vote on the board,” Supervisor Hilda M. Barg, D-Woodbridge, said a week after the task force finished its report.
Barg organized the task force but is against its recommendation that the county consider paying for a center, although she is seeking state or federal money for the project.
“I have repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly said ‘in no way will I vote to put county funds into a day laborer center,’ ” Barg said.
Board Chairman Sean T. Connaugton, R-at large, does not support using any kind of public funds for a center, which he says may not even solve the problem.
“Day laborers move all the time based on demands for their services and it makes no sense to make a permanent location, particularly when there is the strong possibility that there are going to be illegal aliens there,” Connaughton said.
As Prince William County considers how to handle the new situation, three Northern Virginia neighbors provide some insights and multiple warnings about how to proceed.
A Cautionary Tale
Two years ago, the town of Herndon gave nearly $36,000 to open a workforce center for day laborers. What followed was a drawn-out debate about the center’s funding and the legal status of workers — a debate that eventually scuttled the project.
For the past 10 years, day laborers have been meeting temporary employers at a 7-Eleven in downtown Herndon.
In 2003, the town proposed setting up a day laborer hiring center to ease congestion and other problems caused by the presence of the workers. The project had the backing of the former mayor and several council members, and was spearheaded by a local non-profit group.
In early 2002, Reston Interfaith filed zoning and conditional use amendments for a site at a former lumberyard near downtown. The site’s owner planned to eventually build there, but the group felt that even a short-lived solution was better than the congestion at the 7-Eleven.
But when hearings on the zoning and conditional use amendments began, they soon turned ugly. Through 2003, the proposal was the subject of many torturous late-night meetings, according to some of the people involved.
Because of the delays, and the prospect that the site’s owner would soon build on it, in late 2003 Reston Interfaith withdrew the proposal.
The issue became political fodder for May 2004 elections, which saw a record number of candidates, neighborhood resources director Hagg said.
“A lot of people have seen that we had a very divisive dialogue two years ago and nothing came of it,” said Joel Mills of Project Hope and Harmony, a group leading a renewed effort to establish a center.
Mills’ group is again working with town officials. This time proponents are narrowly focusing on how a formal day-laborer site would improve public safety, while avoiding another divisive debate on immigration.
“We’re going to try to make it orderly and organized without even commenting on the immigration piece,” Hagg said.
A Success Story?
As officials from Herndon and Prince William County consider day-laborer sites, they have looked to Arlington County for inspiration.
In February 2000, Arlington County opened the Shirlington Employment and Educational Center (SEEC) near Four Mile Run, a place where day laborers have been waiting for work near a lumberyard for at least 10 years. SEEC offered computer and English classes for day laborers, but the workers still stood on the street to get jobs.
In October 2003, the center built an open-air pavilion nearby, that now serves as a hiring hall for 60 to 150 day laborers. From 6 a.m. to noon, a daily lottery at the pavilion matches laborers with employers.
“If they are looking for work and there are employers that want to hire them, it is in the best interest of a locality that it happen in a coordinated manner,” said Democratic Arlington County board member J. Walter Tejada.
Arlington County contributes $130,000 annually for the center, and federal funds account for $52,000 of the yearly budget. The county also paid $72,000 to build the pavilion.
The hiring hall employs four full-time and one part-time staff members. Identification cards are required for workers, but the workers don’t have to be in the country legally, and few employers ask.
Many of the jobs require only a short-term commitment, but hiring short-term workers also allows contractors to avoid paying benefits, officials who have worked with day laborers say.
Andres Tobar, began working with the day laborers issue seven years ago, and recently became executive director of SEEC.
Most employers are construction subcontractors or homeowners who need short-term help and but can’t afford to hire someone full-time, Tobar said.
Having a sanctioned site has solved problems for residents in a nearby housing development by getting workers off the streets, Tobar said, adding that homeowners often come there to find help for their own jobs.
“They can come over here, get what they need to do and it is one step away from charity. They are helping these guys out also,” Tobar said.
Yet the center has not solved all the problems, as nearby businesses still complain about the presence of the workers.
“It is a tough thing to have 80 to 100 guys in your front work area,” Tobar said.
Still Waiting for it to Work
Fairfax County has several informal day laborer sites, including one at a 7-Eleven in Culmore, where day laborers have been gathering for close to 20 years.
Today 150 to 200 workers wait at the store for day jobs that, according to the 2004 survey, pay $7 to $15 per hour. The convenience store has hired a security guard to keep order.
Two years ago, as the situation really began to get out of hand, county officials, day laborers and 7-Eleven representatives held a meeting and agreed that workers would leave the store by 11 a.m. and the county would look for a permanent center for them to wait.
“The laborers have held up their end of the bargain, but we haven’t been able to find a location yet,” said Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. “Penny” Gross, D-Mason, whose district includes Culmore.
A permanent site can only become a reality when a cross-section of groups focus on dealing with the safety issues involved and avoid getting distracted by the legal status of the workers, Gross said, but she added: “The assumption that they are all illegal is just totally false.”
Fairfax County has reserved about $400,000 for the county’s efforts to find permanent locations for three large, unregulated day laborer sites in the county– including Herndon– and to help with other day-laborer programs, according to Gross. Some of the money will be used to hire a manager at an unregulated site in Annandale.
A small day laborer education center at the Mason District governmental center teaches trade skills and English to day laborers. Two volunteers teach electrical work to classes of 25 students for 10 to 12 weeks. Another volunteer teaches English.
The classes at the Mason District center are partly a response to the survey Fairfax County did last year, which found — among other things — that most day laborers aspire to do something else.
The most commonly available jobs are construction, landscaping, painting and janitorial work. Less than one-quarter of those surveyed last year reported doing skilled labor like electrical and plumbing work. Two-thirds of the laborers live within a mile of the sites they frequent, walking from where they live.
“Day laborers would like to have more skills. They don’t want to rake leaves all their lives,” Gross said.
Day labor has long been a stepping-stone to something else, Gross said, adding that her husband’s grandfather came to New York City from Ukraine and found day jobs on the streets in the Hell’s Kitchen section of the city.
“While the faces and the languages change, the whole idea of day labor hasn’t changed,” Gross said.