Thursday, July 08, 2004

Hiring site works, but some still use street

Hiring site works, but some still use street
PORT CHESTER — On a recent Thursday morning, some 15 day laborers stood outside the Don Bosco Center, waiting for employers to pass by and offer the opportunity for a day's or a week's work.

At 9:30, after the sun broke through the morning clouds, two vans and a Jeep pulled up. One driver requested a painter; another needed a few hands for a moving job. The third driver wanted three painters for permanent work and a fourth worker for a permanent plastering job.

Since it opened a year ago, the center has placed more than 250 workers in permanent or temporary jobs, provided English and job skills classes, and protected workers from contractors who don't pay up.

It has not, however, ended laborer gatherings in other parts of the village that have prompted complaints from neighbors.

The hiring center is one of three in Westchester County, with centers in Mount Kisco and Ossining and others under consideration in Yonkers and Mamaroneck. The centers are designed to offer a safe haven and an alternative to street corners for workers, many of whom are undocumented.

"People have been very responsive, contractors as well as workers," said Grace Heymann, executive director of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, a nonprofit group in White Plains that runs the Don Bosco Center.

'Workers feel safer'

The center, situated in a large hall at 22 Don Bosco Place, started with a group of around 15 and has grown to attract around 50 laborers a day. On a good day, as many as 20 or 30 men may find work, said Peggie Lieb, a caseworker who helps manage the site.

The laborers, who are all male, are mostly undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and other Hispanic countries. For them, the center is a comfortable zone that provides bathrooms, coffee and shelter on rainy or cold days. The center also offers English classes, house painting workshops and social service referrals, while setting guidelines for fair wages.

"Workers feel safer," Heymann said. "Nobody's harassing them or telling them to move. It's a place where the services are designed to meet their needs."

At the center, laborers agree to work for the same rates — $10 an hour for general labor, or between $12 and $15 an hour for skilled labor, such as roofing or landscaping.

The opening of the center had not stopped day laborers from seeking work on Westchester Avenue, Broad Street and Poningo Street in Port Chester.

"Workers are still hanging around different locations in the village," said Chief Joseph Krzeminski of the Port Chester police. "It hasn't really significantly reduced that situation."

The police continue to receive complaints, Krzeminski said, about traffic congestion, loitering and littering on street corners where groups of workers gather.

But increasingly, contractors are relying on the Don Bosco site, said Tony Rivera, a bilingual police officer in Port Chester who regularly visits worker sites. Rivera said that in the first two weeks of June, he had seen only one contractor pick up a worker outside of the Don Bosco Center.

Valentin Alarcon, 41, a Guatemalan immigrant who waited for work outside the Don Bosco Center one day recently, praised the facility.

"Here is better because they have more control," he said, noting that in other areas men would swarm a car when a contractor pulled up. "There's more protection here and the police don't bother us."

Several workers said that police sometimes tell them to move from street corners, but Rivera said that happens only when there is a traffic hazard. Rivera said he encourages workers to visit the center but cannot force workers to leave the street.

A few workers said they preferred the center, because contractors who use it could be counted on to pay up, which they said was not always the case on the street. The center gives workers booklets to log work hours and job locations, and staffers will pursue contractors for unpaid wages.

But Sergio Morena, 47, who supports a wife and daughter in Mexico with his earnings as a day laborer, said he prefers to take his chances in the street because he does not like the lottery system that the center uses to distribute jobs.

"If they don't pick me, I lose a day," said Morena, who pulled a few business cards out of his pocket to show the names of contractors who have picked him up on the street for painting and landscaping jobs.

Heymann said workers have a right to find work wherever they wish. "You can never have something that works for everybody," she said. "Sometimes people don't want to be part of a lottery or something organized."

The Westchester Hispanic Coalition spoke out against a proposed law in Mount Kisco last year that would have banned picking up laborers anywhere else in the village outside of a hiring site on Columbus Avenue. That plan was dropped in July 2003 after civil rights attorneys deemed the proposed law unconstitutional.

Throughout the year, around 200 laborers have found work through the Don Bosco Center, caseworker Lieb said.

Also, around 60 laborers have been able to find permanent work. That is precisely the goal of the program, said the Rev. Tim Ploch of Holy Rosary Church, which provides the space for the hiring site.

"The goal is to see this program eliminated because there's no need for it anymore and everyone has gotten what they need," he said.

Finding something permanent is a dream for Bonafacio Lopez, 60, who recently arrived from Guatemala, like everyone around him, in search of economic opportunity.

"Working is a privilege," Lopez said. "It's dignified. Instead of stealing and doing bad things, you do something good."


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