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Birmingham’s Hispanic day laborers find work scarce in tough economy

Published: Sunday, April 03, 2011, clinic 7:15 AM

By Val Walton–The Birmingham News | Source: Blog.Al.Com

Benjamin Parra is grateful for his maintenance job at a fast-food restaurant in Hoover.

He knows he’s lucky, he said, because many other Hispanic immigrants are finding it hard to land steady employment in a down economy.

Parra, a native of Mexico, said he has friends who left Hoover for North Carolina and Florida in search of jobs.

“A lot of people, they have to go somewhere else to find work,” Parra said, speaking through a translator as he stood in the parking lot of the Lorna Place apartments off Lorna Road in Hoover.

Birmingham’s Hispanic day laborers find work scarce in tough economy

Men gather at a gas station on Lorna Road in Hoover in 2003. That stretch of road has been a gathering spot for Hispanic day laborers, many of whom lived in nearby apartments. But where there once were as many as 200 people along the road, now there may be dozens on a given day. (The Birmingham News/Steve Barnette)

As jobs became scarce following the recession that began in 2007, so have the mostly Hispanic day laborers who would regularly congregate in apartment parking lots to solicit work on a daily basis. Where there once were as many as 200 people huddled along Lorna and Patton Chapel roads when the economy bustled, now there may be dozens.

“You can definitely tell there has been a drop,” said Daniel Waseka, an assistant manager at the BP station across the street on Lorna. “I used to see a lot of them. Now, it’s not so many.”

Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos said there are several apartment complexes along Lorna Road that are half-empty, prompting him to speculate that some of the foreign-born Hispanics have returned to their native countries or moved elsewhere.

The emergence of the day laborer population in Hoover sparked much controversy in years past as many residents complained about loitering and questioned whether they were in the country legally. As their numbers decreased, so have the complaints.

Hispanic students

Hoover’s school system also has seen a dip in the number of students enrolled in its English Language Learner program, of which more than half the students are Hispanic. There have been as many as 830 students in the program in the past five years, but that number had dropped to 520 this past December, said Barbara Mayer, director of instructional support for Hoover City Schools.

She can’t document whether one language group had dropped more than another, but “there has certainly been a decline,” Mayer said.

School officials cannot pinpoint reasons for the drop, but anecdotal information suggests many Hispanics who were in Hoover bought homes in parts of north Shelby County where homes may be more affordable, or left for Mexico or other places because of the recession, Mayer said.

Yanyi Djamba, director of the Center for Demographic Research at Auburn University at Montgomery, said it is not unusual for Hispanics to have been affected more by the economy because they are more likely to fill low-wage and low-skilled positions.

Landscaping, construction and the service industries depend heavily on migrant workers. “This kind of work, Alabama people are less likely going to take,” Djamba said.

Jay Reed, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama, said the association has seen a decrease in immigrant labor on job sites. As there has been a decrease in commercial projects, employers have hired fewer people, he said.

Future shortage?

Reed said there is a concern that once the economy rebounds, there could be a shortage of skilled workers in construction. His association has been engaged in the Go Build campaign that aims to educate young people on the benefits of learning a skilled trade. About one-third of the skilled tradesmen in the construction industry are age 50 and older, he said.

Nationally, a study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates there was a decline in the number of immigrants entering the United States without documents between 2007 and 2009, the height of the economic recession. However, the number stabilized in 2010, said Jeff Passel, a senior demographer with the Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research organization.

Passel said there is no evidence to suggest a huge return of immigrants back to Mexico, which has the largest percentage of unauthorized migrants among Latin American countries nationally and in Alabama.

The Hispanic population in Alabama grew 145 percent between 2000 and 2010, the second largest percentage increase behind South Carolina, according to an analysis of U.S. Census numbers by the Pew Research Center. Approximately 186,000 Hispanics lived in Alabama as of the 2010 Census, up from 76,000 in 2000.

Sister Gabriela Ramirez, director of the Multicultural Resource Center on Victory Lane in Hoover, said she has encountered day laborers who would like to go back to their countries, but they lack resources to return home.

“The problem is they don’t have money or the tickets,” she said. “It’s hard for them to make money for them to survive.”

The resource center has helped provide food to those who are struggling, she said.

The scarce job market has prompted day laborers who normally work in construction to reach out to restaurants for work.

Liset Hernandez, an assistant manager at the Iguana Grill in Hoover, said a lot more people have come in asking for applications. Daniel Valencia, manager of Taqueria Valencia 2, also in Hoover, said most Hispanic immigrants like to work in construction, but right now they’re trying to find jobs in other fields.

In what may be another sign of the economic downturn, Diana Rivas, who handles money transfers at El Mercado grocery store in Hoover, said she has seen a decline in the number of people coming in to send money back home to their families in other countries. Four years ago, she said there would be $400 in money transfers a day. Now, the transfers amount to about $100 a day, she said.

Rivas said she also knows many day laborers have moved out of Hoover to places such as Leeds, where rent is cheaper.

Housing ordinances

But some say the recession may not be the only reason Hispanic day laborers have moved out of Hoover and some other nearby cities.

George Huddleston III, a lawyer who in 2005 and 2006 filed lawsuits against the city of Hoover, alleging that police violated Hispanics’ civil rights with illegal searches and other practices Huddleston claimed were intended to drive Hispanics out of the city, said city leaders made it challenging for Hispanics to live in Hoover.

Huddleston cites a housing ordinance that limits the number of adults to two people per bedroom for rental properties and requires owners of rental property to maintain registries with the names of all their tenants and whether those tenants are adults or minors. Hoover passed its ordinance in 2005, while Helena and Pelham approved similar ordinances in 2007.

Petelos said Hoover’s housing ordinance was a safety issue. “We don’t target any organization or any group,” the mayor said.

Huddleston’s clients agreed to drop their federal lawsuits in 2008 after the city committed to treat Hispanics fairly. Petelos said Hoover police do not engage in racial profiling but work to stop crime, regardless of a person’s race or ethnicity. “If you’re creating a crime or traffic violation, Hoover police will stop you,” he said. “We don’t care what nationality or color or background, they will stop you, and in most cases, you will get a ticket.”

The issue of day laborers gathering in public places has sparked controversy in Hoover in the past. In 2004, candidates, especially those running for Hoover mayor, proposed initiatives to crack down on undocumented immigrants. They talked of razing apartments, trying to get a federal immigration agent stationed in the Hoover area and training a police task force.

The city bought the 136-unit La Chateau Apartments at the corner of Lorna Road and Patton Chapel Road for $2.4 million in December, with plans to demolish the complex and market it for commercial development. The property, known for years as Hartwood Apartments, is half-empty and went into foreclosure in August. Petelos said the city will allow residents to remain there until their leases expire.

The complex has been a hangout for Hispanic day laborers for years, but Petelos said the city’s redevelopment effort is not designed to push Hispanics out of Hoover, which has plenty of other apartments in Hoover they can choose.

For Parra, whose wife and three children remain in Mexico, being able to find any work in Hoover helps him live the American dream, he said.

“I’m proud to have a job and help my family,” he said. “A lot of people come to try and better themselves like me.”

Join the conversation by clicking to comment or email Walton at vwalton@bhamnews.com.


54 years ago…

LARRY KASSOUF | opinion@lbknews.com | Source: Longboat Key News

Pipecrafters yard at 7:20 a.m.
Broadway Avenue and Miles Park Avenue
Cleveland, cheap Ohio
Summer 1957

54 years ago… My father would check for any last-minute changes in scheduling before he dropped me off for work at the Van Aken job. He would then go on to the other job sites the company had, order but he would return often to the Van Aken job throughout the day, as this was the largest and most complex job the company had. At the end of the workday, he would be there to pick me up.

Pipecrafters was a pipeline construction company. They installed water, sanitary sewer, storm sewer, natural gas and telephone lines. This would be the first of many consecutive summers in which I worked as a common laborer for my father’s company. The money was great, and in one year I would have a driver’s license. A car was in my scope!

My first job each morning was to collect, clean and fill all of the kerosene lamps that had been placed out at quitting time the evening before. Being the youngest and newest employee on the crew that was installing a 60-inch storm sewer line from Shaker Square to Warrensville Road along Van Aken Boulevard (a five-mile stretch), I was given the least desirable chores by the foreman of the crew. However, putting out the lights at the end of the day was a serious matter, since these lights directed traffic away from dangerous conditions for 16 hours of each day. I was proud to earn the trust of the foreman after the appropriate training period.

After completion of the kerosene lamp task, I would be dispatched to the ditch where the crew was placing 60-inch sections of storm sewer pipe. They were five feet tall and eight feet long. Each section had a hole in the top middle of the pipe to hold the attachment from the enormous crane, which placed the sections of pipe in the ground. They also had a joint where each section joined the previous section. Both the hole in the top middle of the pipe and the joints required sealing with hot tar. The inspectors would come at the end of each day to confirm this had been done properly.

At a height of just over five feet, I could literally stand in the pipe and do the second worst job on the project, ‘inside tar man.’ Of course, the worst job was the kerosene lamp detail. Each joint was sealed with hot tar from the inside to keep leakage to a minimum and to ensure that each section of pipe remained aligned properly. The hole on top was also sealed with a plug and tarred from the inside. Between the lights and the tar, I earned my credentials with the foreman, the laborers and the various heavy equipment operators. It was, however, the day laborers who became my friends and mentors.

The laborers were a mixture of Appalachian whites, Blacks, and Italian and Eastern European immigrants. They were singularly the most prideful people I have ever been around. I learned a lot about people and how to treat your fellow voyagers from the day laborers at Pipecrafters.

They never loafed around and always helped each other complete a task. They were not limited in their thinking about the jobs they were tasked. If they could do a job more efficiently and improve the end product by extra effort, they always did so without fanfare. The only “atta-boys” they required were internal or from each other.

They arrived for work on time, took the allotted 30 minutes for lunch and quit on time. They appreciated the opportunity to work and showed that appreciation by working hard all day. They arrived for work clean and neat and left dirty, sweaty and tired. They taught me that it takes just as long to learn a bad habit as it does to learn a good habit. They taught me how to get on with a job, get along and share with others. Additionally, I learned how to make wine, smoke ribs, make sausage, cook food on the manifold of a truck engine and find the best bakeries in the neighborhoods of Cleveland.

At the end of my workday my father was there to pick me up. We would return to the Pipecrafters yard to wind up the day’s company business, then go home for dinner. My father would look at my dirty, sweaty being, slap me on the back and say nothing. I could, however, see the pride in his eyes and the recognition of a job well done. My friends at Pipecrafters made this possible.


Graton Day Labor Center Celebrates 10 Years

By LAURIE WEED | SEBASTOPOL CORRESPONDENT | Thursday, March 31st, 2011 | Source: Sebastopol.Towns.PressDemocract.com

Graton Day Labor Center Celebrates 10 Years

Yadira Flores, left, is taught English by Sebastopol volunteer Liz Finn at the Graton Day Labor Center, Tuesday March 29, 2011. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2011

As the Graton Day Labor Center turns 10, Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeño Band will be on hand to celebrate the anniversary with its award-winning blend of Mexican-American rhythm. During that decade, the center has come a long way from its humble beginnings, evolving from a hiring hall into a nonprofit organization with two full-time and two part-time staff who serve about 70 workers a day, depending on the season.

“The workers themselves do a lot to keep the center going,” said hiring coordinator Omar Gallardo. The population of workers has increased significantly, with many arriving from the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

“What we have now is the result of a true collaborative effort between the workers, volunteers, neighbors and community leaders,” said Christy Lubin, a longtime volunteer and Graton resident who chairs the Center’s board of directors. The need for organizing immigrant labor in the town became apparent many years ago, she said, when residents became concerned about the growing numbers of laborers who were camping out near the creek.

Graton Day Labor Center Celebrates 10 Years

Two year-old Jesus Hernandez accompanied his uncle Luis Gutierrez to the Graton Day Labor Center, Tuesday March 29, 2011 as he checks in to find work. The wet winter has led to a slowdown of labor jobs, equating to a a larger pool of workers looking for employment. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2011

“A group of volunteers came together to work on the issue because we didn’t want an ‘us and them’ mentality to develop,” she said. “We’re all human. We have a responsibility to make sure people in our community are not living outdoors without clean water or toilets.”

The group’s early efforts included serving free coffee at Mexico Lindo on Saturday mornings, and inviting people in to discuss the workers’ needs. From there a basic hiring system evolved, first operating from a card table in front of the Graton Community Club. It took several more years for the larger community to reach consensus on a physical hiring hall for day laborers, and to work out the logistics of space, support and services.

Among the needs they address, education has always been a priority. “All workers have basic human rights,” Lubin said, “whatever their immigration status.” The Center educates workers on their rights, and on their responsibilities as employees and community members. “Employers need to be educated, too,” she added. While wineries and vineyards do some of the hiring, a lot of the work comes from homeowners who need help with landscaping, cleanup projects and home improvement. The Center acts as a mediator, ensuring that fair labor arrangements are made and upheld by all parties.

“We are offering a service to employers as well. They know the person they are hiring has been ‘vouched for,’ and every aspect of the job is communicated clearly,” said Lubin.

In addition to managing labor, the Center provides housing referrals, access to health care, and English tutoring, all free of charge to the workers. It also functions as a social gathering place. Most of the people it serves are far from their homes and families, with no social network here. “Even when there is no work available, they always have a place to go, something productive to do and a feeling of belonging, of being a part of the social fabric.”

Saturday’s event will include a performance by Santa Rosa’s Imaginists Theatre Collective. A Mexican dinner will be available for , along with beverages, with all proceeds benefiting the Center.

Benefit Concert for Graton Day Labor Center

Featuring Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeño Band

Friday, April 8. Doors open at 7 p.m., show begins at 8 p.m.

Sebastopol Community Cultural Center, 390 Morris Street, Sebastopol

Tickets: $25-50 sliding scale, available online or by calling 829-1864

Children enter free; no one turned away for lack of funds


Press Contacts

Contact: armando carmonaarmando@ndlon.org 951.966.6500 Member Organizations Contact Info:WEST COAST REGION MEMBERS CHIRLA (Los Angeles, CA)213 353 1333 IDEPSCA (Los Angeles,CA)213 252 2952 Malibu Community Labor Exchange (Malibu, CA)310 317 4717 Pomona Day Laborer Center (Pomona, CA)909 397 4215 Centro Laboral de Graton (Graton, CA)707 829 1864 Day Worker Center of Mountain View (Mountain View, CA)650…


Day Laborer Organizing

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