Palm Beach Post Columnist

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A strange cultural dance between snowbirds and day laborers goes on in downtown Lake Worth most weekday mornings.

Dozens of retirees, in pastels and white sneakers, arm themselves with cue sticks and take to the shuffleboard courts at the city’s recreation center. They play for an audience of Latin American immigrants, in blue jeans, flannel shirts and ball caps. They stare from the sidelines, wondering what the hell they’re looking at. Are there no soccer balls in Lake Worth?

A Martian who landed at the scene would be hard-pressed to identify the more alien faction. But anyone in the galaxy can figure out that something extraordinary is going on.

A month ago, city commissioners approved a plan to lease space in the building for $1 a year and open Palm Beach County’s third day-labor center. Jupiter pioneered the concept last year and Loxahatchee Groves has followed. The three very different communities faced the same problem: Immigrants on street corners soliciting day jobs from motorists, many of whom were delighted to oblige. Putting employers and employees together not only has reduced traffic hazards in Jupiter and Loxahatchee Groves but has deterred workplace abuses and promoted good behavior among all parties.

Lake Worth wrestled with the decision for more than two years. But the popularity of the new center was evident on a recent Tuesday morning. Close to 100 workers, most from Guatemala and Mexico, came looking for jobs. Lines were two- and three-deep at the eight computer terminals where English instruction programs were running. The makeshift lounge was filled with people hoping to hear their names called. They drank coffee donated by Starbucks, registered for classes, swapped stories and checked out the shuffleboard when all else failed.

“Of course, Jupiter has been our model, and I’d say things have gone better than we expected so far,” says Lisa Wilson, the center’s program director. “It has taken a huge collaborative effort to get this started.”

Ms. Wilson is guilty of understatement. Here is a partial list of collaborators: The Mentoring Center, Our Lutheran Savior Church, Cristo Es la Respuesta, Maya Ministry of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Coalition of Guatemala, the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition, Palm Beach Community College, Buena Fe Center, Maya Quetal, Grupo Broadway, Lake Worth Global Justice, Organization of Mayan People in Exile, Adopt-A-Family, Interior Dimensions Group, Church of the Nazarene, Trinity Church International, Society of the Friends of the Quakers and the United Way.

Ms. Wilson says 22 employers have registered with the center, and 15 to 20 workers are getting hired each day. The average wage is $7.38 an hour. Only workers who live in Lake Worth can use the center, but employers have come from as far away as Delray Beach. Roughly 15”percent of workers placed have been native-born Americans.

“People miss that point a lot,” Ms. Wilson says. “One of the first persons we placed was an unemployed who has lived in Lake Worth her whole life. We found her a job as a caretaker for an elderly gentleman.”

Day labor centers have become necessary because of the federal government’s failure to come up with a comprehensive immigration reform plan that provides the economy the workforce it needs. President-elect Obama may be able to fix that. If not, there’ll be shuffleboard with Spanish play-by-play commentary in Lake Worth.

Dan Moffett is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. His e-mail address is

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