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Budget woes, recession hurt day-labor centers

/ Source: The Associated Press

Until a day-labor center opened nearby, job seekers in Keenan Strand's north Phoenix neighborhood used to drink from people's hoses, urinate on walls and duck behind bushes to escape triple-digit heat while waiting for work.

But the economic downturn is threatening the 6-year-old day-labor center and others like it around the country, leaving some advocates concerned that job seekers will return to neighborhoods and street corners in search of work.

"We supported it because it brought order to the neighborhood," said Strand, president of the neighborhood association. "Until the federal government does something about immigration, this was our neighborhood solution."

Struggling to keep up with payments, the Macehuelli Work Center in Phoenix is searching for a buyer for the 2.2 acres of land it owns. The economic crisis has forced officials to shelve a plan to build homes and office buildings that would fund the day-labor center in the future.

The center's leader, Salvador Reza, is hoping to find a sympathetic buyer who will keep the center open. But if no one steps up, the center will close, he said.

Hiring sites have already closed
Officials in Fort Worth, Texas, are also looking at closing a day-labor center. Hiring sites in Austin, Texas and Passaic, N.J., have already shut down this year.

In Austin, city officials closed one of two day-labor centers in March, saving more than $200,000 as they struggled to balance the budget.

David Lurie, the city's health and human services director, said the center was open a little more than a year but wasn't widely used. It opened amid a declining economy that zapped demand for temporary laborers.

"If we weren't faced with the budget challenges, we were committed to it and wanted to continue the effort and see if over time it would reach expectations," Lurie said.

The city continues to operate a larger and more-successful day-labor center 10 miles away. But the smaller center's closure increases the probability that workers will be exploited or stand on sidewalks to find jobs, said Cristina Tzintzun, director of the Workers Defense Project, a group that advocates fair conditions for low-wage workers in Austin.

A city leader in Fort Worth, Texas, has proposed shutting the city's day-labor center to save $270,000 that would help plug a $60 million budget gap. A city spokesman said no final decisions have been made.

Day-labor centers emerged as an organized alternative to street corners and parking lots where workers would congregate in search of short-term jobs, usually landscaping and construction work.

Planners hoped to quell concerns of business owners frustrated with laborers using their bathrooms and asking for water. They also hoped to address traffic and safety problems that arose when contractors would stop on busy streets to negotiate with potential workers.

The centers are all different, but most provide bathrooms, shade and water for laborers as they wait for work. There are parking lots away from busy streets where work deals can be made. Many also have staff to intervene when workers are injured on the job or don't get paid.

Opponents glad centers are closing
But opponents say most of the people who use day-labor centers are illegal immigrants, and even those who are legal residents often work informally without paying taxes.

Arizona Republican State Rep. John Kavanagh, who in the past proposed legislation to curb day-labor activity, said he's glad some day-labor centers are shutting down, "just like it's a good thing when brothels close down. Both of them promote illegal activity."

New Jersey's first city-sanctioned day labor center shut down this year after the laborers who ran it fell behind on the monthly rent.

The center in Passaic, outside New York City, was built with city-donated materials and the sweat-equity of volunteer day-laborers. The mayor who pushed for the center has since gone to prison on corruption charges, and his successor has said he couldn't dedicate city funds in the current economy.

The most recent data available, from a 2006 survey by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Illinois-Chicago, found 63 day-labor centers in 17 states.

Rising unemployment has increased the supply of job seekers at the same time that the housing crisis has decreased the demand for their labor. The imbalance has depressed wages and made it harder for job seekers to find work, said Nik Theodore, who worked on the survey as director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, said many work centers have been able to survive by cutting their paid staff and being maintained by volunteer laborers.

But he worries the budget challenges will mean more workers being exploited and more tensions with neighborhoods and business owners.

"The impact of shutting down centers is big, and the workers don't go away," he said. "The workers stay, because people will risk whatever it takes in order to feed their families."