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Laborers hold out hope

Jobs aren't guaranteed at the MLK site, but workers keep coming
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Labor center site Director Ignacio Paramo has helped create a community offering English classes and soccer tournaments. While many laborers find work at the center, others go without or return to their old street corners.

Day workers at the city-sponsored day labor center have a message to Portland, three years into the operation: 'We're here to work.'

Every morning, 50 to 100 - sometimes up to 120 - workers gather at the site at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just south of the Oregon Convention Center.

At 7:30 a.m., they put their names into a lottery, which determines who gets jobs as employers roll in. Some days dozens are hired, other days just a handful. They usually earn between $10 and $11 an hour.

Either way, the workers declare the center a success, saying it is a far better alternative to the chaos that reigned at street corners before the work center opened.

'This place is for work,' says Edmundo Caro, a cook who prepares barbacoa and carne asada tacos for Tacos El Jornalero, the taco truck that opened last week at the site to raise money for the center's operations. 'The people that come here come because there's an order, more organization' than the street corners, Caro says.

Three years into the venture, it's hard to declare it a success or failure, however. Consider the numbers:

• While the center has provided workers with a total of 11,131 day jobs during the three years, it's led to just 25 permanent jobs.

• In January, the slowest month of the year, 14 of 75 workers - 18 percent - were hired on the busiest day, Jan. 29. On the slowest day that month, Jan. 11, just one of 77 workers snagged a job.

• Summer is peak season. June 25, the busiest day, saw 39 of 47 workers (82 percent) hired. A week earlier, on June 18, just 7 of 61 workers (11 percent) were hired.

• The center's first year of operation was the busiest, with 2,405 workers hired in just six months, June to December 2008. In all of 2009, a total of 3,039 workers were hired. In 2010 that climbed to 3,875. This year, a total of 1,812 workers were hired through June. If that pace continues, 2011 will come in just behind last year's numbers.

The nonprofit Voz Workers' Rights Education Project, which runs the site, says success is about more than just numbers -it's about the community they've created.

They have established rules (no drinking, drugs or fighting), daily procedures (the lottery), education (a range of classes taught by volunteer tutors), recreation (a soccer team), and now food.

Tacos are $1, and all proceeds from the taco truck support the venture. Eventually the taco truck may roam various neighborhoods.

'It's been a good three years,' says Romeo Sosa, Voz' executive director. 'We created trust in the neighborhood and developed a lot of support from all the different groups,' including the surrounding neighborhoods. Laborers have helped to beautify the area, despite the impermanence of their home.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Arlo Malmberg (left), a volunteer at the city's Day Labor Center, talks with Nedel Perez, a laborer. The three-year-old site on MLK Jr. Boulevard opened a taco truck last week to raise funds. Taco chef Edmundo Caro (in back) says people need a safe, secure way to connect with jobs, especially in today's economic climate.

Few complaints

The labor center is basically a fenced-off, drive-through parking lot, with a trailer for administrative work, two Porta Potties and a makeshift kitchen and indoor gathering area.

After the city made its first-year investment of $200,000, it did not give money to the labor site last year because Voz did not request any; the organization operated on donations and fundraisers. This year the city promised $25,000 to the labor site, just a small portion of its overall budget.

With more funds, Sosa says, Voz would build a more permanent facility, like the labor centers in many other U.S. cities, as well as hire additional staff to do full-time marketing for the center.

The five-year lease on the property with the Portland Development Commission expires in 2013; Sosa would like to extend it.

Police don't have any problem with the operation. Neither do neighborhood groups. Portland Police Lt. Mike Marshman, of Central Precinct, says he often drives past the labor site but has not received any complaints about it - or day laborers anywhere else in the city.

'For me, it's quite to the point where it's not even on my radar,' he says.

If there were complaints - about harassment, litter, blocking the sidewalk or otherwise - police would deal with whatever the root issue is, Marshman says. Police do not do 'sweeps': state law prevents enforcement agencies from going after people solely for their immigration status.

'Everyone is equal'

If the labor site was formed in part to get workers off the street, why do they still gather on street corners in inner Southeast Portland? Sosa says those are the workers who either don't like the rules at the work center, or feel they have a better chance of getting a job on their own.

A 35-year-old concrete worker named Pancho prefers the center to the street corner because 'there's no violence,' and 'everyone is equal,' rather than having to fight to get into a car to a work site.

Pancho says getting work at the labor center is all about the luck of the draw. He just finished a two-week job, and hopes he'll be hired again soon. 'If you do a good job, they'll request you or they'll tell their friends,' he says.

Often, workers on the corner are not paid at the end of the day and have no recourse since there's no paper trail. At Voz, every worker and employer sign a register, so the wages can be legally recovered. In all, the labor center has recovered more than $300,000 in unpaid wages, according to Daniel Alvarez, president of the Day Laborer Committee.

'We are building power to change our reality,' he said at a June celebration event. 'Since 2010, Voz has facilitated hundreds of employment opportunities, fought to end wage theft, marched in protests, and worked with local and national organizations for immigration reform.'

Sosa is well aware that workers linger on the corner.

'We visit (the old corner) twice a week, but can't force them to come to the center,' Sosa says.

Voz does its best to try to entice workers to the center. They offer an array of free classes six days a week: everything from English and computer skills to music, art, acupuncture and training. Twenty volunteers from local colleges and organizations teach the classes.

Sosa says the only thing he wishes would improve is the pace of business.

He has faith things will pick up. The economy is 'still pretty bad,' he says. 'We're hoping it's going to get better. For now it's still a challenge, but it's better than last year.'


Voz plans soccer fundraiser

Voz will hold its next fundraiser, a Portland 'World Cup' Tournament, Sept. 3 to Sept. 5 at Fernhill Park in Northeast Portland.

The three-day adult soccer tournament and festival will feature a friendly soccer match between Voz's workers, staff and volunteers, as well as food, music, games and family activities. To register a team or participate, visit www.portlandworldcup.org .

The Tacos El Jornalero truck is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday at the labor center, 240 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For information, visit www.portlandvoz.org .