Labor Ready

Labor Ready

Workers gather daily at unofficial day-labor site.

The sun had not fully risen when Osvaldo took his place outside the 7-Eleven on the corner of Park Street and Cedar Lane, as he had done every day for the last two weeks.

Osvaldo has only been in the United States 15 days, he said. He lives in the apartments surrounding the Cedar Lane Shopping Center, where many of the day laborers who gather at the 7-Eleven live. His expertise lies in masonry, but at this point, said Osvaldo, he’ll take whatever work he can get. Of the 15 days he has been here, he said, he has only found one day of work.

"It’s hard," said Osvaldo, through translator John Lovaas. He has family in Guatemala, but said that if they told him they wanted to come join him in the states, he said, he would tell them: "Don’t do it."

Although an enormous amount of publicity has surrounded the Town of Herndon recently approving a regulated pickup site for day laborers, unofficial day-labor sites such as 7-Elevens exist throughout the county.

The Park Street 7-Eleven and the Cedar Lane Shopping Center across the street are a prime example, with 20 to 30 people gathered outside on any given morning.

Wheat’s Landscaping is located next to the 7-Eleven. Stephanie Pruitt, an administrative assistant at Wheat’s, said that the landscaping company has its own hired workers and does not hire laborers from the 7-Eleven and surrounding area.

"[The day laborers] don’t affect our business," said Pruitt. "Few people come in here to order jobs so it’s not like they’re taking jobs away from us." Pruitt said she is sometimes heckled when she walks up to the 7-Eleven, however.

"They’re not crooks or anything," said Hussein Panah, who has owned the Neighbor’s restaurant and bar in the Cedar Lane Shopping Center. Sometimes he goes up to the 7-Eleven to hire day laborers to work on his house, he said.

Like Osvaldo, Jose, 18, had also only been in the U.S. for two weeks. He traveled from Mexico to Chicago two years ago, where he attended some high school. Earlier this summer, Jose traveled to Miami, Fla. and then to Virginia. The work has not been great, he said.

"If it doesn’t get better soon, I’m leaving for Miami," said Jose.

"Some days, everybody here gets work," said Santos, 45, who lives with his 24-year-old son and another couple in one of the two-bedroom apartments down Cedar Lane from the 7-Eleven. "Some days, nothing."

AT UNOFFICIAL pickup sites such as the 7-Eleven or shopping center parking lots, a day’s work is uncertain and depends on the number of people who come by in trucks and work vans, looking to hire workers.

"If there’s no work by 9 a.m., we go home," said Osvaldo.

Pay is another variable in day labor, said Santos. In general, the men said, they try for about $10 per hour, but sometimes make seven or eight dollars an hour, or less. Once, said Santos, a man hired him for two full days, and at the end of the first day, promised to come back to the 7-Eleven the next morning to pay him. He never showed up.

Others have no problem finding work. Moises, a Honduran who followed his older brother to the U.S. four years ago, said he has found work nearly every day.

Working as a day laborer also has its dangers. Last September, said Santos, he was working on a roof and a nail struck him in the eye.

"I can’t see out of this eye anymore," he said, lifting up the sunglasses he uses to cover his blind eye.

When asked why they chose to wait for work at the 7-Eleven in particular, several of the men shrugged and answered that it was simply the place to be.

Irene Cuison, the manager of the Park Street 7-Eleven, wishes the convenience store wasn’t the place to be.

"I call the police 11, sometimes 12 times a day," she said. "I can’t remember how many times I have to tell the guys to get out." The workers still gather, despite the no-loitering signs posted on the building.

The 7-Eleven on Park Street is just over the Town of Vienna border. Officer Virginia Palmore of the Vienna Police Department said that they have not received any loitering calls from the shopping center across the street, which is in Vienna, but that they have officers patrol the area. Mary Mulrenan of the Fairfax County Police Department said that there have been loitering complaints from the 7-Eleven area, which is Fairfax County jurisdiction.

"[Officers] can disperse them, but it isn’t likely that they will be arrested for standing in front of a business," said Mulrenan. "A lot of the time, by the time the police get there, there’s nobody there."

Lito, a day laborer from El Salvador who served for 14 years in the Salvadorean army, said that the police do come by. Sometimes they make the men leave, he said, but sometimes they stay and chat with the day laborers.

Cuison said she had read about the Herndon day-laborer site and thought it would be a good idea in Vienna. "It would help them to go away from here," she said.

"It’s a tough situation," said Vienna Mayor M. Jane Seeman about something like a formalized day-labor site in Vienna. "On one hand, how many of [the day laborers] are documented?" Seeman said that if the town were to think about its own day-labor site, she would ask help from the contractors who pick up the day laborers.

"If it was definitely impacting on a residential neighborhood, then we would definitely start looking at things differently, or if people started complaining walking to and from the 7-Eleven," she said. "But I haven’t heard any complaints. For the 7-Eleven people, that’s a good part of their business."

Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) said that she has heard more complaints about a Labor Ready site in Falls Church and in areas closer to the City of Fairfax than about the site on Park Street.

Some of the same issues occur at those places, where men turn up there waiting for job, "and the 7-Eleven is not too far away," said Smyth. "To some extent, these things are on private property and if there isn’t a major disruption going on, then the county doesn’t necessarily have a role until the property owners ask us to step in and do something, or the people have overflowed into the neighborhood."

Many of the day laborers gathered outside the Park Street 7-Eleven had not heard of the Herndon site, and few had an opinion, although one joked that the more he heard about it, the more he would want to move to Herndon.

In the end, however, the men outside the 7-Eleven agreed that they waited for work there out of necessity.

"We come [to the U.S.] because we need to," said Lito. "We’re just trying to get work. Why can’t they leave us alone?"