0
Votes

Now Open For Business

Herndon's official day-labor center opens amidst protests and camera crews.

On a sunny Saturday, dressed in worn winter coats, paint-splotched work boots, baseball hats and stocking caps, approximately 40 men stand around a table in the parking lot of the former Herndon Police Station.

Joking with each other and Project Hope and Harmony employees, the men eye a Toyota Carolla 30 feet away. In the car is a homeowner requesting four workers for the day. The man lists the work he needs done and the rate he would pay to another Project Hope and Harmony volunteer. After writing down this information, the volunteer calls Bill Threlkeld, day-labor site director, on a walkie-talkie. A minute later four men walk calmly to the car and get in. The homeowner drives off.

One week earlier, at the Alabama Drive 7-Eleven, the scene would have been much different. Instead of standing around, men would have rushed to surround the car and only the quickest and strongest would have had work for the day.

"They're happy," said Jorge Rochac, Herndon resident and Project Hope and Harmony volunteer. "They're happy because it's not the survival of the fittest anymore."

MARKING ONE of the coldest mornings this winter, Project Hope and Harmony opened the controversial regulated day-labor center last week.

Amidst camera crews and roughly 100 yards from Herndon's Minutemen as well as supporters of the new site, 100 men huddled in a circle around a table waiting for work.

At the table was Jennie Albers, strategy coordinator for Project Hope and Harmony. Each morning Albers registers the workers for the site's lottery system. The system was created to establish order on site, said Threlkeld.

"Before the site opened, the guys adopted the raffle system and a code of conduct," said Albers about how the decision was made to use the lottery.

But, because this is the first time the group has used the system to assign work, some kinks still need to be worked out, she said.

On the first day, 112 workers registered for work in the five hours the site was open; 15 of those registered were hired, according to Albers.

On Saturday, 121 men registered for work during the five hours and 21 were hired. Because the site is only open from 6 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to noon on the weekend, Project Hope and Harmony has set up a program for workers to be hired after the site is closed, said Threlkeld.

Employers or homeowners interested in hiring workers after operational hours can call Project Hope and Harmony at 571-323-9567. A volunteer will return the call and set up a worker with the employer, he said.

Since the site's opening last week, there have been no major issues with the workers, according to Threlkeld. But, because of the cold weather and the mass media on site last week, there also were not many employers hiring the men.

"Most of the guys recognize this is like starting a new business — we need time," said Threlkeld. "And, it's not a great time to start a business for workers because there's not a lot of work due to the weather."

IN AUGUST OF this year, Herndon's Town Council approved this regulated site in an effort to eliminate the large number of men standing at the corner of Alabama Drive and Elden Street looking for work every day.

After approving the site — designated as the Herndon Official Worker's Center — the council approved an anti-solicitation ordinance. Under this ordinance, it is illegal for day workers to be hired anywhere but the official center. It is also illegal for employers to hire workers anywhere but the site.

"The goal we set out to accomplish was to clean up the corner of Alabama Drive and Elden," said Mayor Michael O'Reilly. "And, in the first week it looks like we've been successful. But, there is still a lot of work to be done with the property owners along Elden Street to ensure the area stays clean in the future."

In an effort to regulate a number of informal day worker hiring locations throughout the region, Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors appropriated money to establish regulated sites. After Herndon's council approved the center, the board appropriated $175,000 in funding for the site to be run by Project Hope and Harmony.

And while the corner of Alabama Drive and Elden Street is currently vacant, there are many factors tied to the success of the regulated site.

One of those is getting the contractors and employers to the new location, said Rochac.

"It was slow Friday [Dec. 16] because of traffic and the guys were getting discouraged," he said. "It goes up and it goes down."

Over the weekend more men were hired than the first few days of the site's opening, said Threlkeld. But, time will be the determining factor of the site's overall success, he said.

"It's really too early to draw any conclusions about the site's success," he said last weekend. "People need to understand we've only been doing this for five days now."