It is a sight that many in the Shirlington area are accustomed to seeing early in the morning — men clad in winter coats, wool hats and steel-toed construction boots, standing on the corner of 28th Street and Shirlington Road. They sip coffee from plastic cups, eyeing the passing cars and pickup trucks. They eat breakfast, laughing and chatting about the day to come, mostly in Spanish. They wait.
They are day laborers. Each morning they come to the small pavilion on that corner near Four Mile Run in search of work. The trucks that come to pick them up take two to four at time, driving them to construction sites throughout Northern Virginia. The jobs are difficult — laying bricks, painting, finishing, loading and unloading trucks, to name a few.
Most of the men are recent immigrants from places like Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Some are undocumented. Others are awaiting an answer from the government on the status of their green cards or asylum status.
The pavilion is just one of several places where the laborers can be found during the work week, but it is the only organized one in Arlington County, supervised under the auspices of Shirlington Education and Employment Center (SEEC). It also has support from the county government and several local charities. It is a blessing for the laborers who rely on the jobs they get there to make a living. For business owners in the surrounding community, it is a source of concern and conflict. Caught in the middle of an ongoing controversy, the workers compete for scarce employment.
"This time of year, there aren't as many jobs," said Andres Tobar, director of the SEEC on Thursday morning at the pavilion. "It will probably pick up in the warmer months, but it's frustrating for them right now. They come here to find work, and there just isn't much to be had. Some get here at 7 in the morning, and they could still be waiting here at 1 in the afternoon."
FOR TWO YEARS, Tobar and staff from the SEEC have run the pavilion and its daily lottery, a drawing that determines the order in which workers will be given jobs as they come. It is designed, Tobar said, to ensure that workers get an equal opportunity for the few jobs available. The demand is overwhelming. Once the lottery begins, the workers crowd around the small glass booth on that sits on the premises, eager to hear the numbers called.
"It's competitive,” said Tony Barajas, who supervises the pavilion for the SEEC. “A lot of it depends on what the employers are looking for. If you're hiring for a job where you need people to do painting or finishing, something where you need skills, a lot of them are taken out of the running right away because they're not qualified. If you're hiring for a job where you need people to do heavy lifting, you're going to want the big guys, the bulls, not the smaller ones."
The SEEC is also tasked with keeping order at the site, but for some people who work in the surrounding community, the laborers have become a nuisance.
"IT'S A GOOD IDEA, but it's not effectively managed," said Jeff Rathner, a cameraman for WETA television, a station that has a studio down the street. "Everybody here is very sympathetic to their plight, but they just can't manage to wrangle these guys."
Because the laborers are waiting to be picked up and desperate for work, Rathner said, they will approach almost any car that comes near, creating a serious danger for drivers and for themselves.
"I almost hit somebody again yesterday," he said. "You have to slow down to turn onto that street, and they'll sprint after any car that comes by."
Other business owners nearby listed similar complaints but declined to go on the record. By the same token, most also acknowledged the importance of finding jobs for the men.
"Bottom line, the only thing these guys are looking for is a job," Tobar said. "We recognize that the business folks around here are concerned about the rushing of the cars and other things, but we're working to supervise them here."
Along with keeping order at the site, the SEEC acts as an advocate on behalf of the workers. It keeps a roster of regular employers who frequent the pavilion and works to safeguard the men from exploitation. The jobs pay little. The average, according to Tobar, is about $10 per hour.
"But the downside is that sometimes they are only hired for three or four hours of work," Tobar said. "That's why we ask that they be paid better than minimum wage."
MOST CONTRACTORS and other employers who take the laborers treat them fairly on the job, but others do not. John Lis, executive director of the Tenants and Workers Rights Committee, a social activist group that works closely with day laborers and the immigrant population, estimates that there are between 500 and 600 such workers in Arlington County. Exploitation, he said, is commonplace.
"The basic issue is nonpayment for work, but what's even worse is nonpayment and then abandonment at the job site," Lis said.
Employers, he added, have taken workers as far away from Arlington as Manassas and then left them to find their own way home without being paid. Safety standards and other workplace regulations, he said, are often ignored on job sites where day laborers are used. If they are injured on the job, employers may try to avoid compensating laborers. Tobar pointed to one instance when a worker broke his back after falling off a roof. The contractor paid him $1,500 and let him go.
"Having it under the watch of a community-organized center is light years better than the way it was before,” Lis said. "The state keeps going back and forth on it, but right now, they are still eligible for workman's comp, and whether you're documented or not, the law says that if you do the work, you must be paid for it.”
For 2005, Arlington County has budgeted $52,000 in funding for the pavilion. The SEEC also receives more than $100,000 in grants from various foundations. Local charities contribute money and even clothing, such as the winter coats donated by a Catholic organization. Support for the laborers comes from many corners of the community, but for many who work in Shirlington, the pavilion is an uncomfortable landmark.
"The very first day it was opened, some guy who was obviously drunk ran out in front of my car,” Rathner said. “When I stopped, he blurted something at me in Spanish."
THE PRESENCE OF the laborers, Rathner added, has some unpleasant side-effects.
"Trash is left all over the place,” he said. “It has become a haven for scavenger birds and the most ungodly amount of bird poop that you'll see all over your car if you happen to park near there. It also brings rats."
Rathner listed other problems.
"People from our building will be walking by the job site, and they'll verbally harassed in Spanish,” he said. “Of course, some of us can understand it. We know what's being said."
Tension exists among the workers themselves. Latino workers make up the majority who come to the pavilion, but it regularly sees African American laborers. Competition for jobs often causes altercations between these two groups.
"People come here for jobs sometimes from Nauck,” said Greg Bickham, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army, who supervises the site.
Tobar credits Bickham, an African American, for his efforts to act as an intermediary. Bickham, he said, has helped to defuse many incidents at the pavilion before than can escalate.
"Most of the time, everybody gets along, but if there's a conflict, I come in and smooth it over," Bickham said.
When the pavilion was first moved to the Shirlington site in 2003, WETA and other business owners lobbied to prevent its being established.
"Whenever anybody cries foul, they're told this they have some 'not in my backyard' attitude, but that's just not the case,” Rathner said.
Rathner stressed that his opinions are not the official position of WETA, which is in close contact with the SEEC about the pavilion.
"We're working hard here with SEEC to find a solution that is good for the community,” said Pat Williamson, director of the station's administration, who declined further comment.