Erick Montano made his way from El Salvador to Arlington about five years ago. For work, Montano found that he could be hired as a day laborer. He already knew how to do the work required by most building trades, and found employment fairly regularly, often by going to the Shirlington Employment and Education Center.
After a few years of going to the site, Montano branched out and is now living the American Dream. "I started here to go to work, now I am the owner of my own home repair [business]," he said. "This year I started for myself."
Montano, who has a white van with his name splashed on its side does painting, tiling, drywall and a host of other construction trades. And when he needs some extra help for a job, he drives that white van to the corner of Shirlington Road and 27th Street to find some temporary help. "I know many guys who are here," he said. "It's a good place."
The idea for some kind of center came about in December 1998, said County Board Member J. Walter Tejada (D). Tejada, who was not on the board at the time, met with other members of Arlington's Latino community to discuss the issue of the laborers. Men had started gathering at the intersection of Shirlington Road and Four Mile Run Drive, about a block away from the current pavilion, and were being hired on by local contractors. "We discussed how the laborers had been a source of complaints," Tejada said.
Neighbors in the area had what Tejada described as legitimate concerns about the men loitering and sometimes urinating in public. "These issues were more quality of life," he said.
They contacted some nonprofit organizations who all began working together and eventually the group found that county staff was also working on the problem. The two groups who joined forces after a few months had been able to locate a small building on the corner of Nelson and 27th streets to house the operations of what would become the Shirlington Employment and Education Center.
They were able to use county-owned land about a block away for a pavilion for the workers. The men who wait for a chance to work are provided with benches and bathroom facilities and a roof overhead. "The pavilion was a good idea," Tejada said. "It's best for government to regulate this so it can take place in an orderly manner."
THE CENTER, which this year has a budget of $192,000 from the county, asks those who come there to get an identification card, said Andres Tobar, executive director of the center. The charge for the card is $5, and the men must provide some kind of documentation proving their name and where they live, Tobar said.
"It had been thought that many of the day laborers were homeless, which is not the case," Tejada said.
However, the site does not ask questions about the men's background nor performs a background check or checks their immigration status. Still, the ID card provides employers with some measure of verifying who they are hiring. "We always tell the employers to ask for their ID," Tobar said.
The center also strives to protect the workers from employers. "A number of these folks don't get paid from time to time," Tobar said. The workers typically make from $10-15 per hour, he said. But sometimes an employer will say that the worker misrepresented his skills. In these cases, Tobar or others at the center are usually able to negotiate some kind of compensation for whatever work the man actually did.
USUALLY 60-80 MEN show up in the morning looking for work at the pavilion. They register for a lottery which decides, generally the order of who will get work that day. Competition is stiff, since only 20-30 jobs will come through the pavilion each day. A few more will be hired from the center itself.
Sometimes, employers will call ahead and ask for workers skilled in a specific trade. Sometimes people will drive up with a specific requirement, such as a particularly tall or strong man, Tobar said. In those cases, the employers request trumps the lottery. "We want the employers to be happy with the people they pick," he said.
When a vehicle does approach the site, the workers swarm it. They know that while there is a lottery, a potential employer might just point to someone, and that would guarantee them a space ahead in the lottery.
Often, Tobar said, the problem is new workers who do not yet understand the system.
There are two staff members who stay out at the site at any given time to maintain order. Workers and employers will usually negotiate a price before leaving the pavilion area. Tobar said he has seen some skilled tradesmen turn down potential jobs because the pay offered was too low.
The system is not perfect. On one day, men lined Four Mile Run Road about a quarter-mile from the site, waiting for work. Sometimes, Tobar explained, they will get a low number in the lottery and the men will strike out on their own, hoping to catch an employer's eye before they get to the site.
He said that the center is looking for ways to try and increase the number of employers who use the site, since that is probably the best way to get the workers to remain. "We're trying to explore how can we induce those guys to come back?" he said.
Even with the dozens of men hanging around, Arlington Police say there are typically not problems in the area. Det. Rick Rodriguez, spokesperson for the police, acknowledged that "there's always going to be some problems," he did not think they were major. "I don't think we've seen an increase in the numbers [of calls] since the shelter was built," he said. "I don't see any indication that there's anything happening there."
Tobar is not surprised at this. The men, he said, are typically more mature, and do not want to cause trouble or get into gangs. "They're more focused on looking for work."
TOBAR ALSO WANTS to insure that the center is more than just a spot for day laborers to come for work. The center offers English classes two days a week, depending on both volunteer and paid labor to teach the men. Tobar also hopes to begin vocational training this fall, offering classes which will help the workers become more skilled.
"We can tap into other resources, private resources, who can train these workers," Tejada said.
The men also learn on the job, and many have been offered full-time, permanent jobs after being hired on from the center.
The center itself, however, may not be a permanent fixture in its location. Just over the trees which line the edge of the pavilion, the new buildings of Shirlington are visible. As the area develops, the land may become too valuable to be used in its current capacity. Tobar estimates that within five years, the center will have to find a new home. "We recognize that this location is not going to be conducive for this kind of purpose in the long run," Tobar said
The need, however, is not likely to diminish. Washington is still in the midst of a construction boom, Tejada notes.
"The number of folks that are looking for work is significant," Tobar said.