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Community Day Labor Update

Project Hope & Harmony holds community meeting to update residents on new site's progress.

Echoing information delivered during a Jan. 11 press conference, representatives of Project Hope & Harmony held a community meeting Jan. 31 to inform residents of progress made at the Herndon Official Workers Center.

While there have been minor violations on site, including one worker arriving with the smell of alcohol on his breath and other workers rushing a vehicle, for the most part things have been quiet, said Bill Threlkeld, site director.

"It's very much noticeable at the site — the worker's involvement," said Threlkeld to a room of about 30 people. "They're voicing their opinions all the time and that's exactly what we want."

Workers who violate the site's code of conduct are quickly sanctioned, he said. The first sanction is a verbal warning. If the same workers commit the violation a second time, harsher penalties are enforced, including banishment from the site.

Only verbal warnings have been issued up to this point, with the majority of the workers not only complying with the code of conduct, but also enforcing it, Threlkeld said.

One worker has taken on the informal role of site leader. Frequently riding his bike around the community, the worker looks for men gathering for work outside of the official center. Now, when men see him coming, they scatter for fear he will reprimand them, Threlkeld said.

The rules have brought order to the site, resulting in positive feedback from workers and employers. With that order has also come trust.

Recently two of the laborers were assaulted, Threlkeld said. After telling Project Hope & Harmony staff what happened, they were urged to call the police and report the crimes. Because of the information the workers gave, the police were able to arrest five suspects who were tied to a number of other recent crimes, Threlkeld said.

"This is significant because the workers felt safe enough with staff to express concern, and they felt comfortable enough to release the information to the police," he said. "And, in this case, they had valuable information that helped catch the people breaking the law."

OPEN A LITTLE longer than a month, Project Hope & Harmony staff have already received requests from other jurisdictions interested in creating organized day labor sites.

"While it's probably too early to say we're a model," said Threlkeld, "these are strong indicators that people are wanting to see how we're doing it."

Not only significantly cleaning up the corner of Alabama Drive and Elden Street, the new site offers safety to the workers, he said. So much safety that a female worker has begun to regularly show up for work.

"I have a feeling that will increase over time because the site is now viewed as a safe place," he said. "Not just for women, but for people of all genders and races."

Addressing negative press coverage at the national level, executive council member Joel Mills emphasized Project Hope & Harmony's intent to keep community dialogue open and positive.

"The reality here in town has been far different than what's been reported in some elements of the media," he said. "This has been a controversial issue in town for a long time and it continues to be a controversial issue right now."

Hoping to move forward with successful site operations, the only way to ensure success is through community involvement, Mills said.

"People with concerns should still come forward with concerns," he said. "People need to feel comfortable to discuss issues so any problems can be alleviated."

One way to do this is to attend the group's monthly Community Advisory Board meetings, said Esther Johnson, executive council member. Through these structured meetings, citizens can express concerns to the board — made up of supporters and opponents of the site. Because day laborers also sit on the board, they are able to relay concerns to the workers on site immediately and remedy any problems.

SINCE THE SITE'S opening in December 2005, a number of attempts have been made to deter employers from visiting the site.

A lawsuit has been filed against the town and Fairfax County, community groups were formed to protest the site and they have now begun to campaign for the election of new town council members. Additionally a local chapter of the Minutemen — a national organization dedicated to monitoring illegal immigration in the country — was formed.

More recently an ad was posted on Craig's List — an Internet site where everything from clothing to housing is advertised. Posted in January, the ad requests "legal day laborers" to report employers hiring workers without proper documentation.

At the end of the Jan. 31 meeting one resident asked if the Minutemen and other protesters were having an impact on the site's operations.

"I don't think the Minutemen are having an impact on the site," said Threlkeld. "Nationally I think they're having an impact on people's opinions about immigration, but I don't think they're having an impact locally."

Emphasizing the desire to continue the site's success, group members encouraged residents to volunteer on site. Currently the group needs more English as a second language instructors as well as additional people to staff the day shifts. Residents who cannot volunteer their time can contribute in other ways — like donating used bicycles to the site for the workers, Threlkeld said.

But, as the warmer spring and summer months near, more volunteers will be needed to help staff the site.

"Hiring is pretty good in the area right now," said Threlkeld. "But we're likely to see a 30 to 40, even 50 percent increase in the hires of workers come the spring and summer."