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Worker Citations on the Rise

First quarter figures show less labor site turnout, more anti-solicitation charges

As attorneys for the Town of Herndon press on in the court room to defend the constitutionality of the town’s local ordinance forbidding informal street labor solicitations, police are citing an increasingly higher number of workers and would-be employers accused of violating the year-old law.

Statistics from the Herndon Police Department show that the number of citations issued by local police in the first quarter of 2007 have skyrocketed nearly 400 percent when compared with the same numbers one year earlier.

In the first quarter of 2006, eight workers were cited by police for violating the ordinance, according to numbers made available by Lt. Jerry Keys of the Herndon Police Department. In the first quarter of this year, that number has swelled to 46 people who were issued citations, of which 16 were prospective employers, he added.

The ordinance went into effect at the end of 2005 after its approval by the town’s previous mayor and Town Council along with the creation of the Herndon Official Workers Center. In March, after the ordinance was challenged on constitutional grounds by a Reston man, Fairfax County General District Judge Lorraine Nordlund backed it based primarily, she said, on the presence of the town’s day labor center.

At the same time, the average number of workers who show up looking for work at the town’s labor center daily has also decreased slightly during the first quarter of 2007 when compared with that period one year ago, according to records made available by the Herndon Official Workers Center. During the first three months of this year, about 95 workers on average have shown up each day looking for work, down from last year’s average of approximately 99.

BUT THE NUMBERS don’t necessarily mean that workers have been abandoning the site and returning to the streets for work, according to law enforcement officials and community workers charged with managing Herndon’s day labor population.

"I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling you the reason [for the increase] because with most cases when it comes to police work, statistics can be misleading," Keys said. "I can’t say that there’s been more workers out on the streets or if there has just been an increase in enforcement, because I don’t know."

There has not been an increase in the number of police on duty on a regular day from the previous year, nor have there been specific orders issued to officers to up enforcement of the ordinance as of late, Keys said. The majority of those violations were issued during the normal morning operation hours of the day labor site, he added.

Enforcement of the ordinance has increased in recent months as police have recognized growing citizens’ calls to mitigate the number of workers on the streets, according to council member Bill Tirrell.

"I don’t think there are an increased number of workers out there," Tirrell said, "but I do think that there still a number of people ‘spending their time’ up at the 7-Eleven and on Elden Street, and they haven’t gone away."

Both Tirrell and Herndon Mayor Steve DeBenedittis said that there have been no specific calls from the town’s officials to police for increased enforcement.

"We had spoken to citizens, and they had expressed concerns about workers in the streets … and that has been a priority for this council," DeBenedittis said. "I don’t know if the police department really needs us to [call for increased enforcement], I think they’re aware of the issue and they’ve been working hard on it on their own."

"For us to do that, we would have done it publicly," Tirrell added.

THE INCREASED NUMBER of citations for solicitation has more to do with increased enforcement of a group of workers that have, for one reason or another, refused to use the labor site since it was established, said Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope & Harmony, which runs the site.

"They’ve had guys playing cat and mouse with the police since we opened, that hasn’t changed," he said. "I would say that the higher numbers [of violations cited] are more likely the result of increased patrols in the area."

There are constant efforts to attract the remaining workers who have refused to use the site, Threlkeld added. Some of these efforts include attempts at improving the center’s lottery selection system by giving those who have not received work in several days preferential positioning and fellow workers going out and talking to them, he said.

The slight decrease in workers coming to the center on a daily basis should also be viewed with the understanding that there is only a limited time frame and long-term trends cannot be assessed from them, Threlkeld said. Those numbers may have been affected by anything from adverse weather to a smaller population of people seeking work, he added.

WHILE HE OCCASIONALLY sees people who appear to be day laborers lingering on Elden Street in the morning, Yacoub Ebrahem, a cashier at Herndon Exxon on South Elden Street, said their numbers have not been increasing and are nothing compared to what he used to see prior to the enactment of the ordinance and the establishment of the day labor site. In the morning, Ebrahem sits in front of a window that looks directly across the street at a 7-Eleven convenience store where workers had originally congregated to look for work before the site was established.

"In the morning, I’ll see them across the street, they drink coffee and they leave," Ebrahem said. "Of course it’s not the same, one year ago there were many [workers] but now they have all left."

That same impression has been left on Ky Truong, owner of the Shell Station on South Elden Street that sits on the same block as the 7-Eleven.

"Every once in awhile you see the workers," he said, "but since the site [opened] they’re really not around."

BUT LABORERS STILL regularly look for work around the vicinity of the Alabama Drive and Elden Street intersection, according to Wilbur, a day laborer from Herndon who said that he was waiting to find work near the 7-Eleven on a rainy Friday morning last week. While he said that the numbers of workers like him have not increased in recent months, there are typically between 15 and 20 laborers each day in the area.

"When it opened I went there, but I waited and I didn’t find any work," said Wilbur, who added that he can’t find a regular job because he does not have authorization to work in the United States. "I can come here, wait for a little while, see if there’s any work … my chances are better over here."

Being cited for violating the anti-solicitation ordinance hasn’t deterred Herndon resident Oscar, who said that he continues to wait near the intersection of Alabama Drive and Elden Street for work, despite being charged for violating it earlier. He was among a group of four laborers who were waiting for work last week directly across the street from a sign warning that street solicitations were against the law.

Oscar said that he was upset over the large number of workers fighting for the same jobs at the center and could find work easier on the street, where he gets a job five to six times a month as opposed to only a couple times at the center. While he said that the number of people waiting for work near the 7-Eleven had remained the same in recent months, the police presence has definitely increased.

Wilbur said that while he knows about the ordinance forbidding street solicitations in the town, it hasn’t stopped him from looking for work on the streets.

"Everyone knows that there are problems for us, but we can’t go to other places," he said. "There’s no other place to find work. We need to support ourselves, there aren’t any other options."