On a hot Tuesday afternoon at the Signal Hill Home Depot on Cherry Avenue, Jose A. Hernandez shook a jumbo 5-gallon water bottle, rattling the dozens of numbered ping pong balls inside of it. The 50-year-old man grinned as he demonstrated his makeshift lottery-style system that assigns day laborers to jobs. As Hernandez explained, the laborers register for a number at the shelter he manages at the Home Depot’s parking lot. When a customer shows up to hire the next available person among the crowd of workers at the shelter, one lucky person is chosen through the lottery.
Hernandez explained that in the past workers used to swarm potential customers in the parking lot and sometimes physically fought over customers who needed help with a construction or moving job.
The shelter has benches and a canopy shade. Two big signs posted near the benches– written in both Spanish and English– emphasize the shelter’s rules. There are two portable toilets and a water cooler for the workers.
Hernandez said he helps negotiate the rate for a job, keeps records of the workers, and even works with the City’s police department to report problems. Hernandez compared his work to the job of a human resources department.
Hernandez began working there just a couple of months after the shelter opened in July 2007, and served with Centro Shalom, the nonprofit organization that previously held the contract to oversee day laborers at Home Depot. Following Monday’s City Council meeting approving an action to allow Signal Hill to enter into a contract with Hernandez, making him the daily manager of the shelter.
Hernandez, who also works in the custodial department at California State University, Long Beach and serves as a steward of a union that represents custodial workers and gardeners, emphasized the trust he has built with the estimated 100 workers who come to that shelter every week.
“It was important for me to be here,” Hernandez said. “I know how to take control of the guys and talk to customers. I was here to help them, and they believe in me. They always like me.”
According to a report by the City’s Chief of Police Michael Langston, opponents of day laborer programs have in the past voiced concerns that cities with these programs may be violating immigration laws as well as rules surrounding Community Development Block Grant (CBDG) funding.
His report explains that these critics believe cities should verify immigration status.
Signal Hill officials have acknowledged the City’s role in managing the very real, day-to-day issues with workers who seek temporary work at Home Depot. Langston noted in his staff report that other cities have been sued when they “unreasonably” prohibited day laborer solicitations and centers. A few years ago, a committee attempted to address day laborer issues in Signal Hill.
“The Committee studied several major categories of issues surrounding day laborers, including the complex legal and federal immigration issues. The Committee found in their 2007 report that Congress was not dealing with comprehensive immigration reform. It is sad to report that in the last five years Congress has made little progress in this regard,” Langston wrote in his report.
Langston’s staff report detailed problems before day laborers were professionally managed through the shelter program. City crews had to clean up debris and trash left behind, and there were complaints of urination and defecation in the shrubberies on Crescent Heights Street.
The estimated cost for the management services is approximately $26,000 per year and is included in the police department budget. According to the city manager’s office, this figure is close to half the amount Centro Shalom charged to manage the shelter.
At the Aug. 1 Council meeting, City officials acknowledged that there have been fewer problems associated with day laborers at Home Depot since the shelter was created.
“As your chief of police, I am confident that we would expend far more public safety resources than the cost of this contract addressing public safety concern to the two Home Depot locations, if not for the day laborer center,” said Police Chief Michael Langston.
Since the shelter opened, however, there has been a different problem. Another Home Depot located on Atlantic Avenue opened. Other day laborers are beginning to congregate at that store’s parking lot, and according to Langston’s report, problems are beginning to surface at the Atlantic Avenue location. Since the City does not have the money to build a second day laborer center, Hernandez will be responsible for making sure the Atlantic Avenue laborers relocate to the Cherry Avenue Home Depot. The transition is scheduled to be completed by September.
Mayor Larry Forester acknowledged that the City is in a delicate position and has to be “careful of what we do and don’t do.”
“How do I say this properly?” Forester asked. “We’re allowing them to be there but not condoning them being there.”
Councilmember Ed Wilson said that he generally supported the shelter program, stating that there used to be safety problems with workers who solicited customers on the street. Now the City doesn’t have to deal with those kinds of problems at the Cherry Avenue store. Wilson, however, voted against the new contract with Hernandez, citing concerns that it might be logistically impossible to persuade workers at the Atlantic Avenue facility to move to the Cherry Avenue shelter.
“To say we’re going to have them come over to Cherry doesn’t make sense because the store is on Atlantic,” Wilson said in an interview on August 2nd. “So when people need something and they go to the store on Atlantic, they’re not going to drive over to the store on Cherry to pick somebody up. . . I just don’t know that I heard the rationale of how that’s going to work.”
Wilson also added that prices should be fair and posted at the shelter, remembering a personal experience where laborers changed their rates after they arrived at a work site.
Councilmember Mike Noll also voted against the plan, echoing Wilson’s concerns over the prices and potential cost increase.
A day after the City Council vote, Hernandez sat a short distance away from more than a dozen workers who waited in the shade of a canopy shielding them from a hot August sun. He said he remembered how workers used to be given nicknames after zoo animals like “Giraffe” or “Lion.”
Hernandez said he calls workers by their real names and requires workers to offer photo identification when they register with him. According to Hernandez, these workers don’t fear immigration authorities at the shelter, and they cooperate with the rules the shelter established.
Moments after the interview, a woman in a Mini Cooper pulled up to the shelter. A man who had been working as Hernandez’s assistant quickly told his boss that he was off to help the woman in the Mini Cooper.
“All we ask is that we be treated with dignity and respect,” Hernandez said.