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Healdsburg's day-labor success an inspiration

Jessica Barnes of Cloverdale waits for work at the Healdsburg Day Labor Center on Monday. She commutes by bus everyday at 6 a.m. to make it to the center in hoping that she might find a job for the day. Although Barnes is a Certified Nurses Assistant, she is waiting to have her certification transferred from another state and must find work through other venues.

Conner Jay / The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 9:19 p.m.

Operating from an inconspicuous modular building at the back of the City Hall parking lot, the Healdsburg Day Labor Center is part hiring hall and part safety net for the hundreds who come annually looking for work.

It's helped provide jobs, food and housing assistance, and cut down on the number of men lingering in the city's touristy Healdsburg Plaza seeking work.

In the seven years it's been in existence, the center has established enough good will that officials see it as a model for a similar facility in Fulton.

“The Healdsburg Day Labor Center has become part of the fabric of the Healdsburg community,” said North County Supervisor Mike McGuire. “From where it started to where it is now, I think we can call it a success.”

After more than a year of community meetings in Fulton, there is consensus to establish a similar, but mobile labor center run by the California Human Development Corp., the same poverty and employment assistance group that runs the Healdsburg center.

“It's just so exciting,” Roni Berg, a Fulton resident for more than 20 years said of the modified bus that will serve as labor center. She said the problems with the highly visible throngs of unemployed men at Fulton's crossroads have been an issue for longer than she has lived there.

Complaints run the gamut from littering to public urination, homelessness and women feeling intimidated.

“People were upset nothing happened until now,” she said. “We know from other centers there are all these benefits that come with organized day labor centers.”

Besides Healdsburg, there is also a separately run day labor center that was established in Graton, in 2007.

They are bellwethers of the economy.

“As the economy improves, so does demand at the labor center,” said Supervisor McGuire. “The center is starting to see more employer demand than there are employees. If an employer arrives later in the morning, or early afternoon, it will be difficult to be able to hire an employee.”

The centers cater largely to migrant, seasonal farmworkers and laborers, who McGuire describes as the pillars of county agriculture.

But more recently, as a result of the recession, plenty of laid-off professional people were leaving their resumes at the Healdsburg center.

“We had teachers, real estate agents, welders, engineers,” said Martha Nuñez, the labor center's program director.

“For a couple years it was very depressing. It's much better now,” she said. “The economy is getting better. People are starting to hire more.”

“People are starting to find jobs again and (are also) on career paths,” she said.

And for the day workers, she said a job might last several days instead of several hours, and there is a trend of more permanent hiring.

The typical wage is between $12 and $15 an hour.

In 2011, there were 52 day laborers from the center who were placed in permanent jobs, according to Nuñez. Last year, it grew to 66 who got such work.

“It could be work at horse ranches, housekeeping, dishwashers — different jobs,” she said of those placed in permanent work.

In the six-month period through the end of March, 791 different individuals came to the center and typically received some form of services, whether help with employment, housing, or food, Nuñez said.

Of those, 370 were connected with employers who gave them a job, however short-lived.

“For a contractor, it's a perfect fill-in place. And you might find a guy that works out, and you want to keep on,” said Thomas Dicochea, a Healdsburg landscape architect and contractor who sometimes hires there.

“I have a regular crew,” he explained. “But every now and then a guy gets sick, or someone might decide to move on and I need someone real quick.”

He said he can get a worker with the skills he is seeking because it's more organized and the center has already screened job seekers.

“They're a godsend,” is how a bed and breakfast owner, who hired four men there recently to help with weeding, described the center.

He sometimes runs newspaper ads seeking workers, but said it doesn't work out as well. The labor center employees tend to be better, he said, and some of the migrant workers “are the hardest working individuals by far.”

Labor centers operate in a kind of a gray area when it comes to the immigrant status of workers.

The Healdsburg labor center doesn't look into a person's status or ask for a Social Security number, according to Nuñez. They will, however, refer workers to someone who can help them establish a taxpayer identification number.

According to federal regulations, employers are required to verify the eligibility of those they hire. But there are exceptions.

The Public Policy Institute of California said employers do not need to check on an employee's legal right to work in the United States if they are hiring independent contractors, casual workers performing domestic tasks on a “sporadic, irregular or intermittent basis,” or workers provided by a third party, such as a temporary employment agency.

In addition to offering workers English classes and computer skills, the hiring halls lend order to the hiring process, as opposed to the chaos of the street when men swamp a potential employer's vehicle.

Despite the existence of the center, day laborers still hang out a few blocks away in the Healdsburg Plaza.

There were occasional complaints years ago about their presence in the heart of town, but not lately.

“They are a regular presence for sure,” Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke said of the smattering of day laborers who still prefer the town square to look for work. “We haven't had any complaints or crime associated with that.”

“They seem to peacefully co-exist with everyone,” he added.

Healdsburg City Councilman Gary Plass said the motive for establishing the labor center was not to remove job seekers from the square.

“The intent was to give them a better place to seek work, with maybe a little more dignity than standing on the corner — a place that could give them a little more assistance,” he said.

He said they also are less likely to be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous boss.

“It's a much better environment for them. It's safer, not that the plaza is dangerous,” Plass said. “It's a little more organized. They sign up. They're sent out in the order they signed up.”

A few men who lingered in the plaza recently waiting for work said in Spanish that they sometimes can get more money hired there.

They also said they didn't like the way Nuñez runs the center, making workers clean the bathroom, or playing favorites with English-speaking workers.

But Nuñez said some of the men at the Plaza chafe at rules such as no drinking or smoking and there is also resistance to taking orders from her.

“It's machismo — it's hard (for them) to get direction from women,” she said.

News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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