Envisioning a day labor center

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On any given day, at the corner of Bodega Avenue and Howard Street on Petaluma's west side, a few dozen men can be found waiting for someone to offer them odd jobs such as yard work, painting or household clean-up.

They are day laborers, and theirs is a hard life. Most of them have come here from poverty-stricken parts of Mexico or Central America, often leaving families back home to whom they send money. They are occasionally harassed by passers-by, are often not hired to work, and are sometimes unpaid or underpaid for the work they do.

It's all part of a long-established underground economy conducted on a cash-only basis that is mirrored in hundreds of cities throughout California.

In order to bring a sense of order and safety to the day laborer scene, some communities have chosen to create hiring halls. One of the most successful in the area is the Graton Day Labor Center, where potential employers can stop by when they are looking for temporary workers.

It is this successful model that a group of Petaluma residents hopes to establish locally, providing workers a safe place to gather, learn skills and connect with employers who are looking for someone to do short-term manual labor.

The group, called the Petaluma Day Labor Initiative, has rekindled an effort first attempted here about seven years ago.

The biggest challenge will be finding a location and getting community support. Along with the likelihood that neighbors of a proposed hiring hall will object to having such a facility in their neighborhood, some Petaluma residents may oppose it on the grounds that many of the men seeking work have entered the country illegally.

Yet, from a practical standpoint, it's important to recognize that these Latino immigrants are providing services for which there is a strong demand — work that most American-born residents do not wish to perform. Just like the thousands of migrant farm workers who pick the state's fruit and vegetable crops in the Central Valley, many of these day laborers are documented, and all of them are just trying to earn money by doing an honest day's work. Without them, the state's economy would crumble.

While the Republican-led House of Representatives has refused to take action on the matter of immigration reform, the need for manual laborers in California remains great. In Sonoma County, the wine grapes would not be picked without immigrant labor.

Locally, a hiring hall in Petaluma would bring order to a somewhat chaotic process and help prevent the workers from being exploited. In Graton, the pay is set at a minimum of $12 an hour. Laborers are given priority for hiring based on how long it has been since they last worked. Those who don't work that day study English or are taught specific trades by volunteers.

The Petaluma proposal is in its fledgling stages and many significant hurdles remain to be overcome, such as where a hiring hall would be located in the city, what the zoning issues would be and how such an operation would be financed.

Members of the Petaluma Day Labor Initiative are currently interviewing community members for their input, so that whatever plan is eventually developed has plenty of local input.

While the city is in no position to offer funding for such a facility, we hope civic leaders and all others will keep an open mind and do whatever possible to facilitate the establishment of a hiring hall.

A day labor center would be a positive addition to Petaluma, a city that has repeatedly demonstrated that it cares about the well-being of all of its residents.

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