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Online worker center proposed

By Susan Dickson
Staff Writer

For years, local advocates for day laborers have envisioned a center where workers could gather, in a safe and supportive setting, to find employment. Though the creation of a brick-and-mortar center is still likely a ways off, the Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill and Carrboro (HRC) is working to form a different sort of center – electronically.

Judith Blau, director of the HRC, said the idea for an electronic day-laborer center emerged in one of the HRC’s recent meetings. HRC staff and volunteers had hoped that its new location – at 107 Barnes St. – would be able to serve as the site for the long-awaited day-laborer center, but learned that they would have to apply for a rezoning for that to happen, and rezoning processes can be time consuming and costly.

The HRC moved to Barnes Street earlier this year after the Abbey Court Condominiums homeowners’ association forced the center to leave the complex on grounds that commercial properties weren’t permitted under homeowner association covenants. The HRC provides a number of services, including an afterschool program in partnership with Scroggs Elementary School, computer classes and a youth soccer program.

Issues surrounding day laborers have always been at the forefront of the HRC’s concerns, as many day laborers and their family members use HRC services.

Day laborers, many of them Latino, gather at the corner of Jones Ferry and Davie roads to wait to be picked up for construction work, and community members have been trying to find a location for an official center where workers could be protected from wage theft and benefit from additional services that such a center could provide.

An electronic day-laborer center could help provide those services as well, Blau said.

“We’ve talked with the workers, and they really like the idea,” she said. “The hurdle will be the employers.”

Rafael Gallegos, assistant director of the HRC, said he hopes the electronic center – basically, a website – would serve not only construction workers but people looking for other types of work, like cooking, cleaning or child care.

“Almost 50 percent of the day laborers are hired by average people – not contractors,” he said, adding that the website could serve as a place for those people in the community who need help with odd jobs to post those jobs and find workers.

Additionally, Blau, a professor of sociology at UNC, said she plans to enlist the help of student volunteers to write letters to employers to start the discussion on the electronic worker center.

“We’re not asking any questions about taxes,” she said. “We just want to know whether they have jobs available.”

Gallegos said the HRC has begun collecting information from workers regarding their strongest skills and occupations. On the website, workers would be listed only by what they consider their two best occupations, “so that if you’re hired, we know you’re going to do a good job,” Gallegos said.

“It will certainly benefit the day laborers,” Blau said. “If it’s a big success and employers and day laborers like it, then we will see no need for a brick-and mortar worker center. If there are bumps along the way, then we’ll have to apply for a rezoning.”

One of the biggest challenges faced by day laborers is the risk of wage theft, and Gallegos hopes that the electronic worker center will attract the type of employers who are less likely to take advantage of workers. He estimates that three-quarters of the regular day laborers who gather at the corner of Jones Ferry and Davie roads have experienced non-payment for work.

However, he added: “I think we cannot think that this process would by itself fix wage theft. I think we have to look at it from different angles and we have to have legal backing.”

The HRC distributes cards to day laborers to fill out about employers when they accept work, so that those employers could be identified in the event of wage theft. In addition, Gallegos said the HRC hopes to hold a series of workshops or small-group discussions to talk about issues surrounding wage theft and how workers can try to protect themselves against it.

Once the discussion gets going, Gallegos hopes workers will be proactive and “maybe we can be more successful as we go along.”

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