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Day Labor Demand Rises in Herndon

Martin Rios, left, a project manager at the Herndon Official Workers Center, tells a group waiting for work about English classes being taught by a volunteer. The center, which has gotten national attention, opened in December after being approved by the Herndon Town Council in August.
Martin Rios, left, a project manager at the Herndon Official Workers Center, tells a group waiting for work about English classes being taught by a volunteer. The center, which has gotten national attention, opened in December after being approved by the Herndon Town Council in August. (Phot0s By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 4, 2006

The demand for day laborers at the Herndon Official Workers Center increased by about 15 percent from March to April, mostly because of seasonal factors, according to Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony, which operates the center.

In March and April, about 115 day laborers gathered at the center each day to find work. On an average day in March, about 31 were hired. That number increased to about 48 last month, Threlkeld said. Each day the laborers' names are entered into a lottery used to select the workers sent on a job when an employer comes to the site.

"Hiring has really stepped up, and warm weather has quite a bit to do with it," Threlkeld said. "Of course, you have to also recognize that we have been open a little bit longer and word of mouth has gotten around about us. We depend quite a bit on word of mouth for recommendations."

Threlkeld said that when the center opened in December, about 100 day laborers showed up before dawn each day looking for work. With the weather still cold and demand for yard work still low, about 15 workers from that pool were hired, most of them for "moving and lifting" work, Threlkeld said.

The Herndon Town Council approved the center in August after hearings that generated national attention. Reston Interfaith Inc., a nonprofit group, has received slightly more than $200,000 from Fairfax County to run the project. The operating permit will be up for renewal in 2007.

"I think we are having great success," Threlkeld said. "We get better and better every day on the job. There are always little things that we tweak, but worker participation is really high. We have volunteers from the workers community managing the lottery system, and they are out wearing reflective vests making sure that traffic gets in and out of the site correctly."

Threlkeld said that last summer, when day laborers were gathering each day at an unofficial site in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, the highest hiring rate was about 50 percent.

"The first week in April we were at 42 percent, and I would like to see us hit the 50 percent level and go even further if possible in the next couple of months," he said. "But there is always going to be more workers than demand. That is the nature of the business."

Last week the center set a new high for hiring percentage when 75 day laborers signed up for work -- lower than normal -- and 54 were hired. There was a reason for the low turnout, Threlkeld said. "There were all kinds of rumors about raids that day by the immigration service, and that always gives the [worker] population the jitters."

He said the two biggest hiring days of April were the first two Saturdays. On April 1, 111 workers were hired and, a week later, 93 got jobs. No numbers were available for the other Saturdays of the month.

"I would say that, anecdotally, about 80 percent of our employers were homeowners" in April, Threlkeld said. "The type of work has shifted, as you can imagine, to landscaping and yard work and that kind of thing. But moving and lifting is still in pretty good demand, because someone is always moving."


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