Herndon Day Labor Center Declares Its First Year a Success

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

It's annual-report time for many businesses and organizations, including Herndon's controversial day labor center, which recently issued a four-page assessment pronouncing its inaugural year a success.

According to the report, nearly 6,000 employers hired immigrant laborers for more than 10,000 jobs during the first year of the Herndon Official Workers' Center, a publicly funded site launched in December 2005. An average of more than 100 workers signed in each day at the outdoor center in 2006, and hiring rates fluctuated between 13 percent and 43 percent, the report said, which is comparable to the rates at previous informal sites in town streets and parking lots. The day laborers studied English while waiting for work and volunteered in their off-hours, helping at a town festival and cleaning a school soccer field, it said.

"We've had a very successful year," said Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony, the nonprofit organization that runs the site. "We came out and said we were going to do something, and we did it. We made great strides in involving the workers in the process, and they showed they wanted to work by coming to the site."

The first annual report may be the last one for the center, at least as it currently exists. The Herndon Town Council voted last month to solicit proposals from employment firms that want to run the hiring site and will require workers to present documentation proving they are in the United States legally and eligible to work. Project Hope and Harmony does not ask workers for immigration documents.

It is the one of several moves made by the Town Council to discourage illegal immigrants from settling in Herndon, where a bitter debate over the use of taxpayer dollars for a day labor center propelled the small town into the midst of national turmoil over illegal immigration. In May, voters ousted Mayor Michael O'Reilly and two Town Council members who supported using taxpayer dollars to create the center. They were replaced by critics of the site.

The Town Council said it hopes to award a contract to a new operator in March. But no proposals to run the center had been submitted by Feb. 9, the deadline to submit bids, town spokeswoman Anne Curtis said. She said town staff would query companies that had expressed interest "to get a sense of what the issues were," then present their findings to the Town Council at an upcoming work session.

It is unknown how many of the Herndon day laborers, most of whom are immigrants from Latin America, are in the country illegally. In a 2003 Fairfax County survey, 85 percent of 201 day laborers polled said they lacked the documents they needed to find permanent jobs.

The annual report describes the center's operations and recounts the "many improvements" it has brought to the day laborers. The Herndon workers, it says, have agreed upon minimum wages to keep competition fair, and incidents of non-payment, which local and national surveys show is common at informal sites, have been "statistically negligible."

The center also restored order to the 7-Eleven parking lot where workers previously gathered, the report says.

Town Council member William B. Tirrell Sr. said the center has not cleared day laborers from the rest of the town, noting that citations for violation of the town's anti-solicitation ordinance, which makes it unlawful to seek employment while standing on city streets, have shot up in recent months.

"They are in fact off the [7-Eleven] corner, but . . . if you go and look around up in that area, you'll see little clumps of people, even during the hours that the day labor site is open," said Tirrell, who wants public funds to be used to hire only authorized workers.

Threlkeld said some workers might be confused about the center's status and believe it is already closed or in new hands. He added that sign-in rates at the hiring site rose in December and January, indicating those seeking work on the streets had not left the center to do so.

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