When Emilia Parada needs a job, the 38-year-old immigrant from Peru doesn't look through newspaper ads or stand in employment lines. She consults Aida from Bolivia, Matilde from Peru, Consuelo from Nicaragua -- friends who ride her busline, go to her church and speak the two languages she knows best, Spanish and survival.
"It is the only way," said Parada, who was a factory worker in Lima. "I help them find work. They help me find work." The method seems effective. Since arriving in Washington in 1982, she has swept floors, laundered clothes and cared for children in half a dozen Montgomery County homes.
Parada is part of a new labor force in Washington, an immigrant working class of Hispanics, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Africans, West Indians and others that has come into being in the past decade, people whose best reference is the good work of those who have come before them.
They come because they hear there is work. They often take jobs that few Americans want, at wages that few will accept. With minimal language skills, some accept work well below the status they enjoyed in their homeland.
Like earlier generations of immigrants, they hope their children will know a better life.
With pay so low, interviews suggest that a fair number holds two jobs and occasionally three. Chhouk Teap, who fled Cambodia in 1979, and his wife Sovann Soun each work two full-time janitorial jobs in Virginia, for example. From 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., they clean at the Madeira School; from 5 to 11 p.m., they sweep and empty wastebaskets at Northern Virginia Community College.
It's a backbreaking grind, but nothing compared with the lives they left behind. "No matter how hard it is," Chhouk Teap said, "it's not hard for me. I worked in a Communist labor camp from morning until it was so dark you couldn't see the ground any more."
The signs of change are obvious. Pick a neighborhood anywhere in or around Washington and see who is caring for the children and cleaning the houses. Dine in any restaurant and look at who is busing tables or parking cars. Stop by the hotels. Ride the taxis. Visit construction sites. See who enters the office buildings after everyone else has left.
The exact size of this new labor pool has not been measured, but it is large. The Washington Building Trades Council estimates that from 20 to 25 percent of the area's 127,000 construction workers are foreign-born, with the majority coming from El Salvador. The Service Employees International Union estimates that of the 20,000 janitorial workers in the metropolitan region, at least 30 percent are immigrants. The Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union also sees the foreign-born as a significant portion of the work force: nearly 40 percent of the 16,800 hotel workers in the city, and 65 to 70 percent of the city's 27,200 restaurant workers are from other countries.
They arrived just when the economy needed them, as employers were beginning to run out of help. Since 1980, the number of jobs here has grown to more than 10 percent and roughly 172,700 new jobs have been created, according to a recent study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Unemployment has dropped dramatically in the suburbs and steadily in the urban core of Washington.
Service jobs are being passed up by many who know that $4.50 an hour will barely cover transportation and housing expenses. Help wanted signs abound in the suburbs. In more far-flung business centers, such as the Dulles International Airport area, vacancies have become a chronic problem.
Studies, such as one recently completed by the Andromeda Hispano Mental Health Center, indicate that many immigrants arriving here know of the need for workers. Supply has found demand.
While empirical research profiling this new labor force is scarce, interviews with employers and workers tell part of the story.
Two years ago, Linda Kilgore opened an office cleaning service in Reston. First, she hired teen-agers to clean, offering $4.25 to $4.75 an hour. They began quitting. Then, at the urging of a Hispanic businessman, she began hiring Hispanic men and women. Today, 40 of Kilgore's 44 employes are from South and Central America. Her personnel director, Mireya Ramirez, came from Nicaragua in 1979, learned the language and now is U.S. citizen. Turnover, Kilgore says, has dropped sharply.
"Before, people quit for the same reasons you or I would quit: The work is boring, demeaning, and all those things you don't want in a job," Kilgore said. "But most of these people are trying to improve themselves. I know many of them are thinking, 'I don't want to be a janitor for the rest of my life. But this is a start.' "
According to June Parrott, former chairman of the sociology and anthropology department at the University of the District of Columbia, "They're doing the kind of labor many people in the United States won't do . . . .
"We know about good jobs from television," said Parrott, contrasting the expectations of the new workers with the old. "You sit at a desk. You have a telephone, a secretary. We have no notion of: If you don't work, you don't eat."
Although a Washington Post poll indicates some concern among lower income people about job competition from the new arrivals, there is little evidence that the immigrants are preventing other workers from obtaining jobs here. The same is true elsewhere in the country where the job market is robust, according to studies done in other areas with large numbers of recent immigrants.
In the book "The Fourth Wave: California's Newest Immigrants," published by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research group, a study of labor force statistics for the Los Angeles area from 1970 to 1982 does not "provide evidence of sharp job competition" between immigrants and lower income and unemployed residents.
Unquestionably, there is some competition, especially in food and hotel service work, concluded the authors, Thomas Muller and Thomas J. Espenshade. Yet "differences in education and occupation between Mexican immigrants and blacks in Los Angeles suggest that these workers are labor market complements rather than substitutes," the book said.
In Washington, which has an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, black unemployment has experienced an encouraging decline even as the number of immigrants increased. In 1983, 15.8 percent of all blacks in the District who wanted full-time work could not find it, according to labor force studies. In 1986, the rate had dropped to 10.4.
"If we continue the pattern of work that we have in the past -- a service economy -- we are going to continue to need people who will provide us with everything from hamburgers to hairdressing," said Wade Morrison, director of the Arlington Employment Training Center. "You and I don't want to do that kind of work. So who's going to do that kind of work . . . . Sometimes, I see people who resent the foreign-born. We'd be in straits without them."
The purpose of all this labor, many say, is to buy a home or start a business, and preferably both. Owning a home is of particular importance to the Vietnamese immigrants, according to members of that community. At Prosperity Realty Corp. in Falls Church, owner Ly Thanh Tam has hired 18 full- and part-time Vietnamese real estate agents, catering to mostly an Asian clientele.
His clients "don't go on vacations, they don't buy expensive things. Their primary objective is to buy a house," Ly said. "If they don't have a home they feel they don't have stability in life." Everyone in a household, parents and working children, will often pool their incomes to buy a house. Some move as far as Manassas in search of lower priced homes. Others are prosperous enough to move from starter homes to houses in the $300,000 price range, he said.
Chhouk Teap and his family made that breakthrough, and recently purchased a split-level house in Springfield for themselves and their four children. Fellow refugees often consult Chhouk Teap for advice. "I tell them to work," he says. "I tell them how good it's going to be."
There is an ethnic network for advice, for help and for tips on jobs. One member of a family finds a job washing dishes, and soon his brother may be working in the same restaurant. From brother to sister to second-cousins to friends, a job network forms and pulls in its own.
Golden Hiep, who came to Washington from Cambodia in 1976, sold hot dogs for six years from a truck behind the Capitol. Now he has his own business, Phnom Penh Jewelry in Arlington. The hot dog truck has been passed on to several of his relatives.
In the Dupont Circle area, brothers Hadi and Jihad Achour combined the family's resources to buy a Subway sandwich franchise. Now they employ five relatives.
Jose Amaya came to Washington from El Salvador and began working as a dishwasher at the New Orleans Cafe in Adams-Morgan about four years ago. Then he suggested his brother Celestino for a cook's position. Younger brother Paco soon followed, then Santana and Patriccio. Currently, five of the brothers, ages 16 to 32, work behind the stove, bus tables and fry beignets.
Such methods are more common among the immigrants than the use of more formal job services, according to an August 1985 study of Southeast Asian immigrants by the Refugee Policy Group.
For many of the newcomers, work here contrasts sharply with work back home. A factory worker from Peru cleans the home of a professional couple in Potomac; a young man from rural El Salvador suddenly finds himself on K Street, parking BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes; a highly trained Filipino public health nurse cooks in a private residence.
Melania Mejia, 34, was a college-educated history teacher in Nicaragua. In the year that she and her 17-year-old daughter have been in Washington, both have been domestic workers. Mejia cleans houses for $100 a week; her daughter, who never worked in Nicaragua, cleans offices for the minimum wage.
The adjustment, says Mejia, dropping her eyes, has been very difficult ". . . . It is not the same as working at a desk. I have to struggle because I want to make it here . . . . But sometimes I feel betrayed. I worked so hard for my education and now, here, I have a language barrier."
Some educated, English-speaking immigrants who are disappointed in their job searches speak of prejudices that they believe have held them back: cultural differences, accents, racism, they say, have closed off upper levels of the job market.
Edries Jemal, an Ethiopian, earned a bachelor's degree from a local university in 1977 and a master's from another in 1985. Currently, he is driving a cab. He is looking for a job in business management and has applied for dozens of jobs here and elsewhere. He doesn't know why he hasn't yet been successful, but he believes racism has played a role.
Until he finds the right job, Jemal says, he will drive a cab, an occupation that allows him to set his hours and make room for job interviews and other courses. "It seems to get a professional job, you have to know someone. In our case, that possibility is nil . . . . Sometimes I feel bad about it. But again, life is a process. You can't give up."
Other members of the new work force -- notably the illegal immigrants -- are particularly vulnerable to abuse, for they are afraid to complain about pay or working conditions.
Milton Gavidia, from El Salvador, was smuggled across the Mexican border two years ago. He struggled to come to Washington, where brothers and other relatives are located, and has survived on day labor in the District and Montgomery County, earning little more than $150 a week.
Gavidia, who speaks few words in English, explains there is little protection for a worker who suffers abuse. On certain jobs, the foreman demands that he work 14 hours days. At other jobs, he has not been paid. If Gavidia tries to protest, he is quickly silenced by a threat. The foreman might not hire him the next day or report him to authorities. Gavidia, frightened of deportation, fearful for his survival, says he cannot afford to fight back.
"The way the situation is in my country, I cannot go back. I get letters from my mother and my father, 'Please, things are getting worse. Find anyway you can to stay. You cannot come back.' " He stops for a moment, then shakes his head. "It's very strange but many Salvadorans are receiving the same letter. We must be the only Latin Americans whose parents don't want them."
Benjamin Davis, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union, says he has heard the same story many times. Representatives of the Washington Building Trades Council are joining forces with the SEIU to fight such exploitation.
"If you ask employers," said Davis, "most will say off-the-record that they'd rather have Salvadorans than blacks because, they say, blacks are lazy and Salvadorans are better workers. What those employers are really saying is an American black knows he has rights and is unwilling to work for an indecent wage."
Legal immigrants are also reluctant to complain about abuse, according to employment counselors and others, but not because they don't encounter it. "They can tell" when there is discrimination, said Sowatha Kong, who works with Arlington's Cambodian community. "It bothers them." Although refugees will often confide in counselors such as Kong, they are reluctant to complain publicly, because of their poor English, or fear. "Ninety percent of them were living under communist regimes. They have been taught not to say what they see," she said.
For support and for solace, many turn inward to their own community, having as little contact as possible with the rest of society, she said. And compared with what some endured in their homelands, she said, "Everything is always better here, no matter what it is."NEXT: The Entrepreneurs: Fortunes Intertwined Staff writer Evelyn Hsu contributed to this report.