It was almost 11 a.m. on Wednesday and Tony Lacayo, seated in a van on Hearst Avenue, hadn’t received a single call from someone needing workers.
“It is slow,” said Lacayo, program assistant for a new, city-funded program that matches local residents and contractors with the roughly 150, mostly Hispanic day laborers who line up on Hearst Avenue every day seeking work.
Lacayo takes down the names and skills of the men who line the street looking for work every day. He then waits for calls from local residents and businesses looking for help. Lacayo said that the men generally find a day job by around 10 a.m., or not at all.
“Last year, I’d just get off from one job, wait a little bit, and get another one,” said Angel Martinez, a laborer from Mexico. “Now, the economy is real bad.”
A sluggish economy has placed limits on what the program, operated by the nonprofit, Berkeley-based Multicultural Institute, has been able to accomplish.
“You’re going to have more people looking for work and you’re going to have less people looking for workers,” said Delfina Geiken, the city’s employment programs administrator.
But the institute, which has been on Hearst Street since December, is forging ahead. Lacayo and his colleagues are setting up day jobs when they can, providing laborers with English and high school equivalency courses and serving as mediators between the workers and local business owners and residents who, in many cases, are less than thrilled with their presence.
The program marks the latest attempt to deal with a phenomenon that dates back to the mid-1980s, when workers began congregating around Truitt & White Lumber Co., on Hearst Avenue and 2nd Street, seeking short-term work from contractors driving in and out of the lumberyard.
The city has attempted to centralize the workers around Truitt & White and keep them away from residential areas, an effort which has faltered. One morning this week, laborers were standing on the sidewalk as far away as 7th Street, trying to catch potential employers before they made their way down toward the lumberyard. Geiken said there isn’t much the city can do to.
“They’re not doing anything intrinsically wrong,” she said. “It’s a First Amendment issue.”
Geiken said the city is often caught between respecting the rights of workers, most of them law abiding and peaceful, and listening to the concerns of residents and business people.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” she said. “You’re trying to address the concerns of a lot of different stakeholders with different interests. But I think it’s a compassionate approach and I think it’s practical.”
“The whole idea is to have people congregate in a central way and at the same time find out what’s happening with them personally and help out,” said City Councilmember Linda Maio.
Father Rigoberto Calocarivas, executive director of the Multicultural Institute, said cultural sensitivity is necessary if the program is to succeed.
“It’s of incredible value,” he said, noting that the Institute has brought an intimate knowledge of Latin American culture to the table.
Berkeley’s streetside approach marks a departure from that of neighboring cities like Oakland and Concord, which have established day labor halls, attempting to draw workers indoors.
Geiken said labor halls are expensive and meet with marginal success attracting workers who want to be out and about, making first contact with employers.
But for the workers, most of them immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the nuances of day laborer programs are less important than getting jobs. And these days, they say, they’re lucky if they get picked up two or three times per week.
Local business owners and residents raised concerns about loitering workers from the start, but the complaints intensified in the early-1990s with the development of the upscale 4th Street shopping area, which intersects with Hearst Avenue.
Business owners said the workers were driving away customers and some locals complained about public urination, drug deals and heckling. But day laborer advocates said the vast majority of the workers were law-abiding and argued that panhandlers and drug dealers, with no interest in working, were to blame for most of the problems.
City officials said they have made progress in recent months. An increased police presence, according to city officials, has helped to drive out the drug dealers and two city-owned portable toilets have eased the public urination problem.