Dozens of laborers who congregate every morning at a 7-Eleven parking lot in Washington Hill to find work will soon have a more dignified spot to wait and a better chance of negotiating a fair wage, Baltimore officials said yesterday.
Long sought as a way to improve conditions for laborers - many of whom are immigrants - the city's Board of Estimates yesterday approved spending $75,000 for an indoor center where workers can legally connect with employers and receive training.
Officials hope the center, at 1311 E. Lombard St., will institutionalize an underground labor market that advocates say exploits those desperate for work. A throng of laborers usually gathers at the convenience store at Lombard and Broadway and sometimes spills out onto sidewalks and median strips.
"Everyone understands there are people who are unhappy with workers looking for work at a 7-Eleven parking lot," said Kim Propeack with CASA of Maryland, which operates three similar facilities in the state. "People have coalesced around the working center as the right solution."
Propeack said employers appreciate the centers because they offer potential employees training and English classes and, like an employment agency, they screen workers and direct them toward jobs they are qualified to perform. Laborers, meanwhile, are guaranteed a better wage and access to an on-site attorney if they are not paid.
The city money, which will be spent during the next six months, will cover the cost of some of the center's staff, including a site coordinator. The temporary center will include two trailers large enough to accommodate the laborers while they wait for work, Propeack said.
As part of the agreement, the city will lease the vacant lot to CASA of Maryland for two years and allow on-street parking from 6 a.m. to noon for employers seeking to hire from the center. Officials with the Mayor's Office of Hispanic Affairs have been working on the arrangement for months.
Propeack said she hopes the center will be open in mid-April.
The problems facing day laborers - including employers who refuse to pay, offer less than minimum wage or discriminate against Hispanic workers - were brought to the city's attention last February, when several dozen attended a City Council committee hearing to ask for the center.
Some have criticized the centers for helping to legitimize illegal immigrants by bringing them into the work force, but Mayor Martin O'Malley, who voted in favor of the proposal, said enforcing immigration law is the federal government's job.
"We cannot add to the problem by creating a subculture of human beings in our country," O'Malley said after the measure was approved. "I would hope that people who are here illegally will be able to avail themselves of the legal services they need so that they can address their status."
Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Wheaton have similar centers.
The board's decision came days after the release of a nationwide study of day laborers that found that on a typical day 117,600 people gather at more than 500 sites - 80 percent of which are informal - to look for work.
The National Day Laborer Study found three-fourths of laborers are illegal immigrants and that more than half had been cheated out of wages in the past two months.
"I'd like to see those abuses stopped," said Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of the Citizens for Washington Hill, where the new worker center will be located.
Smith said the number of laborers gathering at the 7-Eleven parking lot has increased in recent years. Although some residents have complained about men loitering, she said most are concerned for the workers' safety and support keeping them in the area. "We're happy with them here," she said.