Portland organizers rally to save hiring center

City Development Commission has sights set on eventually selling property

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PORTLAND — Organizers of a hiring site in Portland and several dozen of the day laborers who use it marched Friday on City Hall in hopes of guaranteeing the site's future.

The center has been paying $1 year in rent for the property, putting in a trailer and portable toilets created to protect workers who are vulnerable to exploitation.

But when its five-year lease expired last year, the City Development Commission wouldn't renew, saying it wants flexibility to sell the property in an up-and-coming area where public investment has been heavy and hopes for redevelopment are high.

So the center has been leasing the site month to month, and organizers from the immigrant rights group VOZ are worried about its future.

The center is modeled after about 60 other similar sites around the nation. It's meant to give job seekers who previously flagged cars on street corners a more dignified and safe way to find employment. Most of the job seekers are Hispanic immigrants.

Started after the Portland City Council approved $200,000 to pay for the project's first two years, the center now runs on grants from foundations.

A hub for employers who need to hire temporary roofers, yard workers or excavators, the center offers basic protections to workers. Employers must leave their contact information and a job description, and guarantee wages of $12 an hour. Because there are more job seekers than employers, workers are chosen for the jobs using a lottery system.

Organizers say the center is crucial, because day laborers — known in Spanish as jornaleros — are often abused, not paid for their work and, in the most extreme cases, beaten. The center has spearheaded a campaign to fight unscrupulous employers and has helped workers recover wages.

In the past, some business owners worried the presence of day laborers attracted the homeless, drugs and crime. Other people were upset that the city was, in their view, enabling immigrants who lacked legal status to work. But organizers say bringing workers from the streets to the site has helped clean up some problems.

Still, while the center is popular, a few men continue flagging down vehicles from the curbsides to solicit work.

The Portland Development Commission says it will give VOZ a six-month notice if the center needs to vacate the property.

City officials say they want to have "flexibility" for selling the 6,000 square feet (0.14 acres) property, which sits near a bridge in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

Shawn Uhlman, a development commission spokesman, said that given the market conditions in the area, the city may pursue a market-rate transaction if a buyer is interested in the site. There are currently no offers, Uhlman said, and the city doesn't yet have an appraisal of the property.

Center organizers say they hope to find a solution with the city. They would be interested in finding a way to buy the property in order to build a permanent structure in place of the trailer, VOZ director Romeo Sosa said.

Uhlman said the city is willing to sell to VOZ, as long as it's a fair-market transaction.