ASK THE TIMES: Are Day Laborers on Broad Street Legal?

Men congregate on Broad Street on a recent Saturday morning, hoping to work for customers who are renting trucks at U-Haul.

Men congregate on Broad Street on a recent Saturday morning, hoping to work for customers who are renting trucks at U-Haul. . .

A reader asks: “Who are those men who congregate on the sidewalk near the U-Haul outlet on Broad Street? Is it legal for them to assemble like that?”

The following is the result of our investigation.

‘I’m not happy about this!’

Mirjana Varga understands how hard an immigrant to the United States needs to work to succeed. She escaped the economic chaos and rising violence in the Balkans as the former Yugoslavia broke apart in the early ‘90s and now owns the Baguette Republic, a bakery with a loyal following on West Broad Street. As she looks out her window at a group of men –- immigrants too, but with ancestry that flows down through Central and South America –- she shakes her head.

“My customers, they basically don’t want to see them there. They don’t feel comfortable,” Varga said. The men, ranging from their early 20s to mid-50s, have come from throughout the area hoping to be hired by any of the people who arrive in a steady stream to rent trucks and trailers from the U-Haul business next door. On a recent Saturday morning, there were 15 men spread out across the sidewalk on both sides of Broad Street, some of them sitting in the parking lot at Falls Plaza.

Two of the men entered Varga’s establishment and purchased cold drinks; they had been standing in the direct sun for an hour or more as the temperature climbed to 91 degrees. Edwin, in his early 20s, and Edgar, in his mid 30s, were courteous to Varga and, as they stepped outside, agreed to be interviewed in Spanish.

Edwin, dressed comfortably for physical work with a nod to hip hop’s sartorial standards, acknowledged the reality they all faced: “Some days this is very good, some days there is no work at all. When we are hired, it’s 10, 12 15 dollars an hour; you never know.”

Edgar, who works Monday to Friday providing landscaping services in Fairfax, emphasized that helping people move or loading and unloading trucks is only to supplement his regular income. “I’m only here on the weekend –- something more to add to what I earn during the week.” Edgar’s appearance was tidy and practical: he could have just returned from a PTA meeting at the high school down the street.

‘We spread ourselves out to keep the sidewalks clear.’

The men agreed that generally no more than 20-25 laborers assembled at any one time. Edwin pointed to the men across the street at Falls Plaza. “We spread ourselves out, see? This is to keep the sidewalks clear. And sometimes people are hiring who aren’t here to rent a truck; they pull into that parking lot there,” he said, pointing at the Staples store.

As the interview ended, as if on cue, a blue sedan pulled into the Falls Plaza parking lot and stopped 50 feet from three men seated on the ground. They leapt to their feet and approached the vehicle. As the driver emerged, confused by the men hurrying toward him, he quickly gestured “no, no” to wave them off and indicated he was only there running some errands. The men returned to their stations, watching the traffic on Broad Street.

Looking out the window from the Baguette Republic, there is an easily discernible rhythm to the activity taking place some 40 feet away. Vehicles turn into the parking lot at 1107 West Broad St., and the hopeful workers attempt to catch the drivers’ eyes. They hold up one, two, or three fingers – asking how many men might be needed for the job –- and call out, “Do you need help moving? Help with your truck today?” Vehicles westbound on Broad Street must make a left turn into the rental outlet and the workers on the sidewalk below the Staples parking lot take advantage of the time the vehicle is stopped, waiting for a break in oncoming traffic. They wave and call out, their gestures exaggerated and their voices louder to compensate for the traffic and the increased distance between themselves and their potential employers.

“I’m not happy about this,” Varga said from behind the counter of her bakery. She relayed a recent story about one of the men who wanted to purchase a drink from her but didn’t have money to cover the tax. “He threw things across the store; it was a scene,” she said. “I’m not happy, but go next door — they’re really not happy.”

Next door at the U-Haul — the focal point for all this activity — the supervisor is Daniel Layton, a large, affable man who becomes very animated and whose speech quickens when talking about exactly how unhappy he really is. “You figure somebody would do something about this,” Layton exclaims.

“People – customers – are often mistaken that these are my employees. I used to have a sign on the door that said, ‘We are Not Responsible for Day Laborers,’” Layton said. He estimates five percent of his customers hire from among the available men, and when things go wrong, he hears about it.

“Two women had all of their jewelry stolen,” Layton said. He quickly tallies up a list of episodes involving stolen rental trucks and property disappearing while being moved. “I hear about it because they think they can come to U-Haul for compensation. These people have nothing to do with me.” Layton does acknowledge that based on his large volume of customers, the percentage who experience the problems he described is relatively small, but nevertheless a major headache for him.

Layton, who has been associated with the Falls Church rental outlet for the past two years, says the men congregate outside his business every day. Over the years, as his level of frustration mounted, he contacted the City of Falls Church police department to see if he had any legal recourse. “They say don’t call us anymore,” Layton said. “They say there’s nothing they can do.”

In response to a query from the Falls Church Times, the City Manager’s office made the following statement:

The safety and security of residents, visitors and businesses is paramount to the City of Falls Church. The City is aware that on most days there are a few people standing along the sidewalk in front of the U-Haul store and across the street in the Staples store parking lot in the 1100 block of West Broad Street, apparently seeking day work. Falls Church Police patrol the area frequently and are on the lookout for any illegal activity. Over the last 12 months (since July 2008), police have received two complaint calls about people standing near the street in front of the Staples parking lot and six complaint calls regarding people standing in front of the U-Haul business.

Under federal Constitutional law, the City cannot enact or enforce no-loitering laws that prohibit standing on a public sidewalk or right of way. If anyone is breaking existing laws relating to obstructing passages or public intoxication, for example, they could face charges. Private landowners can post signs to prevent loitering on their private property.

“You won’t believe what one of the officers told me,” Layton said, throwing his arms up in frustration. “The City of Falls Church welcomes day laborers. Do you believe that?”

“I’ll talk about this to anyone who’ll listen. Why should my customers have to ask, ‘What are those people doing out front?’ Why is it OK for them to chase a woman up the street and into the CVS because she didn’t want to hire any of them?” Layton asked.

As his frustration hung in the air and the clock struck 3 p.m., the five men remaining on the sidewalk climbed into a minivan and followed an orange and white truck down West Broad Street.

Will Cunningham, a 2009 George Mason High School graduate, assisted with the Spanish language interviews required for this article.

(Photo by Scott Taylor)

Previous ASK THE TIMES questions:
[July 9] Where’s the (Taxpayers’) $2 Million?
[June 11] Mystery of Whittier Park Townhouse Fire
[May 28] Can My 50-Year-Old House Go GREEN?
[May 25] What’s Being Done About All the Graffiti?
[May 18] Pay Property Tax with a Credit Card?
[May 17] Why Are Purple Bows Tied to Trees?
[May 14] Why Not Use the Old Red Light Cameras?
[May 11] Rolling Carts for Heavy Recycling Loads?
[May 7] Status of Hilton Garden Inn?
[May 6] Questions about Northgate

July 26, 2009 


6 Responses to “ASK THE TIMES: Are Day Laborers on Broad Street Legal?”

  1. TFC on July 26th, 2009 6:16 pm

    Though not in Falls Church, the Home Depot parking lot has the same problem… only ten times worse. One day I stopped counting at 50 people. It’s like running a gauntlet to get from the open parking area into the store. Hopeful workers stay off the actual pad of the Home Depot but congregate on the fringes. I have skipped my stop there when I see too many people hanging around.

  2. Jim Breiling on July 26th, 2009 7:25 pm

    A very nice piece of reporting. Kudos for engaging the immigrant day laborers in their native landuage. The Falls Church Times is well on the way for setting the standard for city newspapers, print and on-line.

    I hear the concerns of merchants and, indirectly, of some of their customers. Those concerns seem worthy of action.

    On the other hand, the men are to be commended for their initiative in seeking work and on spreading themselves out. It’s good to have help readily available, if needed, when moving. I used day laborer help with one move.

    Is there a nearby site where the men could assemble without disturbing merchants and their customers and to which persons seeking day laborers could be directed? I have a recollection of reading about such a site where the local goveernment took steps to protect both those hiring day laborers and the laborers. As I recall, the most frequent problem was that some employers failed to pay or grossly underpaid the immigrants, who had had no redress. The preventive action was to record the identities of both parties and document the agreement for the work (what was to be done and the compensation) and provide for resolving problems.

  3. LFS on July 27th, 2009 4:13 am

    Very good reporting.

  4. Andy Rankin on July 27th, 2009 11:52 pm

    This is a touchy subject but if you look at the specific problem people are complaining about – being harassed in one way or another by these folks – shouldn’t the first step be to report each one of those cases? The article mentions a few cases where I hope the police were called. If a woman was really chased up the street – call the police. If the guy threw things across the bakery – call the police. If people come into U-Haul complaining that their stuff was stolen by these people – call the police.

    My guess is that most of these folks try hard to stay out of the way and not cause problems. If the bad apples are weeded out I’m guessing that for the most part the problem would fade away.

    I’ve rented from U-Haul a couple of times and have been to area Home Depots more times than I’d like to remember and I’ve never been approached by a day laborer.

  5. Annie Carol on August 1st, 2009 4:10 pm

    I wonder, would the FCCPD be so forgiving if these were teenagers loitering at these business? Terrible, today sitting on the curbs, chairs and sidewalk of Baquette Republic. Oh, and have we checked to how many are legal ?

  6. Charlie Anderson on August 1st, 2009 7:56 pm

    I had thought nothing of this problem until I read the UHaul operators comments. I would suggest that the people will go away if people stop hiring them. For the UHaul store, if I were the manager/staffer, I would advise every customer to not hire the laborers, or to do so at their own risk.

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