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Montgomery County Opens Controversial Day Labor Center

To most Americans, the governments in their towns and regional areas called counties are the governments they interact with the most. And alongside these local governments are groups of citizens who work on their own to make life better.

In this segment of a multi-part series, VOA's Jeffrey Young highlights the creation of a labor center in Montgomery County, Maryland intended to get jobseekers off the streets.

Looking for work is tough -- even tougher if you are a recent immigrant with limited skills. But people in Montgomery County have found a controversial solution.

Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., has exploded with growth in recent years. The strong local economy has created jobs in the construction industry and elsewhere.

Matching available jobs with day workers in the Montgomery County city of Gaithersburg started out on street corners and in parking lots. Many of the laborers immigrated from Mexico and Central America.

But these informal labor markets caused problems and divided the community. The solution was a designated day labor center where workers and employers could meet. The labor center issue was a hot topic for nearly three years before it was decided upon, with public hearings and other meetings marked by strong feelings both for and against it.

Gaithersburg City Councilman Henry Marraffa voiced an opinion common among many of the labor center's opponents. "Number one, when you have a labor center, you have a number of people hanging around who are here [in the United States] illegally. I think the labor center has created a 'destination spot.' And [as a result] we have more illegal immigrants coming to our area."

When the city of Gaithersburg decided that it would not have a day labor center within its boundaries, Montgomery County stepped in and took over the project.

The county created a partnership with an immigrant advocacy group called CASA to run the new facility. CASA member Fernando Geravito manages the labor center. He explains why having it is much better than hiring people on street corners. "One [first], it is a secure place for workers to come, and for employers to also come and get the workers. They [employers] are going to get reliable workers. We establish a communication between employers and employees.”

Geravito says that when employers come to the center, they fill out a form listing the kind of workers they need, such as construction laborers, landscapers and restaurant help. Then the center matches its available workers with the employer's needs, such as what Freddy Fuentes is looking for. "I need somebody who knows how to do drywall,” he said.

Sometimes, several people may be interviewed before the employer finds workers that can do the job to his satisfaction.

By coming to the center, employers must agree to pay wages no less than a certain amount, and to pay their workers on time. And if the employer is slow to pay those workers, the center will collect their wages for them.

Montgomery County spokesman Patrick Lacefield says this labor center is not just a place to find work. He says it is also a step in the integration of these workers and their families into the broader community. "Being a day laborer is not an occupation with a future. We would like to give people the opportunity to look for work. But let's also engage them [the laborers] -- teach them English [and] get them involved with job training so they can work their way into the formal economy and out of the informal economy."

The controversy surrounding the creation of the Day Labor Center did not end with its opening. There are opponents who still believe the center encourages illegal immigration and is a blight to the community. But Montgomery County has made it clear that the labor center will stay open, and that more like it may follow.