Released 10 October 2005  By STEVEN GREENHOUSE - New York Times
Day Laborer Battle Runs Outside Home Depot
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
October 10, 2005
New York Times
AUSTIN, Tex. - The Home Depot became the nation's largest home improvement chain by figuring out how to make hardware friendly to consumers and how to put everything from plumbing fixtures to petunias under one roof.
But the company is facing a knotty problem figuring out where to put one important part of the home-improvement business: the dozens of day laborers who gather outside its stores here and across the nation.
Morning after morning in city after city, contractors as well as homeowners needing an extra hand or two drive up to a Home Depot and hire laborers to paint walls, nail down roofing or trim branches, usually for $8 to $10 an hour. Not only has this caused friction between the stores and neighboring businesses and homeowners who do not want the men around, but it has also thrust the company into the nationwide debate about what to do about these workers, the majority of them illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
In Illinois, several Hispanic groups are angry with the company because 40 day laborers have been arrested in recent months, accused of criminal trespassing at a Home Depot in Cicero. One Hispanic shopper was arrested by mistake.
In California, a group called Save Our State has held protests at numerous Home Depots, asserting that the company has aided illegal immigration. But in Los Angeles, a city councilman has proposed requiring all new large home-improvement stores to build shelters that would provide day laborers with basic amenities like toilets and drinking water.
Here, in Austin, an immigrants' rights group is pressing Home Depot to stop threatening day laborers with fines and arrest and to allow a grassy lot behind one store to be used as a place for them to congregate.
But the company is not eager to see its parking lots filled with day laborers.
"The existence of this issue is one that's beyond the Home Depot's control," said David Sandor, a spokesman for the company, which has about 1,700 stores nationwide. "Like many businesses, we have a policy of nonsolicitation of our stores by individuals and organizations who aren't affiliated with our company. The reason for that is really simple - our customers tell us they want a shopping experience that's easy and comfortable."
At the glimmer of dawn one recent morning here in Austin, 30 men gathered outside the Home Depot at St. John's Avenue and Interstate 35, with a few men on the edge of the parking lot and two dozen on the sidewalk across the street. Suddenly Ernest Pedraza, an Austin police lieutenant who was moonlighting as a Home Depot security guard, emerged from the store and shooed a few men from the parking lot, warning that they faced fines and possible arrest for trespassing. They moved across the street, where they joined the others, who lined the sidewalk in small clusters for 80 yards.
"They whistle at 12- and 13-year-old girls on the way to school," Mr. Pedraza said. "They urinate in back of the store. They throw trash on the sidewalk. Maybe it's just a few of the guys who do it, but it upsets a lot of the neighbors."
Steve Felgate, manager of the ABC Supply roofing store across the street, said he had lost customers because of the men. "They don't like these guys running up to them when they drive up to my store," he said.
Edwin Muguia, a 27-year-old immigrant from Nicaragua who stands outside the Home Depot six days a week, said all he wanted was to work. "They're violating our rights by kicking us away," he said. "In the United States, there aren't other opportunities for us but to be a day laborer."
The nation has more than 100,000 day laborers, said Abel Valenzuela Jr., a professor of urban studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is considered the foremost academic expert on day laborers. Professor Valenzuela attributes the large number to the surge in illegal immigration in recent years, the growth in part-time, contingent labor and the explosion in the home-improvement business, with many do-it-yourselfers concluding they cannot do it without one or two helpers.
Professor Valenzuela estimates that there are at least 400 day-labor hiring sites nationwide, adding, "I'd say a significant number are Home Depots; not a majority, but a significant number."
Experts on day labor said they knew of only a handful of Lowe's stores - the No. 2 home improvement retailer - where workers congregate. Lowe's attracts far fewer day laborers, these experts said, because Home Depot is more popular with contractors.
That so many day laborers flock to Home Depots seems like nothing more than the law of supply and demand, with the workers concluding that to find home improvement work, they should go to the No. 1 home improvement store.
But Mr. Sandor, the company spokesman, said that many customers complain about day laborers swarming around their cars, seeking work. Immigrant advocates say Home Depot has appeared to grow sterner about its nonsolicitation policy - to the frustration of Donald Quintanilla, a 35-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant who was arrested on Aug. 12 in Cicero.
"Home Depot and the police treated me like a criminal, like I was committing a crime," said Mr. Quintanilla, who spent four hours in jail but was not fined. "All I was doing was looking for work."
In Austin, some homeowners and businesses say Home Depot should not foist its problems upon others by chasing the workers away, saying that the company should set aside part of its property for the laborers so that the daily tango between contractors and workers does not snarl the sidewalks and streets.
"I don't see what people are so bothered about - they're just looking for work," said Sabina Traviņo, a child care worker who lives three blocks from the store. "It's better to look for work than to rob or make trouble. There are bigger problems in the neighborhood, like drugs and prostitution."
Pablo Alvarado, national coordinator of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the company's nonsolicitation policy was not working.
"Even if the security guards kick the workers out, what happens is the customers, when they want to hire workers, still park inside the store's parking lot and call the workers to them," Mr. Alvarado said. "Home Depot has to assume its responsibilities, because whether they like it or not, they're an incentive for workers to congregate."
Under pressure from various communities in California, Home Depot has helped finance shelters and sites where laborers can gather at or near several of its stores, including in Woodland Hills, Monrovia and Glendale. The City of Burbank had required the company to build a shelter as a condition of opening a store, but then put the plan on hold because many residents complained that the city was catering to illegal immigrants.
"Home Depot is aiding and abetting illegal aliens as far as we're concerned," said Joseph Turner, director of Save Our State, a group based in Ventura, Calif., that seeks more aggressive action against illegal immigration.
Mr. Turner said the company often seemed happy to give in to pressure to finance adjoining hiring centers that are run by outside groups.
"They have a vested interest in keeping day laborers around because contractors use the store as one-stop shopping to obtain their materials and their workers," he said.
Mr. Sandor said that of Home Depot's 1,700 stores, there were only 6 where local governments required the company to help build or finance accommodations for day laborers.
Julien Ross, coordinator of the Central Texas Immigrant Workers' Rights Center, said Home Depot should "create a safe and dignified space adjacent to its store" at St. John's Avenue.
"This will not eliminate all the problems, but it will go far to minimize them," Mr. Ross said.
Robert Flocke, a spokesman for the Travis County Health and Human Services Department, which oversees Austin, said that creating a special workers' site at that Home Depot would be unnecessary because there is already a county-run day laborers' hiring hall a mile away. But many workers shun that site because they say not enough contractors go there.
Mr. Sandor said Home Depot was reluctant to donate or designate part of its sites for day laborers.
"In any other case, we maintain our strict policy against solicitation," he said. "I think community and local governments need to lead in terms of responding to the larger issues. We are trying to operate a business, please our customers and be a good community partner."