Labor arrested

Casual laborers want to know: Why pick on guys who just want an honest day’s work?

Looking for work? Who’s looking for work, officer? We’re just hanging out here by this fine sign, killing time.

Looking for work? Who’s looking for work, officer? We’re just hanging out here by this fine sign, killing time.

Photo By David Robert

The working man waited along the road just as he has many such mornings—for years. David Mullen of Reno took his place on Galletti Way about 6:30 a.m.

“You have to get down here before 7 a.m.,” he said. “Because contractors start at 7, especially when it’s hot like this.”

Mullen was one of about a dozen casual laborers waiting July 13 on the border of Reno and Sparks for an employer to come along and give them work—an action outside the boundaries of legality.

By standing here, Mullen said he’s gotten long-term jobs, and he’s even learned a trade—installing drywall. He may not be holding down a full-time job right now, he said, but that doesn’t mean he should be treated like a lawbreaker just for trying to get work.

“I’ve got an apartment and a dog,” he said. “I’m not a transient or a criminal. We’re not ex-cons. We’re good guys.”

A Sparks ordinance prohibits workers from soliciting employment along Galletti Way. Traffic laws prohibit employers from stopping to hire a worker or two.

Still, they show up—workers in jeans and worn boots carrying lunch in a grocery sack and employers in need of someone to rake, wash windows or roof a house—for $9 an hour.

In the past two weeks, police have been patrolling more, issuing tickets to drivers who stop and to workers who approach vehicles along the street that runs between the Truckee River and the Nevada Mental Health Institute.

“The whole thing went to the City Council, and they were supposed to give us an alternative,” said Dave, a worker who didn’t want his real name used. “Instead, they painted the curbs red, and they’re giving tickets to guys.”

An alternative already exists, some say. Across the street, the State of Nevada’s Casual/ Industrial Labor Office offers workers a chance to sign up, take a number and wait for a job from any employer that heads into the office. But ask the laborers on the street why they aren’t there, and you’ll hear a litany of complaints.

“That office? They only have two or three jobs a day,” Dave said. “It’s pathetic. I can’t live on $40 or $50 a week. That’s why a lot of these guys are out here.”

Mullen and his friend Brian Burgoyne agreed.

“Hah, I went in there this morning, and they were already up to number 65,” Burgoyne said. “If I’d have stayed out here, I’d have gotten a job right away.”

When you have rent to pay, it’s a no-brainer. If only the police—and the media, with its reports scaring employers away—would just leave them alone, the men complained.

“This is America, and they’re giving these guys tickets,” Burgoyne said. “For what?”

“For paying their bills,” Mullen said.

The failure to provide a real alternative for casual laborers before stepping up police patrols on Galletti Way bugs Tom Stoneburner, director of the Northern Nevada chapter of the Alliance for Workers Rights. But that’s not his only gripe.

“I can’t get the picture out of my mind … that there are nothing but brown faces on that street, mostly, and nothing but white faces in that state office,” Stoneburner said. “There’s obviously a barrier there. That office isn’t a comfortable venue for the Latinos on the street.”

The AWR, as well as the ACLU and the NAACP, are stepping up their efforts to go back to the table to craft a real solution. And, if this can’t be accomplished, a lawsuit could be a last resort.

“Every hope or promise we’ve had has been reneged on,” said Kendall Stagg, Northern Nevada coordinator for the ACLU. The group has approached Gov. Kenny Guinn and has written letters asking for agenda time at the Sparks City Council to discuss the issue.

“We think this is blatantly unconstitutional,” Stagg said. “And we were very successful in overturning a similar ordinance in California. … We’re going to win. But we don’t want to sue.”

An alternative that pleases everyone is hard to find, said Sparks City Attorney Chet Adams.

Pro-worker groups tend to paint the laborers in friendly tones.

“They are there to support their family. Nobody has a drug or alcohol problem,” Adams said, relating the pro-worker view. “[Hispanics] are afraid to go in [to the labor office], because white guys are making fun of ’em. All they want to do is stand on the side of the road and get work. Big Brother goes in and cites them.”

Critics focus on darker shades, referring to casual workers as ex-convicts, illegal immigrants or alcoholics.

“Philosophically, I’m not going to complain [about people trying to find work],” Adams said. “That’s what America is built on.”

The Sparks ordinance was enacted after what Adams estimated to be “a good dozen” complaints about motorists stopping on blind corners or in the middle of the road. Some drivers felt harassed by workers who approached their cars.

Adams said he’s also worried about workers.

“They may be entering a dangerous scenario,” he said. “They could be picked up by anyone and driven at 80 mph to Lockwood.”

Has this ever happened—or has anyone ever picked up a worker who’s walked off with a family’s heirloom jewelry?

“It hasn’t happened here, but it has happened in other places,” he said. “Do we have to wait for somebody to get raped or robbed before we address it?”

Though he thinks it is risky, there are other ways to get laborers off Galletti and still let them find work, Adams said.

“Why don’t we get something in that vacant lot there?” Adams said, but he’s not sure how that would be arranged. “A shelter—a place to get out of the sun. Maybe restrooms. A place for people on the weekends.”

The catch-22 in a nutshell: People should have a right to work. They should be protected. Motorists should have a right to drive on Galletti without having workers walk up to their cars. They should be protected.

“I’m getting calls from these organizations saying, ‘Who the hell does the Spark police think it is throwing these people in jail?’ … And I don’t know what to do,” Adams said. “I’m pulling my hair out.”

If he ran the zoo—the state’s casual labor office, that is—retired peace officer John Handte, who worked there for 22 years, would make a few changes.

“I’d invite every man or woman on the street to come in for a small critique, to look at the situation and offer suggestions on how to better it,” Handte said. “Find out what they think, not what you think all the time. It’s, ‘How can we help you?’ … I don’t think that’s ever been tried.”

Handte retired in February. He said he’s seen it all—problem drinkers, gamblers, even aggravated workers who’ve mooned the office staff or pulled knives on him. He’s also seen individuals who want to work and get back on their feet. The labor office isn’t always the answer.

“I’ve seen qualified men and women looking for work, and they’re afraid to come in there," Handte said. "They come in once, and they never come back. How do you handle it? They are not treated badly. Honestly. But … there are only so many employers."