Supporters allege the financial freeze, which began Oct. 1, is retribution for anti-City Hall protests organized by the nonprofit group that runs the program. The Mayor's Office, on the other hand, claims the program has been run poorly, and the city is simply following normal administrative policies that require it to seek competitive proposals for city funding of the operation.
At the heart of the controversy is tension between day laborers and their advocates, who believe soliciting work in public is a matter of free speech, and some residents of the Mission District, who have complained to police about crowds of labor-seekers clustered near their homes.
Whether the roots of the funding dilemma are political or administrative, it clearly has affected operations of the Day Labor Program, which faces the possibility of losing more than a quarter of its annual funding. And regardless of how it started, the controversy has taken on broad political overtones, with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund informing Mayor Willie Brown that the financial freeze is illegal and members of the Board of Supervisors expressing interest in the funding cutoff.
The San Francisco Day Labor Program was established in 1990 to deal with the city's booming day laborer, or jornalero, population. Mostly Central American and Mexican men, jornaleros are common along street corners in the Outer Mission, where they wait for potential employers in need of manual labor.
For those who choose to use it, the Day Labor Program offers a safer, more orderly alternative for meeting employers. Instead of lining the streets, participants sign up for work early in the morning at the program's office and are dispatched to employers who phone in the number of men they need and the kind of work to be done. Since its opening, the program has provided more than 28,000 jobs to day-labor seekers; last year, 1,588 men found work at a minimum wage of $10 an hour, exceeding City Hall's job placement goal by more than 20 percent. The program also offers free food, English classes, medical aid, counseling, and shelter references to participants.
The Day Labor Program, overseen by La Raza Centro Legal, a nonprofit legal center in the Mission District, says its role as a work center is not just economic, but also has an advocacy component aimed at community empowerment. The program director, Renee Saucedo, points out that no matter how successful the program is, it cannot find a job for every jornalero on the street, nor should that be the standard under which such programs are judged. As with other day labor operations across the country, Saucedo says, the San Francisco program supports a jornalero's right to find work either through the program or on the street.
But, the Mayor's Office argues that the program has become reckless and ineffectual and is in need of an administrative overhaul. "The plight of the day laborers of San Francisco has worsened in recent years, partially due to the management of the program," says P.J. Johnston, Mayor Willie Brown's spokesman.
When reminded that the program has exceeded job placement goals set by the city, Johnston counters, "I frankly don't know what they've succeeded at and what they haven't. What I do know is that they've created an untenably combustive environment in the community."
Indeed, some residents of the Outer Mission who contend daily with jornaleros are upset with the day labor situation. "You don't want to have to walk out of your door and go through a gauntlet of 15 guys on your stairs everyday, especially if there's a better way," says Jay Goldman, who lives near Bryant and 26th streets. Like many of his neighbors, Goldman deals with street congestion created by day laborers and questions both the usefulness and management of the Day Labor Program.
Saucedo, who has been manager of the Day Labor Program since 2000, when La Raza Centro Legal took over its management, has little patience with critics of the program. "People who come to the center, they come in and out," says Saucedo. "They find work through us; the days they don't find work through us, they have every right to stand out on the street without being harassed by the police, without being harassed by racist neighbors."
Last year, MALDEF, a group that has provided legal help to the Day Labor Program, won a federal lawsuit in Southern California, arguing that ordinances barring day laborers from the street were an infringement of their First Amendment right to announce their eligibility for work. No such ordinance exists in San Francisco, but Day Labor Program supporters complain about what they see as another legal deterrent to day-labor seeking: the San Francisco police.
San Francisco Police Capt. Gregory Corrales, who heads the department's Mission District station, says that, on average, three tickets a day are handed out to either day laborers or contractors along Cesar Chavez Street. For a short while, Corrales says, he assigned an officer specifically to monitor that area. Corrales says the focus on day labor is a matter of public safety. "Vehicles that stop in a traffic lane on Cesar Chavez, between Hampshire and Bryant, they create a tremendous traffic hazard," explains Corrales. Records show that 40,000 cars race through those intersections each day.
"We're not interested in giving out tickets or arresting anybody," explains Corrales. "We just don't want cars to stop on those two blocks in the traffic lane, and we don't want guys running out into the traffic lane."
But for hundreds of jornaleros, the street is still a lifeline for work. John Viola, a staff attorney for the Coalition on Homelessness, says the tickets issued along Cesar Chavez are often thrown out of court because they don't "apply to any conceivable behavior that people are engaging in down there."
The stepped-up police presence began shortly after Corrales moved to the Mission in January. Last May, three jornaleros were brought in for an identification check and detained on trespassing charges; the detention sent the Day Labor Program into protest mode. Marches were organized from Cesar Chavez Street to the offices of Capt. Corrales and Mayor Brown; demonstrations were held at City Hall and the Mission police station. Not long after a Father's Day protest in June came an announcement: For the first time in more than a decade, city funding for the San Francisco Day Labor Program would not be automatically renewed.
According to officials in the Mayor's Office, the freeze in funding for the Day Labor Program is not a response to political activity, but the introduction of a public bidding process that should have been in place long ago.
Until this summer, the Day Labor Program had never gone through a formal application process to obtain its funding, says Anamaria Loya, executive director of La Raza Centro Legal. For the last 12 years, the Mayor's Office allocated money from the General Fund to be used for the program, and the Board of Supervisors then added to that sum, depending on budget constraints. Last year, for example, the Day Labor Program received $190,000 from City Hall.
Now, the Mayor's Office says, the free ride is over. "Frankly, it's an untenable position for a contractor to be in, to suggest that they somehow deserve a lifetime contract from the city of San Francisco, when nobody enjoys that kind of contract and frankly, nobody ever should," says Johnston.
But even after the San Francisco Day Labor Program and another applicant, Oakland's Volunteers of America, went through the new competitive contracting process, an announcement on funding by the Mayor's Office remains in limbo -- months after a decision was expected. City officials say the delays were caused by a clerical error that required bids to be sought a second time, followed by an unsatisfactory response to the second request for bids.
Thomas Saenz, vice president of litigation at MALDEF, attributes the delay in funding to retaliation for the San Francisco Day Labor Program's earlier political demonstrations. In a recent letter to Mayor Brown, Saenz wrote that the timing of the bid announcement, City Hall's explanations, and the reopening of the bid process "indicate that the process has been initiated and followed in retaliation for political views expressed and promoted" by SFDLP.
"You can't do that. You can't retaliate against somebody for exercising their right to express political opinion," Saenz said in a recent interview.
In an attempt to lessen political tensions, the Mayor's Office has moved the day labor funding decision into the hands of the Immigrant Rights Commission. Commission officials would not say when a funding decision might be reached.
Loya, La Raza Centro Legal's director, contends members of the Day Labor Program have spoken with Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Matt Gonzalez and been told the funding issue will be looked into. Ammiano said he plans to speak with city officials about the funding freeze and how some of the allotted money might be released. A spokesman for Gonzalez said only that the supervisor supports the Day Labor Program.
George Sanchez is a fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting.