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Oyster Bay looks again at restricting day laborers soliciting work

Courts have twice declared previous town limitations as unconstitutional.

Luz Torres of Centro de la Comunidad Hispana

Luz Torres of Centro de la Comunidad Hispana on Saturday stands on the corner of Forrest Avenue and 12th Street in Locust Valley where day laborers gather. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Oyster Bay Town officials are planning new restrictions on day laborers after two court decisions declared previous limitations unconstitutional.

The town attorney’s office is “trying to plot out a strategy that minimizes another litigation,” town spokesman Brian Nevin said.

The head of the group that was a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging a 2009 town ordinance restricting day laborers said the organization would go to court again if a new or revised law violates laborers’ rights.

“If we have to do it again, we’ll do it again,” said Luz Torres, chairwoman of Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley, which represents day laborers.

Jackson Chin, senior counsel for Manhattan-based LatinoJustice, which represented the group and Hempstead-based nonprofit The Workplace Project in the suit challenging the ordinance, said they would be “vigilant and concerned” about any new or revised ordinance targeted at laborers.

The town’s 2009 law restricting the solicitation of work on town streets and sidewalks was a reaction to the yearslong presence of laborers along and just off Forest Avenue in Locust Valley. Workers there wait for someone to hire them for landscaping, construction, painting and other jobs that can last from a few hours to several weeks.

The ordinance barred anyone from stopping or attempting to stop a vehicle on a public right of way for the purpose of soliciting employment.

In 2015, a U.S. District Court judge in Central Islip ruled the law was unconstitutional, declaring it "extremely far-reaching” and going beyond the safety concerns the town had used to justify it.

Attorneys for the town said the laborers obstruct and delay traffic and distract drivers.

A federal appeals court in 2017 upheld that decision, saying the law was an unconstitutional restriction of laborers’ First Amendment commercial speech rights. The town did not appeal the appellate decision.

Hempstead Town has restricted work solicitation on streets for decades. Those soliciting work cannot stand in the same place for more than 15 minutes. They also cannot “impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic,” the town code states. Town spokesman Mike Fricchione said “no one has complained” about violations of the law in recent years.

The Town of North Hempstead has no laws addressing solicitation of work on public streets and sidewalks, said town spokeswoman Carole Trottere.

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino said in a statement this month that soliciting work on public streets "is a quality of life issue as individuals loitering in residential neighborhoods can only lead to safety concerns. The Town is exploring all options to protect our communities.”

Town spokeswoman Marta Kane said among those options is to “consider enforcing other regulations” that courts have not invalidated. For example, town and state laws bar actions such as jaywalking, obstructing traffic and driving so slow as to impede traffic. Nevin said there has been no increased enforcement of other laws in recent months because there have been no recent public complaints about the laborers.

Lawyers for the day laborers have long argued that the existing town and state laws address the town’s stated safety concerns and a new law is unnecessary.

If the town cites day laborers for violating existing laws, officials would “have to show they are enforcing the law uniformly, that they’re treating people fairly and equally,” said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the Manhattan-based New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented the plaintiffs.

“If they are just singling out day laborers or immigrants or Latinos for special adverse treatment, that would violate equal protection principles,” he said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are asking a U.S. magistrate judge to order the town to reimburse them for more than $1.5 million in legal fees over eight years. Attorneys for the town say in court documents that the fees being sought are “excessive” and “unreasonable.” Town insurance covers only $100,000 of those expenses, according to a town financial document.

The town paid $428,907 to the Central Islip firm Sinrireich Kosakoff & Messina, LLP to defend it, court documents say.

Torres said the legal expenses take money away from services.

“We need the money for so many things in the town and they’re wasting money on this,” she said.

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