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Oyster Bay day laborers say they just want to work

Oyster Bay Town Hall is shown on March

Oyster Bay Town Hall is shown on March 26, 2012. Credit: Nicole Bartoline

Early Friday, like most mornings for the past 10 years, Honduran immigrant José López was near a Locust Valley street corner waiting for whatever work came along.

López, 50, was happy to hear that a federal judge had ruled Thursday that the Town of Oyster Bay's law barring day laborers like him from seeking work along town streets is unconstitutional.

"It's good because we're just here to work, and everyone knows that here is where they can find people to work for them," López said in Spanish as he stood with three other men near the corner of Forest Avenue and 10th Street, hoping someone would hire them for construction, painting, landscaping or other jobs.

The 2009 ordinance was a reaction to the yearslong presence of laborers along and just off Forest. U.S. District Court Judge Denis Hurley, who in 2010 blocked enforcement of the law while he considered arguments in the case, wrote in his decision that the ordinance violates workers' right to free speech.

Town Supervisor John Venditto said in a statement Friday that officials are considering a recommendation by the town's outside counsel in the case, Central Islip-based Jonathan Sinnreich, that Oyster Bay appeal the ruling.

Venditto said Sinnreich was buoyed by Hurley's statement that "the aggressive solicitation of employment from occupants of motor vehicles, without question, raises valid concerns about the dangers that can arise therefrom" and interpreted the ruling as sympathetic to town officials.

Venditto said officials also would consider modifying existing laws to more narrowly address the workers' conduct. Hurley said the law is too far-reaching.

Sinnreich declined to comment directly on the ruling.

Town officials said they enacted the law to protect workers and passersby from potential traffic accidents and to keep sidewalks and streets clear.

Brian Plumb, 50, one of a number of Locust Valley area residents who pushed for the ordinance, said last month that problems with the laborers remain. They urinate in public, block pedestrians and run into the road to negotiate with drivers, said Plumb, who said he lives about two blocks from where workers congregate. Their presence hurts property values, he said.

But day laborers denied the allegations.

"It's a lie," Juan Francisco Rivas, a 38-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, said in Spanish.

Workers give pedestrians space to pass and do not interfere with traffic, and they use a restroom at a nearby gas station, he said.

Rohit Raj, manager of the Citgo, outside of which some of the workers frequently stand, said he's never seen a worker harass anyone and has never received a complaint from customers. "As long as no one's affecting our customers, it doesn't bother us," Raj said. "These people are just looking for work."

Most of more than a dozen people who were interviewed about the laborers and who live within a block of where they gather said they've never seen workers block traffic or urinate in public.

"They don't bother anyone," said Maria Musto, 81, an Italian immigrant, speaking in Italian with her daughter translating. "They're just making a living."

Diane Connolly, 71, said she has mixed feelings about the laborers. She is sympathetic with their need to support their families but wonders how many are legally in the United States.

Several workers acknowledged they are in the country illegally. Others said they have legal residency or legal, temporary work permits.

Arturo Benítez, 42, said that, no matter what their status, the workers fulfill a demand from area residents. "We help them with the work they need to get done," the Salvadoran immigrant said in Spanish. "They help us with money. We're honorable people."

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