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Oyster Bay grapples with day laborers issue

The Town of Oyster Bay has passed an

The Town of Oyster Bay has passed an ordinance to fine day laborers and contractors for soliciting work on public roads. (December 17, 2009) Credit: David Pokress

Along the western edge of Forest Avenue in Locust Valley, a dwindling number of Latino day laborers huddle in the early-morning chill in front of a tavern and a bodega, waiting for work that never seems to come.

>>VIDEO: Click here to see a local advocate organizing a protest against the town ordinance

Just a half-mile away in the downtown area, Christmas music is piped outside of "Chocolicious" as shoppers at a local deli order $8 heroes coined "Friends Academy" and "Gold Coast" and Spanish-speaking workers chat in the background.

The dichotomy of this North Shore community was thrust to the forefront last week as Latino advocates protested a new Oyster Bay town law that prohibits anyone from soliciting work on a public roadway - arguing that it unfairly targeted day laborers and is unconstitutional. The ordinance was sparked by quality-of-life complaints from Locust Valley residents who live in the working-class area where the laborers congregate.


Empathy, yet concern

As Oyster Bay town officials move closer to enforcing the law and advocacy groups threaten legal action, some residents and business owners say they support the ordinance, which calls for fines of up to $250 for workers and for the contractors who hire them.

Other residents voice empathy for the laborers but also point out that many are here illegally, exposing the same tensions that have torn rifts in communities across Long Island.

"When you drive into Locust Valley, that's the first impression you're getting and it looks really bad for the town," said Tammy Warren, 36, of the laborers who line the street.

"You have to have a heart and understand but at the same time, you have to find a different way to find a job," added Warren, who owns the Apple Coach Works auto body shop. "And I'm sure they're not all legal citizens, so to me that's an issue because it's unfair."

Town Supervisor John Venditto said since the Oyster Bay town board passed the law in September, the number of laborers has dropped, and the number of contractors even more so. On several mornings last week, about a dozen laborers gathered - far fewer than the 50-plus workers residents had complained about earlier this year.

To the laborers, objections smack of racism. "We have a lot of problems now, every day," said Carlos Enriquez, 34. "They say, 'Get out of here. This isn't your country.' It's discrimination. I don't like it."

Moises Delgado, 39, of Locust Valley, says in Spanish, "We're just looking for a job, we're not dealing drugs or doing anything bad. I need the work. I need the money to send to my family."

Residents say the issue has nothing to do with race. "It's a quality-of-life issue, it's a safety issue," said Brian Plumb, 45. "It's 365 days of the year and it's not fair to us."

Residents say the laborers should go to the hiring hall in Glen Cove, alleging that many live in Glen Cove or Hempstead and carpool to Forest Avenue. But all the laborers on a recent morning said they live in the Locust Valley area. Those from neighboring Glen Cove said they don't go to the hiring site because there are too many workers there and not enough jobs.


Filling a need

Owners of the few businesses on the western edge of Forest Avenue have split opinions on the workers.

Donna Wylie owns the Forest Tavern on the corner of 12th Street, where most of the laborers now congregate.

"Nobody wants to deny them work," said Wylie, 52, of Bayville. "Everyone's got the same question in mind. It's the word illegal. You are not in this country legally. These people don't pay school taxes. . . . You have to really look at both sides of the story. They are hard workers. But I think the main thing here is it is an illegal activity."

But two blocks away at USA Gas, manager Eddie Sonez says he misses the laborers who moved from his corner. "They buy coffee, soup, snacks, it's good for business," said Sonez, 41. "They don't bother nobody, they just stand there and try to make a living."

Many residents and business owners say the immigrants fill a niche. An East Norwich resident who did not want to be identified said he's hired workers from the site to do landscaping work in his yard. "These guys are productive members of society," he said. "Instead of getting rid of these guys and making them hide, give them a place where they can work."

Venditto said he is open to exploring a hiring site and that the ordinance was a short-term solution. "I will create a hiring hall if the day laborers say it will solve their problems," he said.

When lawmakers in Glen Cove passed a similar ordinance in the early 1990s, the law was challenged in court. In the interim, interested parties met with city officials and agreed to establish a hiring site, resulting in the city withdrawing the ordinance.

Advocates seek a similar resolution in Locust Valley.

The Rev. Allan Ramirez of the Brookville Reformed Church says the Glen Cove hiring hall brought a then-divided community together. Creating another one, he believes, will solve 90 percent of this problem. "Glen Cove had the potential to be as explosive of a situation as it was in places like Farmingville, but there was a concerted effort there . . . and all sorts of people were brought together," he said.

"When you don't have hiring halls you basically do not address any of the issues, and the problems continue to fester, and you get the Farmingvilles and the Patchogues," he added. "That's what you get."

>>VIDEO: Click here to see a local advocate organizing a protest against the town ordinance