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A Dollar Short

City Hall's day-labor solution doesn't work.


Dozens of transients sometimes line up along city streets between 3 and 5 a.m., hoping to get work through one of downtown's day-labor agencies. At that hour of the morning, they'll occasionally fight, vandalize nearby property or urinate in public. In the afternoon, drug dealers descend upon just-paid workers.

At the same time, developers in the Crossroads neighborhood just south of downtown have had a hard time finding tenants for their stylish, rehabbed brick buildings. They say the cluster of nearby day-labor agencies hurt the neighborhood.

So in December, the City Council passed a tough new ordinance regulating the handful of temporary employment agencies that pay their workers at the end of a single day.

Starting March 31, a day-labor company will need not only the previously required business license but also a new permit issued and enforced by the city's Department of Neighborhood and Community Development. This permit stipulates that the day-labor business provide a clean waiting area with adequate seating and heating, ventilation and air conditioning, as well as drinking water and bathrooms. To receive a new permit, the business must also be covered by $1 million in liability insurance.

Day-labor operators find the regulation puzzling, arguing that city code had required them to have those amenities all along. But the ordinance goes further. Now, day-labor operators will have to pick up litter within 50 feet of the premises. And they'll have to police their premises against loitering, public displays of indecency, disorderly conduct, drinking and drug use.

Councilman Ed Ford, who sponsored the ordinance, said testimony about crime in the neighborhood was "overwhelming." As in the rest of the city, though, crime has dropped in the Crossroads since 1999. Police records show that employees at Skill Staff (1833 McGee) reported two thefts and a forgery in the last two and a half years; Labor Force (1213 Grand) reported a single robbery within the last six months.

Tom Levitt, whose company owns more than twenty parcels in and around the neighborhood and is a member of the Crossroads Community Association, says the neighborhood's intent wasn't to drive the companies out of business but rather to spur them to "improve working conditions and facilities and their responsibility to the neighborhood."

"They provide an invaluable service," Ford says.

And as a city councilman, Ford ought to know exactly how invaluable that service is.

In the current fiscal year, which ends April 30, the city spent nearly $2 million on day-labor contracts.

The city's Department of Convention and Entertainment Centers spends $1.6 million annually hiring day laborers to set up and clean up after events at Bartle Hall, Kemper Arena and the American Royal. Without those workers, the city couldn't get Kemper or Bartle ready for anything. "It'd be impossible," says the convention department's Bill Langley. The city also agreed to pay Century Personnel $220,000 this fiscal year for workers to help the city with trash collection.

And the loitering crowds in the Crossroads that so incensed the city and neighborhood activists are most likely the city's fault.

The city's own contract says day-labor businesses must "provide a central hiring hall for workers and furnish safe transportation from the hiring hall to the Convention Center and American Royal Center." The contract also prohibits temporary laborers from driving their own cars to city facilities -- the work sites.

"People have to wait on-site before transfer to Kemper or Bartle, to meet city requirements," says Carol Carroll, the owner of Grafton Staffing. "[The city has], in fact, created the problem and didn't give us any chance to correct it."

Ford concedes that the businesses with the most problems were "the ones that had a contract with the city."

All of which raises a question from John Thomas, a staffing-industry consultant. "Why doesn't the city rewrite the contract, look at the way the city handles this?" he asks. "They're causing people to gather when they could just be sending them right to work."

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