Long before Dawn, 20 sleepy men slouch in chairs inside a day labor office on South Sixth Avenue. Outside, a dozen others mill around in the moist morning air. The lucky ones from this group will later be sent to mostly low-paying, manual labor jobs.
A few blocks to the north, the rent-free office of the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity is located in an historic Armory Park home. Founded in January, the center hopes to go after what it terms the "exploitative and unfair practices" of the day-labor industry throughout several Southwestern states. It plans to do this by pushing for the enforcement of existing laws concerning day-labor operations, promoting those hiring halls and check-cashing businesses that provide workers a more attractive option, and informing the public of existing conditions in the industry.
But day-labor firms are only one of the center's targets. Backed by several foundation grants, it also wants to battle the fringe banking industry, point out possible accounting problems at some of Tucson's industrial bigwigs and offer an international perspective to the issue of local poverty.
Karin Uhlich, former executive director of the Primavera Foundation, which provides assistance to the homeless and other poor people, is one of the center's seven board members. While employed to work on the day-labor issue by another non-profit group, she is also helping the center get established.
Uhlich says that at a typical day-labor center people are usually paid the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour or a little more. But from that amount, the office may deduct money to pay for a ride to the job site, to rent work gloves for the day, or for paycheck cashing privileges.
After eight hours of back-breaking labor, workers could lose an important $8 to $10 from a miniscule paycheck thanks to the deductions, Uhlich laments. Plus, they aren't being paid anything for the early morning wait of a few hours for the job assignment.
As an alternative, Uhlich points to the Primavera Works program, which gives out orders for a job the afternoon beforehand. That way, people don't have to roll out of bed to be at the office by 4 a.m. She also says Primavera pays more than the typical day labor company, and adds they "treat people with dignity."
Local representatives of Labor Express, one of eight companies in town which employ hundreds of people of a daily basis, would not comment on the practice of having people arrive so early for a possible job assignment.
On another front, the Center for Economic Integrity has already pushed for enforcement of laws governing charges imposed for day-labor employees to obtain cash for work. In July, the Arizona Attorney General's office took Labor Ready, a national corporation with three Tucson locations, to court for assessing fees to pay people in cash.
The AG's office claims that Labor Ready pays the almost 70 percent of its employees who want immediate money through a cash-dispensing machine which deducts a fee of up to $1.99 per transaction. This, according to the complaint, violates an Arizona law adopted two years ago.
On a daily basis the individual loss may be little, disregarding the cumulative impact it could have on the large number of people in Tucson living right on the economic edge of existence. At the same time, the AG's suit says over a three-year period, Labor Ready "retained approximately $405,001 from the take-home pay of its Arizona employees 'electing the benefit of receiving cash for their wages.'" Altogether, that's a lot of nickels and dimes.
Attorneys for Labor Ready believe the state law doesn't apply to them. "The statute only prohibits charging a fee for cashing a 'check'; it does not prohibit charging a small fee to use a cash machine," they say.
The Center for Economic Integrity is also trying to do something about the fringe banking business (See "Loan Rangers," Tucson Weekly, January 3). These payday loan firms, which are springing up around town faster than Walgreen's stores, offer short-term cash advances in small amounts with a huge catch. The annual interest rates they charge can exceed 450 percent.
If a person can't afford to pay off the loan within two weeks, Uhlich says, "they keep digging themselves into a financial hole. Eventually they will have to forego an entire paycheck" to get out from under the debt.
Uhlich believes those impacted by these businesses are primarily senior citizens, military personnel and the working poor. She thinks the interest rates charged can help perpetuate poverty among these people.
To counter this industry, the center hopes to work with existing financial institutions to set up a more attractive alternative. Another option that Uhlich advocates is a small pay-advance program through a person's employer.