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TUESDAY · May 30, 2000

Meeting called on day laborer pickup spots

Responding to complaints: Merchants say gatherings of workers drive away customers.

Rick Badie - Staff Tuesday, May 30, 2000

Trina Graves, a barber at Ed's Barber & Style Shop, knows what's caused the customer base to dwindle at the Duluth business.

"It's the Mexicans," said Graves, sitting in an empty barber's chair one Thursday. "People don't want to come here because they are out there every morning, trying to hop into every truck that drives up."

Hispanic men looking for work have made this stretch of Buford Highway their pickup spot. Every day, up to 100 men walk from a nearby apartment complex, ride taxicabs or car pool from other suburbs to the site, a mile north of Pleasant Hill Road.

They wait for subcontractors driving vans and pickups to whip into Duluth Plaza or the parking lots of stores. Men not tapped for day jobs that pay up to $8 an hour sometimes hang around till noon, hoping.

While sympathetic toward the men, some workers, such as Graves, and business owners along the busy artery are tested by them. They say their presence scares off customers, makes women feel uneasy and ties up traffic. Some litter and urinate near Dumpsters.

"It's gotten out of hand," said Will Falcon, manager of Mighty Muffler. "Not to sound prejudiced, but the INS should pack up the illegal ones and send them back home.

"I have no prejudice against a person who comes to the country and does it the right way. But half of them are illegal. That's obvious, because when the police pull up, they start running."

Such gathering spots, common in job-rich Atlanta, are about to get some attention in Gwinnett County. Labor pickup spots will be discussed at a meeting between the county's Hispanic Advisory Committee, an advocacy group for Spanish-speaking people, and representatives from various police departments.

It's set for 1 p.m. Thursday at the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office.

Bill Stevens, coordinator of the Duluth Police Department's community-oriented policing program, suggested the sit-down. He wants the group to work toward a solution that doesn't penalize men looking for work or the subcontractors who hire them.

"Everyone needs to work," said Stevens, also a lieutenant in the Gwinnett County Fire Department. "We're not getting into whether they are legal or illegal. But we've had businesses all up the corridor complain. The last thing I want to do is arrest somebody, but if this continues . . ."

In the past, Atlanta suburbs have tried to bring order to day labor pickup sites. Hispanic community leaders and business owners plan to open a waiting area for workers and contractors to meet in. And Roswell, like Chamblee and Marietta, has an ordinance that limits gatherings of day laborers to businesses that don't mind the crowds.

Duluth has a general no-loitering law, but nothing on the books specifically for labor pickup spots.

That's good, said Ana Ramirez, a member of Gwinnett's Hispanic Advisory Committee, who praised Stevens for wanting to build bridges and "not make the workers look like bad guys."

"We know they are out there trying to make a living," she said. "We have to find a place where they can be picked up without creating a backlash."

Graves, the barber, said organizing the activity might make it more tolerable. She's in the market for another job because Ed Bagwell, the shop owner, is closing the business. He's been at the same location for 11 years. "There is no reason this place shouldn't be hopping with business," said Graves, a barber for 18 years. "We're set off the road, but there is so much traffic around here. It's absolutely ridiculous."