August 14, 2009
Contra Costa Times
From left, Josue Perez, Gonzalo Ytzum and Oscar Huertas, who found temporary work through Marinhelpers.com, move furniture from a storage facility in Greenbrae. Marinhelpers.com was launched by three nonprofits and has a first-year budget of $100,000. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)
An employment program launched this week by three nonprofits will attempt to line up temporary employers with temporary workers, including day laborers who might be undocumented.
Marinhelpers.com is one person sitting at a desk, connecting workers with laborers by phone and e-mail. But behind the scenes it has been three years in the making.
"The concept is original," said Paul Cohen, executive director of Legal Aid of Marin, who noted, however, that the program was inspired by a similar project developed by the nonprofit Multicultural Institute in Berkeley.
Cohen said he has worked since May 2006 to devise a program that would match household employers with workers, after three failed efforts to create a hiring hall in San Rafael. Marinhelpers.com was started as a virtual hiring hall, and he said the key will be getting word out to both the workers and the hirers.
"We want to convince household employers that this is legal, it’s easy and it works," Cohen said. "It’s a win-win for them and the people who need work, especially during these challenging economic times."
The project manager and sole employee is Simon Tiles, a native of Venezuela and nine-year Bay Area resident who has experience doing outreach with local schools and families. He is based at the Ritter Center which, along with Legal Aid of Marin and the Canal Alliance, is supporting Marinhelpers.com.
Primary funding is from the Marin Community Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation and the Zellerbach Family Fund, Cohen said. He said the program’s first-year budget is about $100,000, which includes development costs such as a feasibility study, Web site, legal research and more.
Thomas Peters, CEO of the Marin Community Foundation, said he and others are pleased to support "the humane and beneficial linkage between homeowners who want some help and the workers seeking work." He noted strong support, too, from city and county officials.
Tiles said prospective workers fill out a form, agree to the rules and regulations of the program and get entered in a database. When Tiles receives a call from a homeowner who needs help with a job, workers with skills for that job get first dibs. It’s up to the homeowner and worker to come up with financial terms.
About 100 workers have signed up – from day laborers to college students to those who have been laid off after long stints of employment. It is expected to become a popular option for retired people looking for supplemental income, people with disabilities and people from assistance programs such as Homeward Bound.
No questions are asked in the sign-up process about immigration status, Tiles said.
"Because of the nature of temporary employment, homeowners are not required to ask for legal documentation for workers they hire, so we do not ask the question," he said.
Cohen said Legal Aid of Marin spent many months researching the legalities of Marinhelpers.com. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a worker can be hired for $1,700 per year tax free without the employer asking for documentation. State law dictates that a person can be hired for $3,000 per year but with a maximum of $750 per quarter.
"We are completely within the parameters of the law," Cohen said. "Nothing about this changes the fact that there are some people who are undocumented in Marin. There might be a byproduct of this program that some people get off the street because they’re working (through Marinhelpers.com), but that’s not the sole focus."
In Marin, day laborers congregate primarily in San Rafael along Andersen Drive and Bellam Boulevard, and in Novato near Redwood Boulevard and Olive Street. Marinhelpers.com is a way to match workers’ skills and the needs of the temporary employer with the use of technology.
Rick Oltman is not in favor of Marinhelpers.com doing anything to encourage undocumented workers to stay in Marin. He is the national media director for Californians for Population Stabilization and a member of the Novato-based Citizens for Legal Employment and Contracting.
"This isn’t going to take anybody off the street," Oltman said. "I’m sure everybody involved in this feels real good about it, but it’s another in a long series of efforts to continue to assist those in this country illegally to stay here. If this was designed specifically for the American worker – citizens and legal immigrants – then that would be a different story."
Oltman and the CLEC group are advocates of E-Verify, a free online service that allows employers to check whether a worker is documented. It is used by the U.S. government and about 60 companies in Marin.
"Until this government requires the use of E-Verify, making it permanent and mandatory, it is not serious about enforcing our immigration laws, securing our borders and defending our sovereignty," Oltman said.
Marinhelpers.com is simply a tool for temporary workers to connect with temporary employment and nothing more than that, said the Canal Alliance’s Tom Wilson.
"Just about anything that is proposed in the way of eliminating services (for immigrants) or keeping them from work is not a solution to any immigration matters," he said. "That’s a much bigger issue."
Wilson said he expects Marinhelpers.com to find traction soon through publicity efforts and word of mouth. Bilingual outreach efforts will be made in San Rafael and Novato, he said, and household employers will be glad to have a new way to connect with workers.
"There are a lot of people on the employer side who will be pleased with being able to go to the Web site or pick up the phone rather than drive along Andersen and pick people up," he said. "That’s one of the reasons why I think this will really take off."