The opening of "opportunity centers" in San Rafael and Novato for immigrant and non-immigrant temporary workers has once again sparked debate about the hiring of undocumented workers.

The centers constitute the second major component of an initiative that includes a "virtual" hiring hall, a Web site launched in August that matches people seeking temporary workers with appropriate workers looking for jobs. So far, more than 300 temporary workers have signed up to participate in the matchmaking service. The program is coordinated by Legal Aid of Marin, the Canal Alliance and Ritter Center.

The new opportunity centers will provide workers with access to bathrooms, running water, computers, Internet service and phones. They will serve as multicultural, multiservice centers providing temporary workers with classes to improve their job skills and resources to address a variety of other needs.

"One of the things we’re focusing on at first is a vocational English as a second language program that is targeted at people who want to learn how to take better instruction from employers and ask questions about the instructions they’ve been given," said Paul Cohen, executive director of Legal Aid of Marin.

But some who have fought three past efforts to establish a "bricks and mortar" hiring hall in San Rafael are skeptical.

"It looks like the virtual hiring hall isn’t going to be virtual after all, no shock there," said Rick Oltman of Novato, national media director for Californians for Population Stabilization and a member of the Novato-based Citizens for Legal Employment and Contracting. "I knew when this concept was floated a few months ago that there would be physical locations to follow."

Cohen said, however, that if anyone tries to hire a worker at one of the opportunity centers they will be referred to the virtual hiring hall Web site:

"There is a whole protocol around this," Cohen said.


Volunteers install lettering for the front window of a new ‘opportunity center’ in San Rafael. The center is planned as a virtual hiring hall for temporary workers, offering computers, Internet and phone services, and classes. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)

"They’re absolutely not hiring halls."

Cohen said the San Rafael center, which opened a week ago, is in the Marin Square Shopping Center. Currently, prospective day workers frequent the street corners near there. The Novato center, which has been open for several weeks, is on Hamilton Parkway. Cohen declined to provide the precise address of either office. He said he feared the centers might be overrun by workers seeking access to the services.

The cost of the project for the first year is $313,910. Funding is being provided by the Marin Community Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, the Zellerbach Family Fund and the county of Marin. County supervisors voted 4-1 to approve a $30,000 allocation last week.

Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who recommended the expenditure, said that several years ago when he was looking for ways to reduce the amount of on-street job solicitation in portions of his district, he came across a similar program in Oakland.

"I’m supportive of it because I think it can contribute to making the street environment safer and friendlier for people in the communities where people are looking for work and it can increase the economic self-sufficiency for those who are out of work by giving them another means to hook up with residential employers and improve their job skills through training programs," Kinsey said.

Supervisor Susan Adams, the lone dissenter, made a point of pulling the item from a long list of allocations on a "consent calendar" that are typically voted on together. Adams did not say why she opposed the allocation and later declined to explain her vote.

"Taxpayers should not be subsidizing illegal aliens in any way," Oltman said. "Assisting illegal aliens to find jobs, or anything, is in fact against the law."

Cohen said, "We did the research, and he’s absolutely wrong."

He said the Internal Revenue Service allows employers to pay each temporary employee up to $1,700 per year tax-free without asking for documentation. He said state law allows employers to pay each temporary employee up to $3,000 per year with a maximum of $750 per quarter.