Gurney's Inn
February 21, 2007

Parents Protest Proposed Hiring Hall

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What were they thinking?

That's the question raised by concerned parents this week who cried out in protest over a proposed formal hiring site slated to be located at the Long Island Rail Road station in Southampton, only steps away from Our Lady of the Hamptons Regional Catholic School.

"I would love to be introduced to the person who first came up with the idea of proposing a hiring hall at this location," said parent Kerry Wilkie, whose daughter attends the private school. "I need to know what they could have possibly been thinking. They obviously were not thinking of the children!"

Last week, members of The Coalition for a Work Link Center held a press conference to unveil designs for a proposed formal hiring center, to be located at the far end of the station. Plans include a trailer (approximately 8x40 foot), an enclosed seating area and three portable toilets, also to be located in an enclosed area.

Sandra Dunn, spokesperson for the coalition, said the site has been considered as a viable option for a number of reasons. "What is typically successful is when a formal hiring site is located near where the informal hiring site was. Our current informal hiring site is 7-Eleven, and the railroad station is very near that."

Also, said Dunn, the site would alleviate current congestion problems on Montauk Highway.

Proponents of the plan also noted the site, which would be located "at the far, extreme end" of a green area at the station, would be landscaped to make the parcel even more appealing and hide the hiring site from the road.

But parents of children who attend Our Lady of the Hamptons have raised some major concerns.

"I can't believe they're even considering it," said Susan Dean, a Southampton Town resident whose three children, ages 5, 6 and 9 1/2 attend OLH. "They're going to take men and put them near the most vulnerable members of the community, which is right next to the school. It's totally inappropriate."

Dean's other concern centers around the fear of kids being snatched. "They're hopping on a train to come here — they can hop on a train with a child, going the other way. It takes two minutes to get a child on that train."

According to Sister Margaret Smyth, co-chair of the coalition, the trailer would hold approximately 25 people at time. "There are, on average, over 150 people who loiter at the present hiring site, the 7-Eleven in Southampton," said Wilkie. The loitering, she believes, "is not limited to the site itself. You can also find day labors occupying the walkways down North Sea Road extending into the village."

"I was taken aback by the proposal because of where it was intended to be located — at the train station, directly across the street from where children go to school," Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney said. "I don't think I could come up with a worse location."

Heaney has always maintained an "immutable position regarding hiring centers: If churches or not for profits want to engage in finding a site, God bless. But do not ask local government to spend one nickel of taxpayer dollars to validate the series of illegal activities by employers and day laborers."

Parents, he said, "have every reason to be outraged. The only thing that could have been worse would have been if they had proposed that some of the classrooms could have been used at the same time as the children were there."

Wilkie said parents are worried that because the trailer will only hold a limited number of people, "that still leaves more than three quarters of the population of day laborers to look for work on the streets. Therefore, the workers who are not utilizing the hiring hall will in fact be waiting on the streets adjacent to the school, in the same manner in which is happening now on North Sea Road."

According to Sister Margaret, Catholic Charities has agreed to provide up to two supervisors for the center, which would be open from 6 to 11 a.m. "If people wander around, they can't be included in the working," she said. "Plans on how workers will disperse will be included in the training and education process planned for day laborers."

Opponents worry laborers are likely to go to the site throughout the day, when it is not supervised, and even at night to use the toilets.

Wilkie, who is representing a group of concerned parents from the school, said at OLH, "there are a number of students, beginning at the age of 11, who have permission to walk to and from school each day unaccompanied by an adult."

In the past, day laborers have sparked complaints regarding traffic and sanitary issues, as well as intimidation of pedestrians. Parents are also fearful that because day laborers are undocumented, "there is absolutely no information on record of an individual. Therefore, a criminal background or even a place of residency is unknown," said Wilkie.

Even in the case of documented workers, it is not always certain that a background check has been performed. "To agree to have a population of people in such close proximity to young children, who may or may not have criminal records, legal addresses, or the best interest in the well being of our children is completely irresponsible," she said. "They should not be put at risk."

Wilkie also pointed out the potential for increased traffic. Over 15 school buses will have to compete with the "trade parade, as they pick up their workers."

According to Sister Margaret and Dunn, the site has been designed with a "good traffic flow pattern." In addition, said Sister Margaret, the plan enhances the property by creating extra parking spots.

And, she added, parents should consider that currently, "they have a chaotic situation not very far from the school. Would it not be better to have the situation handled in an orderly way?"

Furthermore, statistics handed out at the press conference claim that the percentage of arrests of Hispanics in Southampton Town and neighboring areas is much lower than the percentage of Hispanics living in the area. "If you look through crime statistics," said Sister Margaret, "you will see that these are not the people who are creating the problems."

"The hiring hall cannot be placed here," Wilkie said. "There is not one reason that could make me think differently. This hall will compromise the safety of our children. End of story. Case closed."

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