Lakewood Gives Muster Zone a Go Once More


mexicans-lakewoodLakewood, NJ – At about 8 a.m., a blue pickup truck rolls into the downtown parking lot, awaking an idle crowd as if carrying someone famous. Men in sooty jeans with sun-creased skin circle it. Some exchange words with the driver.

Then one hops in back and the truck takes off.

A half-hour later, a white sport-utility vehicle arrives to a similar reception.

The hiring dance between laborer and contractor has been going on for years here, ever since undocumented immigrants began showing up looking for off-the-books work to support distant families. The only difference now is that, for the past two weeks, the ritual has been isolated to one parking lot, leaving the sidewalks of Clifton Avenue almost eerily vacant in the early morning hours.

On June 15, Lakewood township officials enacted the muster zone between First and Second streets to some skepticism. The idea of rounding up hundreds of day laborers to one specific spot to solicit work was tried and abandoned some three years earlier, after $40,000 was spent on a shelter, portable toilets and a slab of concrete in the industrial park. That site was ultimately unsuccessful because it forced laborers to travel three miles, away from the downtown area.

But, by most accounts and minus a few hitches, this one seems to be working.

Several workers waiting in the lot Wednesday morning said they were happier there, not having to compete with traffic and pedestrian glares when hailing contractors.

Mostly Mexicans from Puebla, they prefer the southeast corner of the lot with trees for shade over the corner nearer to Route 9, where officials had set up a bench, trash bins and a sign that read “Employment Area for Day Laborers” in English and Spanish.
Police, too, have been satisfied with the zone so far and have issued none of the $250 violations a laborer or contractor gets if caught soliciting on Clifton.

“That’s not to say everyone is happy about it,” police Chief Robert Lawson said. “Some had expectations it would remove everyone from the street; that’s not what this is intended for.”

However, he added, “I think our efforts are paying off.”

But there are drawbacks. Through a translator, Artoro Lopez said he wishes there were more signs alerting contractors of the change and more organization in who gets what job.

“There should be some sort of process, because everyone rushes to every car that comes,” said the 38-year-old, who came here from Mexico City two years ago.

Joaquin Gutierrez, 39, would be willing to hand over his information and fingerprints for an identification card – like the ones issued in Trenton – so he’d have more credibility as a worker.

“It would help us get work because we’d be screened and they would know we weren’t criminals,” he said.

A police officer in San Salvador for 14 years, Gutierrez immigrated here two years ago when his $450-a-month salary wasn’t enough for his two children. He now makes about $1,400 monthly as a day laborer.

Contractors also seem receptive to the new location.

“It’s easier for us,” explained a man who said he worked for a roofing company in Lakewood and would only identify himself as Tony. “Over there (on Clifton), when we stop they come over hanging on the doors and everything. The police don’t like that.”
As he spoke, about 10 to 12 laborers piled into his van.

Town officials and Hispanic advocates say improvement to the “Employment Services Area” are on the way.

Lydia Valencia of the nonprofit Puerto Rican Congress said she and local pastors have handed a $55,000 proposal to Mayor Steven Langert that calls for her organization to run the muster zone and hold training classes for specialized trades such as carpentry when work is slow. She also has sought help from the governor of Puebla, Mexico.

“This is a good alternative,” she said of the muster zone, the likes of which have stirred controversy in the past over whether a town is allowed to mandate where people can stand. “While I don’t necessarily disagree that it may be unconstitutional, I believe when you’re given lemons, you make lemonade.”

Langert said he was receptive of Valencia’s proposal, but that it was too costly. He suggested instead a registry system where laborers would pay a fee so the program could be self-sustaining.

“We’re giving it a month,” Langert said of the new zone. “If it’s warranted after that we’ll put in improvements that would be conducive to the site.”

One likely upgrade he mentioned was relocating the shelter there from the old site, in hopes this time it would get some use.

{Asbury Park Press}

{ Newscenter}


  1. Uh, let me get this straight. To the best of my knowledge, working off the books is illegal. These people are here illegally. So now we’re using our taxes to make things easier for them to work illegally and comfortably. Am I missing something? Man, what a country we live in!

  2. What about the contractors who are doing the hiring? Obviously, if no one hired them the illegals wouldn’t come. Nevertheless, Americans hire them, illegal or not. So arrest the contractors?

    Anyway, it’s better to have things done in an organized way than having people hanging out in the street.

    And as far as working off the books – in my experience working off the books is a time-honored custom in the frum community. I’ve not gotten jobs from frum bosses because I refused to work off the books. Maybe we shouldn’t ask for that law to be enforced too enthusiastically.

  3. Hey, where do you find those frum bosses who want you to work off the books! I could use one of those jobs right now so it won’t conflict with my unemployment insurance.