San Diego Around 8:00 in the morning on August 22, Susan and Sheng Wei drove their white SUV to Escondido and South Santa Fe avenues in Vista, looking to hire help for the heavy lifting required to clear a dead tree from their yard. One man got into the SUV and sat down in the backseat. Then Jeff Stevens, a code compliance officer for the city of Vista, moved in.
After stopping the Weis in the parking lot, "I told Mr. Wei that I would be required to issue a cite," Stevens wrote in his report. "At this time, Mrs. Wei asked the day worker to leave their car, which he did. I finished the cite to Mr. Wei, and explained to him how to get a permit at City Hall." Mr. Wei then drove to city hall, on nearby Eucalyptus Avenue, applied for a permit, obtained it, attached it to the window on the rear passenger side of their vehicle, and returned to the same area to hire a worker.
And so, less than a month after Vista's day-labor ordinance took effect, the Weis became the 23rd entry on the list of people officially allowed to hire day laborers in Vista.
The Weis also became the first employers to appeal the citation and the $100 fine that came with it. By mid-November, 42 citations had been issued; there were a dozen appeals. In their appeal, the Weis wrote that having just moved to town, they were not aware of the law. On August 30, the City denied the appeal and ordered the Weis to pay the $100 fine. But Mrs. Wei dug in. She took her appeal a step further, as outlined in the ordinance, and asked a neutral hearing examiner to look at her case.
On October 19, at 3:15 p.m., the Weis met with Stevens, the code compliance officer, and an administrative hearing officer from San Diego named Christopher F. Milnes. The hearing was closed to the public. The written record was obtained through a Public Records Act request.
Mrs. Wei admitted that someone had gotten into the car, but she said she did not hire him. He hopped in only to direct her to where the day laborers were gathered and to pick out his uncle, who needed work. "If I had known about the law and the 'free' registration for day labor employer, I would no doubt get the permit before going to the site," Susan Wei noted.
Four days later, Milnes upheld the fine. "In evaluating the evidence," he wrote, "it is significant that Appellants admitted they were looking for day laborers, went to an area where day laborers gathered, and people got into their car. Although Appellants argue that no offer was made the evidence is sufficient to conclude that an offer of employment was made."
Susan Wei said she will not take her appeal to state superior court, for it would cost her another $25. Wei, who had moved to North County from New York City to be closer to her daughter, an Oceanside resident, said, "I'd lose $125, not just the $100. I feel it's not right. I feel it's not fair. I don't want any trouble. I already paid the $100."
She may have gotten off lucky. The ordinance, which was adopted on June 27 by a unanimous vote of the five-member Vista City Council and which took effect on July 28, states that violating "any provision" constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1000 and as much as six months' imprisonment, or both. It requires those who hire day laborers to register with the City, display a certificate on the passenger-side window of their vehicle when they go to hire a day laborer, and provide the worker with a "term sheet" once an offer of employment is accepted. Employers or subcontractors hiring at a job site are exempt. The registration lasts a year.
A sample term sheet, one of more than 50 pages that make up the City's "day labor information packet," asks employers to list the estimated number of hours the job will take, the rate of pay, the type of work (gardening, carpentry, masonry, manual labor, housecleaning, other), and whether transportation will be provided at the end of the job.
Missing from the information packet is a copy of the ordinance itself. The night the council passed the ordinance, four people spoke in its favor, three of whom lived outside Vista. One out-of-towner represented the Minuteman Project. Seven people spoke against the ordinance. Two more spoke about racism.
According to the minutes of the June 27 council meeting, "City Councilmembers acknowledged the passion on the part of all the people who came to speak on this issue, expressed support of the ordinance stating that it will protect the day laborers, and clearly affirmed that race has nothing to do with the proposed ordinance."
Sal Martinez, president of a nonprofit job-placement agency called Service Employment and Redevelopment, Inc., offered to help the city council set up a hiring hall like ones his organization runs in Carlsbad and Pacific Beach. Though the notion had initial support from the mayor of Vista, Morris Vance, it has garnered little if any further backing from elected officials.
Vance came out of retirement 4 years ago to run for mayor, after 17 years as Vista's city manager. He said in an interview that the city council acted in response to complaints from businesses that occupy the shopping center at South Santa Fe and Escondido avenues. A Vons, a Goodwill thrift store, a now-closed Italian restaurant, and a Yum Yum Donut shop are among the businesses at the center; the parking lot is the primary place in Vista where day laborers congregate. Businesses complained that the laborers' presence was hurting commerce. Shoppers were reluctant to go there because they would be descended upon by men seeking work. Vance said that the ordinance also helps protect the laborers, some of whom have complained that employers do not pay as agreed.