Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The frightening job losses imposed by the pandemic are perhaps harshest on one group among the vulnerable: day laborers.

Those mostly recent, often-undocumented immigrants who’ve gathered mornings at the county’s Shirlington Employment and Education Center have been moved from a designated pavilion near the Weenie Beanie. After nine months at a temporary tent at S. Nelson St., adjacent to the Arlington Food Assistance Center, they and prospective employers are now urged to register with the county by phone and online.

Participation is “down significantly because of a fear of contagion among families and homeowners who don’t want workers around their house” due to Covid, I was told by center Executive Director Andres Tobar.

On the October morning I visited the old site across from the Weenie Beanie, I encountered a half-dozen men from Central America signaling to passing cars in a fenced-off strip. Why weren’t they at the new SEEC site? “There’s nothing over there,” one replied. “We’ve been here a long time.”

Travis Hackney, owner of the Weenie Beanie, which posts “No loitering, No soliciting” signs, said the loitering that can hurt business “was very bad 10 years ago, but not too bad at present. When the day laborers are there, they do buy from us, so we are handling it as best we can.”

The official pavilion got started 21 years ago when Tobar and allies noticed as many as 150 laborers standing along Four Mile Run. Back then the nearby ABC Lumber Co. picked up workers for deliveries to construction sites. But that business closed, and the Dunbar homes were torn down for craft homes, producing “a whole turnover in the neighborhood,” he recalls.

(Area changes continue with renovations of Jenny Dean Park, the coming arts and industry district and WETA’s planned modernization.)

Wary of neighbor complaints about traffic, the county in 2003 built a shelter “to demonstrate that Arlington is a welcoming community,” Tobar said. Many established restaurant workers and cleaning workers have thanked Tobar because that operation helped them find “temporary jobs until they could find something more permanent.”

But the users, who live mostly on Columbia Pike and Alexandria, have shrunk to 10-20. “The outdoor site is no longer there, and it’s only a matter of time before jobs disappear from there,” Tobar said. Despite a “negative” atmosphere from the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, the reduction “was a definite sign” the Arlington program worked.

The county “wants to provide a helping hand to immigrants,” Tobar stressed. The office and bilingual staff of three now at Arlington Mill Community Center work remotely to match employers with workers. His team does not quiz laborers on immigration status—“we know they’re in some type of transition.” But if an employer says they need legals, we ask who has a permit.” Only occasionally do employers commit wage theft, and only occasionally do workers exaggerate their skill sets.

As for workers still by the Weenie Beanie. “They have freedom to be out there, unless they’re obstructing work.”

A special add-on to the hourly changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier unfolded at noon Sunday, Oct 24.

The Arlington Sister City Association previewed the 100th anniversary of the tomb by inviting French dignitaries, war vets and civic activists to travel here for a wreath-laying. A parallel ceremony took place in the French town of Chalons-en-Champagne, where the unidentifiable body of a deceased American fighting man was selected one century ago to the day by Sgt. Edward Younger (buried nearby).

This wreath bore ribbons for Arlington County, Chalons, the association and our sister city of Reims. I accompanied the group on an impromptu tour of the Tomb Guard Quarters, where we learned of that prestigious Army unit’s history and training. County board member Libby Garvey, though conversant in French, asked that a bilingual guest perform the translating. The French Air Force military attache did the honors.