Day Worker Center & Immigration

Capitola Patch [ REPRINT from 2011 ]

This is part of a series on immigration that is running across 12 Patch sites.

Every day in Santa Cruz County, 200-400 day laborers occupy four public spaces hoping to find work. At Home Depot in Soquel, Pro-Build in Santa Cruz, Home Depot in Watsonville and Southern Lumber in Scotts Valley, these men and women stand exposed to the elements, waiting for the right employer to come along. These day laborers who wait in parking lots face a myriad of problems, including the lack of a stable restroom, sufficient shade and safety from moving traffic.

All that could change if the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB) gets its way. CAB is a nonprofit that operates programs to help residents move out of poverty by focusing on job training, employment services, housing, immigration assistance and community building. It plans to build a day-laborer center, in the spirit of a grassroots movement, but the project is in the early stages.  In the meantime, Mireya Gomez-Contreras, CAB’s director of program development, has spent the last 18 months driving to local gathering sites to meet with day laborers as part of her fieldwork. “The purpose of this project is to address the very basic needs and to really hone in on the dignity of day laborers and the giving and receiving of respect as they stand out here every day and look for work,” Gomez-Contreras said.

A Mutually Beneficial Project

Opening a day-laborer center will not only benefit the day laborers, she contends, but those who hire day laborers, because the current situation lacks organization and accountability. “[People hiring] can’t judge the skill level they’re going to get,” said David Foster, housing and redevelopment manager for the city of Capitola. “There’s no way to look at references. There’s no way to get any background on the people they’re going to be working with.”

With a day-laborer center, workers will be able to identify their specialties on designated lists, making the hiring process more efficient. Right now for day laborers, it’s a “chaotic hiring process that doesn’t work for anybody,” Foster said. “It doesn’t work for the workers, because they’re standing out there, very exposed. They get no assistance if they need to negotiate a contract. There’s nobody there to help if they aren’t English-speaking.” The lack of an established center also takes its toll on the community, Foster said. “It doesn’t work for the local businesses,” he said. “This has been a long-standing problem for all of the businesses for a long time. They have just been inundated by the workers in their parking lot and the entryway to their business.”
A Laborer Speaks Out

Lalo Ramirez, a day laborer who has gone to the Home Depot on 41st Avenue since 2001, supports any plans for a day-laborer center in the county.

Ramirez had a regular construction job his first three years in the United States. After suffering an injury, though, he was fired and has worked as a day laborer ever since. “On average, I get about 20 to 25 hours a week,” Ramirez said. “But when it’s cold, like in December, sometimes it’s only 20 hours for the whole month. It’s really almost nothing.”  An organized center for laborers could help to solve problems like those Ramirez faces daily.

The Next Steps

Although there is support from community officials, there are still obstacles that must be overcome, including public awareness, funding and finding a location.

“Getting more community support is a challenge,” Gomez-Contreras said. “A way we are addressing that problem is providing forums for the community to come and get to know the issue.” People in the community who drive by or shop at the centers in which the day laborers wait may not know what’s going on, she said. “Bringing more awareness and getting to know some of the stories of the people is going to go a long way.”

Supervisor Neal Coonerty’s district includes one of the gathering sites for day laborers in search of work. He said he supports the plan for a center but said the county’s governing board focuses on zoning and land-use issues. “I think it would be helpful for the laborers and helpful to the people who want to hire laborers,” Coonerty said. “Where [a center is] located is something that has to be carefully done. It has to be a grassroots effort, where you go out and talk to your community and make sure they’re comfortable with it.”

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This article was produced through a collaboration of PatchU and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at San Jose State University. PatchU is a Patch Media initiative to build strong relationships with colleges and universities across the country. The mission of PatchU is to connect students and faculty to opportunities at Patch.

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