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Photograph by Steve Hahn
Marking Time: Day laborers wait for work near Lumbermen's on River Street in Santa Cruz.

Working it Out

Santa Cruz County wrestles with the idea of a day laborer center.

By Steve Hahn

Peals of laughter fill a small anteroom in the Trinity Methodist Church where 25 unemployed workers are watching television. The mood in this room that doubles as the Mountain View Day Labor Center is one of general good cheer as people wait for their names to come up on the rotating job list, a measure taken to ensure that no laborer with the proper skills is given less work than the rest.

The center is a modest affair, hosted in a mostly bare room and relying on the charity of local church groups for its very existence. But this simple indoor gathering place for out-of-work immigrant laborers has been held up as a model of what is possible in Santa Cruz County, where day laborers currently brave the elements, and each other, outside home supply stores hoping for a few hours of work.

Center director Maria Marroquin, who was recognized by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber as a community hero in 2006, explains how far she has come since the days when she and her fellow workers had nowhere to go for work but the streets.

"Looking for work out on the street is no way for a human being to live," she says firmly. "This center is more dignified. The employer calls and asks for a worker and the worker is able to negotiate openly how long they'll be working, the wage they'll be receiving and what the working conditions will be. So everything is already set up beforehand and the worker is safe and secure."

Marroquin's center is part of a growing trend. There are over 140 day labor centers across the nation, and a well-connected task force is hoping to add Santa Cruz County to that list. Members are still searching for a site and funding, but they hope something can be set up within the next year--even if it's as simple as a tent and some benches in a parking lot.

David Foster, a planning commissioner for the city of Santa Cruz, is heading up the task force, which was created in response to complaints from Lumbermen's, Home Depot and other businesses where customers are regularly approached by eager workers.

"Even 20 years ago in Santa Cruz this was an issue," says Foster. "San Lorenzo Lumber was very upset about it. Their customers were complaining about public urination, littering, being swarmed by six guys asking them for work and the backed-up traffic. If you ask any of the City Council members or county supervisors, they'll tell you they get calls from neighbors complaining, too."

Some of those neighbors aren't convinced that spending tax money to solve these problems is worth the effort. Critics point out that the initial planning for the center has already taken thousands of dollars from city and county coffers during a tight budget period, and that the benefits would mainly flow to illegal immigrants.

Then there's the question of where to put all these migrant laborers. Corralling them into one place is going to be a tough sell when it comes time to select a site for the center. The April 8 Board of Supervisors meeting was a prime example of this coming difficulty. About 10 members of the Soquel Neighbors Alliance showed up to demand the day labor center not be built on 41st Avenue. Many of those who spoke questioned whether the center was really a "community benefit" or just a funneling of county resources toward something that would only benefit a few hundred residents who aren't even taxpaying U.S. citizens.

The Bully Factor
Introducing a modicum of order into the day labor hiring process will, however, be a welcome trend for the workers Foster's group has surveyed. Oftentimes, the quickest and strongest worker is able to shove everyone else aside to reach the employer's car window. Foster hopes the center will rationalize this process by creating a list for each job type--construction, janitorial, landscaping, etc.--and having people sign in on a daily basis.

"If you happen to be the fastest or strongest guy, you get to the car first and the guy who's a little older and can't hustle as much or doesn't speak English can't get to the car in time," notes Foster. "So then they end up being pushed aside. So it's this very competitive and sometimes violent process of getting hired."

These problems prompted Foster and other city leaders, including Santa Cruz City Councilmembers Cynthia Matthews and Tony Madrigal, to hold a series of community meetings with members of labor unions, the business community and the laborers themselves to determine what could be done. Foster says it's too early to tell what exactly a Santa Cruz Day Labor Center might look like. For now, his task force is focused on raising $50,000 for a feasibility study that will analyze how it should be run and where it will be located. So far contributions have come in large chunks; $5,000 each from the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville, $10,000 from the county, $10,000 from the charity group Appleton Foundation, $1,000 from a group of Catholic charities and $500 each from the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council and the Carpenters Local 505. A proposal is pending before the Capitola City Council for $3,000, leaving $15,000 more to round up before a consultant can be hired to conduct the study.

The financial support of the unions, though modest, is a major about-face in labor policy compared to only a few years ago. In 1999 the unions came out against a proposal for a day labor center in Santa Cruz because of fears that union wages would be undercut. The city council, which had been set to approve the center, eventually dropped its support and the idea died.

Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, says his group has been working with the task force to make sure the center is set up in a way that doesn't undercut union jobs and ensures fair working conditions for laborers.

"We don't want to support a proposal that is simply going to move the problem of worker exploitation from outside to inside," he says, adding, "We're definitely supportive of the idea as a concept. Back in '99 there weren't successful models around the nation we could draw from. Times have definitely changed, and there are now models we support."

Place Matters
Not everyone is thrilled about the prospect of a centralized location designed to draw to one spot the approximately 400 day laborers currently fragmented into three locations. The Soquel Neighbors Alliance in particular is unhappy with a sentence in the task force report that recommends, "The Center should be in the mid-County area, generally described as Soquel Drive/41st Avenue."

Steve Kennedy, a representative from the Neighbors Alliance, believes it is inappropriate for the county to add more buildings, and hence traffic, to the 41st Avenue area without consulting the community first. He believes the two supervisors who support funding the feasibility study, Tony Campos and Neal Coonerty, are trying to dump the problems of their respective South and North County districts on the unincorporated district represented by fellow Supervisor Jan Beautz.

"We were sort of blindsided by this," exclaims Kennedy. "Somehow supervisors Coonerty and Campos took an end run around Jan on this thing."

Foster notes the 41st Avenue location was a "recommendation" and not a certainty. After all, they don't even have all the money for a feasibility study yet, let alone the funds to pay for leasing a building or plot of land.

"This was a knee-jerk reaction by people who don't understand what they're talking about," says Foster.

Nice Gesture
Other critics question whether the day laborers will actually use these centers. Who would choose a small building with little visibility over a major street as a site from which to advertise one's willingness to work? Indeed, the Mountain View Day Labor Center was very hard to find; a reporter looking for it passed by three times before realizing it was tucked in the corner of a church building. It is unclear whether homeowners with a roof to patch or junk to haul will have the patience to find a center and then go through the negotiating process, or if they'll simply drive back out to Home Depot where they know the laborers will be waiting.

It's probable that women, older workers and experienced specialists will be happy to put their names on a list that rotates, ensuring them a fair chance at work. But younger men who are better at the hustle might not take to the idea as fondly. And there are no plans to outlaw loitering in front of hardware stores.

Still other skeptics have raised the specter of raids by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). However, that's unlikely, according to ICE Public Information Officer Pat Reilly. She says that's never happened in the agency's history. She clarified that ICE only targets registered criminals or employers of illegal immigrants in its raids and that randomly bursting into day labor centers is considered bad policy.

"It's much more targeted than that," says Reilly. "Day labor centers are informal gathering places, and we only do targeted raids of employers hiring illegal immigrants or the houses and workplaces of known criminals. It would be neither good immigration or public safety policy for us to randomly round up day laborers."

Back in Mountain View, Marroquin is negotiating with a man in a U-Haul truck. He needs two men to help him move and has just signed a contract agreeing to pay them $12/hour, provide them with bathroom breaks and drop them back off at the Center. As the three men drive off, Marroquin explains those workers will go to the bottom of the work list now, ensuring others will get their chance to be hired. As she shuffles some papers in her cramped office, she becomes reflective.

"Many of these workers are here without family," she says. "They're in a society they don't necessarily accept. At centers like this, however, they feel like it's their home. They can talk with other people. It's a community feeling and they make the rules. Everyone looks over the children when the mothers go to work. They feel like they own the center."

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