By Michelle Fitzsimmons
City News Reporter
Men sit or lean on a low concrete wall. Some wear baseball caps, most don long-sleeved flannel shirts. All have weather-worn faces, deep creases cut into their skin like riverbeds.
These are the day laborers of Santa Cruz, congregating in front of Lumbermens from 6 a.m. until the late afternoon, waiting for an employer to drive up and hire them for the day, the week, or maybe even a month-long project.
“It is very competitive,” said Manuel, 29, as his friends gathered around, thinking he was getting a job but soon realizing he was only answering questions.
“The boss, he doesn’t come every day, so sometimes you get work, other days, no,” he said.
Manuel, like many Santa Cruz County residents, is an immigrant who doesn’t speak very much English and can’t find a permanent job.
Local businesses, labor activists, and some members of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors want to help the county’s day laborers and protect their rights by constructing a permanent center where they can safely seek employment.
City councilman Tony Madrigal is collaborating with supporters on the County Board of Supervisors to press for the project.
“A day labor center needs to be built because the current situation in the county needs to be addressed,” he said. “The way it is operating now isn’t working for local businesses, workers, and the citizens of Santa Cruz.”
Santa Cruz County’s Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to allocate $10,000 for a private consultant to research the feasibility of such a project.
The center has the support of members of the Santa Cruz city and county government, local businesses, the city council of Watsonville, and the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, to name a few, Madrigal said.
In a preliminary proposal, the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz and the Community Task Force for a Day Labor Center, both nonprofit citizen coalitions, have suggested that the city choose a location easily accessible to day laborers in both Santa Cruz and Watsonville.
The report specifically mentions building the site at 41st Avenue and Soquel Drive, where many laborers already gather.
During an April 9 city council meeting, the $10,000 research grant was denied because one of the supervisors, Jan Beautz, dissented in the 5–1 vote.
Beautz is the supervisor of the First District, which includes Soquel Drive and 41st Avenue. She said her constituents are outraged that the Board of Supervisors would consider building such a mammoth project without considering the impact on the area’s residents.
“I think the Soquel people are really upset,” Beautz said. “There is just too much traffic. It’s always congested. It isn’t fair to put everything in one congested place.”
Manuel has heard about the proposed day labor center, but doesn’t have much opinion about it.
“Yeah,” Manuel said as he shrugged his shoulders. “It’s good.”
Madrigal thinks a day labor center would be a vast improvement on men lingering in parking lots.
“To provide equal opportunities, we need a place that is safe, secure, orderly, and provides protection for workers and their rights and the people who employ and hire for day labor,” Madrigal said.
It’s not that a day labor center shouldn’t be built, Jan Beautz said, but that the feasibility plan should be taken into account before any further steps are taken.
“We should start over,” Beautz said. “They are calling this a feasibility study but really this is an implementation study.”
Beautz noted the failure of existing centers.
“It’s been done in many places where it doesn’t work,” Beautz said. “I don’t think it will work in Santa Cruz. People will still stand in front of Home Depot because that’s where people go to buy things.”
Madrigal and other supporters believe the center will send a message to Santa Cruz County’s day laborers.
“This will be a place where they can all see a community supportive of them gathering and looking for jobs to feed their families,” Madrigal said. “It’s worked in other places, and we can do it in Santa Cruz too.”