In 2001, Javier Rodriguez was hired with four others to load materials onto a truck at a Santa Cruz County home. Many people in the county find employment in a similar fashion, waiting on sidewalks and outside of stores like Home Depot in search of a day’s work.
Before long however, Rodriguez’s employer that day began yelling at him and the other workers for not doing their jobs correctly. He grew uncomfortable with the verbal abuse and demanded to be returned to the street. While he and the others still received pay for that job, Rodriguez said he’s heard of employers who drop off day laborers after a job, promising pay, but never come back.
Rodriguez now does outreach for the Day Worker Center of Santa Cruz County, which opened its doors on April 2. Located at 2261 7th Ave.in the Live Oak area of Santa Cruz, Rodriguez said the center will allow workers to find safe jobs that pay fair wages. He also hopes the classes taught at the center will allow day laborers to improve their skills and ultimately put themselves on a path to more stable employment.
“My philosophy is that I will help every single person I hire,” Rodriguez said. “I’m willing to teach you what I know, so you can become your own boss. I want these people to go ahead in life too.”
The mission of the center, according to its website, is to “facilitate the hiring of day workers, both men and women; and to guarantee them dignified wages and safe working conditions in accordance with U.S. and California law.” In order to secure these improved conditions, the center provides training on workers’ rights and safety regulations and matches workers with responsible employers.
The center is led by director Mireya Gomez-Contreras, who has been working to open it since 2007 and is hopeful for the center’s future.
“I think we set a good foundation for the center to grow,” she said. “We’re going to have more people register and it will create a greater awareness for day workers.”
The center’s opening was delayed by the opposition of local residents, who protested outside of the proposed site of the center last summer, citing traffic and other concerns. Members of the Save Our Street (SOS) group held signs with slogans such as “No Day Worker Center Here,” in an attempt to have the center located elsewhere.
The Community Action Board, which had been responsible for planning the center, received approval from the county zoning administration in March of last year. However, SOS members hired an attorney and appealed the decision. After considerable discussion between the Community Action Board and SOS members, a conditional use permit was granted by the planning commission of Santa Cruz in July, allowing plans to open the center to go forward.
Conditions like tracking the methods of transportation for workers to and from jobs and no loitering on nearby streets helped the center find common ground with the community, Gomez-Contreras said.
“There has been tension but there has also been a lack of knowledge about the day worker centers,” Gomez-Contreras said. “We responded by being accessible.”
In the two weeks the center has been open, 19 job matches were made and 10 workers have been sent out to jobs, Gomez-Contreras said. The center matches workers with jobs suited to their skills by putting their names on a rotating list. Employers can contact the center for workers, and the workers who don’t get placed on a given day go to the top of the list for the next day.
“What I would like the center to become is a place where the workers learn their rights to be able to run the center themselves and advocate for themselves,” said operations manager Daisy Miranda. “ That’s ideally what I would like to see — for workers to protect themselves.”
In addition to the outreach he does with the center, Rodriguez also works as a landscaper for several longtime clients and no longer has to look for different jobs every day — something that wouldn’t be possible without the skills in landscaping, plumbing and construction work he’s gained over the years.
Having witnessed the impact of education first-hand, he’s hopeful the center will be able to move past the initial opposition it encountered and become a valuable resource for day workers in the county as time goes on.
“Give us a chance and give yourself chance to get to know us,” Rodriguez said. “That might change your perspective about day worker centers and your workers. First know us, then judge us.”