Ten years ago, Javier Rodriguez didn’t know if it was possible to organize the workers who gathered each day along River Street and outside Home Depot to wait for work in construction and other odd jobs. There were groups in cities like Mountain View and San Francisco that vetted job leads and negotiated pay for day workers in similar situations, but in Santa Cruz, it was already hard enough for Rodriguez to keep up with rent and spend time with his family.
“We’re like ghosts in the community,” says Rodriguez, now 55. “Only when it’s needed, we go and make ourselves visible.”
The more he thought about it, the more Rodriguez liked the idea of having a place in Santa Cruz to help bring stability to seasonal and often-unpredictable day labor. A model emerged from informal church meetings that started around 2009: register both workers and employers, negotiate job details and payment up front, then provide training classes between gigs.
In 2013, after securing the backing of the nonprofit Community Action Board and overcoming petitions that called a space for day workers an “unreasonable risk” to neighbors, the Day Worker Center of Santa Cruz County opened in a little white bungalow on 7th Avenue. More than five years later, 240 workers are registered and earning a minimum $18 an hour for work on construction, moving, landscaping and other jobs. Employers are mostly homeowners from Santa Cruz, Boulder Creek, Los Gatos, Davenport and occasionally Monterey County.
“We’ve come a long way,” says Rodriguez, who lives in Watsonville and is now president of the center’s workers’ committee, or comité de jornaleros. “Maybe I’m not on top of the world, but I feel safe.”
Lately, the center’s work has gotten more complicated. Rainy winters have always been tough, but even the higher minimum wage hasn’t kept up with local bedrooms that rent for $600-plus and small apartments that go for $1,500 or more. Unregulated gig sites like Craigslist and TaskRabbit also add competition.
“We need more jobs,” says Day Worker Center Program Director Maria Rodriguez-Castillo. “We need those phone calls coming through so we can continue to support families.”
The growing pains come as local groups like Santa Cruz Community Ventures launch their own new programs focused on widening local income inequality. The county’s median household income was an unusually high $73,663 in 2017, Census data shows, but one recent report found that nearly a quarter of residents earn less than an adjusted poverty rate of $34,000 a year.
Pair rising costs of living with decreasing job security across income levels, and local labor researchers say the future of work in Santa Cruz looks murky.
“Insecurity has crept up the occupational ladder,” says Steve McKay, a UCSC sociology professor and director of the university’s Center for Labor Studies. “At the bottom, without any kinds of subsidies, it then becomes really kind of impossible. It’s having two or three kinds of jobs. Your side gig has a side gig.”
The Day Worker Center is a member of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). In Santa Cruz, the Day Worker Center is envisioned as a fallback to make ends meet, a “last resort,” Rodriguez says, when people can’t find full- or part-time work, or they need extra cash.
Sergio Salas, 40, first heard about the center after he was laid off and found that doing jobs with other workers taught him new skills in carpentry and other trades. Juan Mercader Vera, a 31-year-old from Watsonville, comes to the center during the off-season for his family’s business selling fruit at farmers’ markets. Paul Usher, who has been traveling and working in Texas and California, found the center when he arrived in Santa Cruz by googling “day labor.”
The center works with many Latino men, but the ranks are diversifying, says Rodriguez-Castillo. Dozens of women also use the center to find work, primarily in cleaning.
“We do try to match the right worker with the employer,” including language and transportation preferences, says Luz Maria Fuentes, the center’s program coordinator.
Employers who hire workers through the center are usually private homeowners who pay in cash same day. The center does not offer insurance but advises on how homeowner’s insurance applies to day labor. Occasionally, businesses hire workers for short jobs that pay by check, which is also negotiated up front.
Rodriguez says workers recently raised their minimum rate to $18 an hour because they often do specialized work like carpentry and hard manual labor, such as digging holes. California’s state minimum wage is $11 or $12 an hour, depending on number of employees, and will rise to $15 for businesses with 26 or more employees in 2022.
In Santa Cruz County, a range of small businesses are experimenting with cooperative or other non-traditional models to work around high costs, from worker-owned food companies to pop-up retailers. The center’s building was also a collective effort. Workers bought and applied the sunny yellow paint on the walls. As part of an agreement to reduce rent, workers maintain a neighboring cemetery.
Workers come to the center and sign in on days they want to work. On slow days, there are classes on topics like financial literacy, first aid and wage theft—a combination of fast access to work and longer-term opportunity that appeals to many who use the center.
“I’ve never been involved in any group,” says Sergio Donis, 53, who moved to the Santa Cruz area from Los Angeles and was recently elected by fellow workers to be a spokesperson for the center. “It’s a great thing.”
The evolution of the local job market adds to the urgency for labor organizers at the center and beyond. By 2024, the county will need thousands more cashiers, farm workers, restaurant workers and personal care aids, which all pay around minimum wage, according to the most recent California Employment Development Department projections.
“They like to say that the fastest-growing jobs in Santa Cruz are tech jobs or financial jobs, but if you look at the numbers, they’re like 80 jobs here, 80 jobs there,” says UCSC professor McKay, whose students have worked to gather more data on low-wage workers in the county. “If you look at what are the biggest number of jobs being added, it’s all on the low end.”
At a recent weekly “general assembly” at the center on a cold Thursday morning, workers traded stories about keeping up in Santa Cruz County over champurrado, Mexican hot chocolate. Their main concern: “El problema de la renta,” Fuentes says—“the rent problem.”
Some have horror stories. Rodriguez heard about a basement in Watsonville that was sectioned off into five rooms, five people in each room, with one shared toilet and one refrigerator for all 25 residents. Others talk about people they know living with cockroach infestations, under tarps or out in the forest.
“We have it all,” Fuentes says. “We have workers that are living in their cars. We have workers that are sharing a room. We have workers that are homeless. The struggle, it’s really real.”
Still, Rodriguez says, the question of moving somewhere else comes down to simple math. Moving to Fresno or Merced might mean cheaper housing, but also lower pay. “I’m in almost the same situation,” he says. “I work seven days a week because I want to stay.”
Despite the challenges that come with a changing economy, Rodriguez is optimistic. As the center’s administrators work to convince more people to buy local when it comes to labor, he sees an opportunity to grow the number of jobs in surrounding areas.
“I know in every community there is a necessity,” Rodriguez says. “I still think this is the country of opportunity.”
The Day Worker Center of Santa Cruz will host a fundraiser with dinner and folk dancing at Peace United Church from 6-8:30 p.m. on March 23. Tickets $35. For details, or to hire a day worker, visit the center at 2261 7th Ave., call 475-9675 or go to dayworkercentersc.org.