It was just another Tuesday for Carlos, 51, and his four comrades. They stood in a small group, their hands in their coat pockets, shuffling to keep warm against the early morning chill and watching—hopefully—for someone to show up and offer them a single day’s work.
From the auto parts store parking lot where they had gathered, at Foothill and Fruitvale Ave., they eyed passing U-Haul trucks and vans. Carlos is a plumber, undocumented, originally from Mexico, living in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. He once worked as a crew foreman, he said, but the economic downturn changed that. Now a day laborer, he has been coming to this parking in the mornings for the last six years.
“I did very well in the past,” Carlos said as he glanced furtively at a passing construction truck. He sought to make eye contact with driver and watched for a hand gesture indicating a day’s work of plumbing, carpentry or landscaping.
Oakland, like many other cities around the Bay Area, used to have a publicly funded center that supported day laborers like Carlos—unemployed, mostly undocumented men seeking day-to-day work in everything from carpentry to landscaping. The former Oakland day labor center served as an indoor gathering place, serving breakfast and offering health clinic services, where workers would wait for employers to either pass by or call and request their services. It also provided occupational safety equipment and eye care. “A doctor came every Wednesday,” Carlos said.
But in 2010 the center closed, a victim of city budget cuts. For the past two years, Oakland has been one of the few Bay Area cities without a day labor center. Now the city has offered a $160,000 grant to help open a new center. According to the city’s “request for proposal” document, the grant is meant to jumpstart the day labor project, with the chosen organization expected to raise necessary additional funds.
Various organizations are applying for the day labor program startup funds, including the Hayward Day Labor Center, which has been open for seven years and has helped laborers in that city with everything from finding jobs to taking employers to court for not paying workers.
Another organization, a Fruitvale-based clinic called the Street Level Health Project, is also applying. In an effort to fill the gap the city left in 2010, the Street Level Health group began its own day labor program last spring, called the Oakland Workers Collective. The organization, which already provides doctors, and health screenings for migrants, has now set up a website to which contractors can go to learn about the program and find contact information.
Unlike many centers, Street Level Health does not maintain a central location where workers come to wait for work. Instead, when staff members receive a call from a potential employer, they dispatch a day laborer directly to the job site from wherever the worker is standing, including parking lots outside stores like Home Depot or O’Reilly’s Auto Parts, where Carlos and the other men were waiting.
The Street Level Health organization also provides regular occupational safety classes, and meets every Tuesday with workers. Street Level Health supplies safety gear, such as knee-pads, hard hats and ear plugs. Their day laborer project, the Oakland Workers Collective, consists of 15 members and has provided the workers with more than 100 jobs between March and October.
Carlos said he remembers the last Oakland laborers’ center, located on High Street—and that he misses it. The center focused on more than just finding work for him. “On the days you didn’t get work, they would give you a salad for lunch,” he said. Carlos said that meant a lot to him, especially during the winter, when for three to four months there is little work. And he said the doctors were especially helpful during flu season.
Carlos said he hopes that the new program will be similar to the last one. His comrade José, 57, chimed in, saying he would like to not have to wait for work in the O’Reilly’s parking lot, where he doesn’t feel safe.
José gestured towards a nearby sign warning of a $1,000 fine to any person who picked up a day laborer. Every day José and his fellow workers are at risk of being removed from the parking lot. “The police have threatened to run us out of here,” he said. “So a center would be very helpful.”
Street Level Health development and communications director Joel Aguiar said that in addition to offering more safety workshops, his organization would use the funds to expand their program.
“We would definitely want to increase our marketing piece to refer more jobs to day laborers,” Aguiar said. Citing ongoing negotiations with the city, he declined to discuss specifics on how his group would use the funds.
The Hayward center has served day laborers for seven years, and director Gabriel Hernandez said he hopes to bring his model, which would involve renting a physical space, to Oakland. If he wins the grant from Oakland, Hernandez said he will be given a matching grant of $100,000 from private donors to run the Oakland day labor center. Should his group start an Oakland center, he said, he would hope to emphasize supporting workers with wage claim disputes. Hernandez said employers often take advantage of day laborers by refusing to pay them when they day’s work is done. He has been fighting these cases for more than twenty years.
“We’ve actually had employers having to pay restitution,” Hernandez said, “and then being incarcerated because of the amount of stuff that they do.” A 2007 study on day laborers and worker centers in California stated that an average monthly salary for a day laborer in Oakland was $600, which was on par with San Jose and San Francisco. This also took into account workers who were unpaid for their labor.
“I think more services for day laborers, regardless of which organizations are providing them, are definitely needed,” Aguiar said.
Workforce Investment Board director John Bailey, who is overseeing the distribution of funds for the day labor project, said he is excited at the chance to help reintroduce a day labor program in the city.
“This is an opportunity for us to not only provide connections to jobs,” he said, but also “an opportunity to possibly add some training and skills for individual workers.”
In the meantime, Carlos and José continue seeking work in Fruitvale day after day. One of their fellow workers, Julio, 48, said funding for a day labor program would make a big difference for him because it would help him find more painting jobs.
“This would be more support for me, so that I can help my family,” he said, “That’s more important than anything else.”