A woman nobody has seen before uses the office phone. A man from the street comes asking for socks. The hungry are welcome to get lunch. That’s an ordinary Wednesday at the Day Labor Program center.
“I have a feeling of protection coming here,” said Ismael Flores while standing outside of the center. He’s a three-week-old member who comes “to look for work, meet friends and chat.”
That in fact was what the Day Labor Program at 3358 Cesar Chavez St, was meant to do, according to its mission statement. The two-story space on the same street where day laborers line up for work was founded in 1991. Even during the boom economy of 2006, a member could expect only one job a week.
Nevertheless, day laborers keep showing up from Monday to Saturday to a center that’s become a refuge where every morning there is coffee and bread and each day of week brings a new offering: Tuesdays, a doctor gives check ups; Wednesdays volunteers gives haircuts and make lunch; Fridays a teacher gives an English class and once a month, advanced students serve as chiropractors.
“A lot of us come here to get help to survive,” said Flores. They arrive at 6 a.m. when the center opens to add their name to a list hoping to be called for a day job.
If their name is high on the list, they wait watching the news or telenovelas in Spanish. If their name is far below, they join the non-members at 26th or Cesar Chavez streets hoping to get picked up for work.
These days the list has 60 or 70 member names but only about five members a day get a job.
“You are lucky if you get two jobs in a month through the program,” said Hugo Vera, a day laborer, who had retreated to the street.
Joel Aguiar, a job developer for the program paid by La Raza, which took over the program in 2001, said, that nowadays, with the downturn in the economy, “a member might get work once a month.”
The program has about 140 members, and even now, prospective members continue to attend an orientation meeting.
Even if jobs are rare, picking up work on the street is riskier and at least being in contact with the Day Labor Center gives workers a network, they said.
Take Alfredo Mendoza, for example.
Two women moving from San Francisco to Oakland recently picked him up on Cesar Chavez to help with the move. When he finished in Oakland, however, they refused to pay him. “I don’t speak English and couldn’t figure out what happened,” said Mendoza.
Although work is infrequent, at least getting a job through the Day Labor Program, Mendoza is more likely to get paid. Employers who call the center are informed to pay at least minimum wage, provide safe conditions and give them breaks. They know they’ll be held accountable for on-the-job-injury.
Employers leave their names and contact information and they get the name of the worker too. “It is safer for the employer and for the employee,” said Hannah Pallmeyer, a volunteer program job developer.
At the center, only members get the jobs but nobody gets turned down if they want a cup of coffee or to use the services.
On a recent Wednesday, Carlos Montana a 22-year-old from El Salvador helped bring in heavy boxes of donated juice. “I like being here. I know the people,” said Montana who isn’t yet a member, but likes to use the computers available at the center.
In a recent orientation Aguiar told the five attendees, “The program can’t do miracles. This is only one of the things you can do to find work.” Having said that, he also explained what the center had to offer. The five men listened intently and later three of them signed up.
Members get an ID. “You can show the ID to the police if they ask you, and they know you belong here,” said Aguiar.
Members give $1 per month to the center. The money goes to a fund managed exclusively by them. They have used the money to get uniform t-shirts, make “hire us” signs and to organize a Father’s Day carne asada in the park.
Some of the obligations, the men at the orientation were told, include delivering flyers from the day labor program to mailboxes, and cleaning clean the center once a month, a job that Aguiar assured them, “takes about 15 minutes.” They don’t have to participate in any of these jobs until after they get their first job.
On Thursdays and Saturdays one program employee and three day laborers sweep 26th and Cesar Chavez streets. This outreach began to improve relationships with neighbors who had complained about human waste and garbage on the streets.
Pallmeyer, job developer, said that it was a great feeling when, a couple months ago, a member of the community offered strawberries and told them how grateful he was for the job they were doing cleaning the streets. “That has been the best memory that I have from working here,” she said.