Jose Mauricio Ortiz was just 14 when he was drafted into the military to fight in the Salvadoran civil war. He stayed in the service for another 12 years before venturing abroad to find a way to support his six children.
He worked a number of odd jobs in Houston before making his way to California, where he suffered an injury while working in Fresno. One day, one of his superior officers called him from El Salvador and asked him about his location. He had a work visa ready to go, a parting gift courtesy of the military, one that would take him to Canada legally. But he was already in the U.S.
“If I had known that, I wouldn’t be here illegally,” Ortiz said in Spanish.
Ortiz, now 47, has been a San Francisco day laborer for the past eight years. He sleeps wherever he can, he said, sometimes on park benches or against the outside wall of a shelter when all the beds are full. Calling it a “home away from home,” Ortiz now relies on the San Francisco Day Labor Program at 3358 Cesar Chavez for services like healthcare and legal representation. Five years ago, he says, he was beaten by employers and arrested after they claimed he was the aggressor.
That case, he said, was resolved and his status cleared from “delinquent” to “victim” with the help of lawyers affiliated with the Day Labor Program. But those services might soon evaporate in the white heat of the current real-estate market.
Day Labor Program director Antonio Aguilera told Mission Local last week that he and his staff had just been notified by their landlord that their building is now for sale. The yellow stucco-covered structure, built in 1907 and remodeled three years ago, has just popped up on real-estate websites for $1.8 million. Not only is this a matter of concern for the residents of the three apartments on the structure’s upper floors, but for the 400-odd day laborers who, like Ortiz, depend on services here.
“We’re a little nervous,” Aguilera admitted. “We’re hopeful that we can work with the real estate company and the city to see if we can purchase the building.”
If Aguilera et al. manage to buy the place, he says, they’ll be able to provide more support to immigrant workers in need. If not, the center may find itself out of the place it’s called home for roughly 15 years. Already, half of its member workers, who use the center as pseudo job agency and placement center, are homeless and rely on programs here for health care services, food, and job training.
The program bridges the gap between employers and employees by offering a dispatch service to workers. People looking to hire workers for the day can call in and place a job order stipulating the amount of hours needed. Program staffers then use this as a roll-call sheet to assign the job, depending on the skills needed or placement order. Pay rates are discussed up front and there is a three-hour minimum for every worker.
Workers are able to become members here for a small fee and use the center’s facilities, join in workshops and training meetings, learn new skills, and even grab an industrial-sized bag of bread, fruits and vegetables on their way out the door. In morning meetings, you’ll find a slew of men paying attention to a projector as they add bullet points for their next meeting and hold discussions on the best areas to get picked up for jobs, what to do about Muni fees, and how to handle equipment safely.
It’s a way to bring collective power to an informal workforce, Aguilera said, and ensure their wages are not pocketed by devious employers.
Ines Estrada is one worker who has benefited from the program’s services. Sometimes he gets paid to provide work estimates on jobs, he said. As one of the many multi-skilled workers of the center — he is a proficient carpenter and plumber — he can demand more than minimum rates.
He’s been a member for three years, but Estrada has been a migrant worker in California since the early 1990s. When he first arrived from Mexico in Ontario, Calif., finding work was hard. A program like this one, he said, would have been amazing back then. It’s even helped him and his family obtain health insurance with San Francisco’s municipal health plan.
“Here, you hang out with the compañeros, they bring food, we spend our time here,” Estrada said in Spanish.
The Day Labor Program Center, according to Aguilera, opened its doors on Cesar Chavez some 15 years ago after community residents raised complaints about men milling about looking for work on local street corners. Before moving to this building, the center operated out of a trailer parked on 16th Street near Franklin Park.
The program partnered with the Women’s Collective, La Colectiva, and offers domestic and household services across the city, Aguilera said.
County documents show that the building’s deed was transferred to Chona Miranda in 2005. When contacted, Miranda redirected all inquiries to her real estate agent. She didn’t reveal who that was, and said she would have the agent call Mission Local. To date, he or she hasn’t called.
A spokesperson for Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office said that “it’s vitally important that this program remains,” and Ronen will be exploring ways to help.
“This office was instrumental in helping Dolores Street Community Services getting a stable location for the Day Labor Program. We’ll be looking for ways that we can help.”
If the program can purchase its current building, Aguilera said there’s the possibility of housing some of its members in the living quarters upstairs.
“It’s not an ideal facility for us, but it is where we live. We don’t want to be homeless,” Aguilera said.