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Petaluma Day Labor Initiative Kickoff Event

What: Fundraiser featuring keynote speaker Dolores Huerta

When: Sept. 20, 5:30-11:30 p.m.

Where: Sheraton hotel, 745 Baywood Drive, Petaluma

Tickets: $75 at brownpapertickets.com/event/839969

Information: pdli@petalumapeople.org or Facebook

Community organizers, faith-based groups and Petaluma’s largest social service organization are banding together behind an ambitious effort to establish a multicultural and day labor center.

The Petaluma Day Labor Initiative is the third attempt in more than a decade to provide a safer and fairer way to connect dozens of day laborers who congregate on west Petaluma street corners each day looking for work and the homeowners or businesses seeking temporary workers.

With Petaluma People Services Center, El Día de los Muertos organizers and several churches on board this time, the recent effort has gained steam.

“Our goal is to establish a multicultural center,” said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center. “It will provide all different kinds of cultural activities and provide a connection to jobs that are legally obtainable and safe for both the person who is picking up the laborer and the laborer.”

The effort is still in the conceptual stages, with no specific location or details about the cost or what the end product might look like.

“We’re doing it cautiously,” Hempel said.

The group kicks off a fundraising drive Sept. 20 with a celebration featuring keynote speaker Dolores Huerta, the civil rights and labor leader who with Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association.

Ultimately, organizers hope to offer a place somewhat like the Graton or Healdsburg day labor centers, where work-seekers and employers register their needs and are matched according to abilities and wage agreements.

“We would love to see the center operating, at the latest, within the next two to three years,” said Teresa Lopez, a leading organizer and a 24-year Petaluma resident. “We’ve been talking about this for so long, and now with PPSC as a sponsor, we will be able to seek additional funding.”

Petaluma People Services Center is a 40-year-old nonprofit agency that provides a wide variety of social programs to elderly, homeless and low-income residents as well as youths and adults needing employment services.

Community partnerships are crucial for the effort to succeed, said Terry Winter, president of the Graton Day Labor Center board of directors.

That center opened seven years ago after organizers spent five years working through a community buy-in process. Volunteers worked with laborers and community members to assuage fears, suspicions and skepticism about their motives.

“Developing a relationship of trust with day laborers is a big issue,” Winter said. “There are also controversies about impacts to the surrounding neighborhood, issues of race, issues of income, issues of traffic flow, issues of environmental degradation and camping in the woods.

“We had to really work with the community, including those folks who were opposed to or fearful of what we were doing, to develop enough trust so they felt heard and we could integrate their concerns into our designs.”

For years in Petaluma — as in Graton, Healdsburg and other Sonoma County communities — dozens of day laborers have congregated on street corners seeking temporary jobs. Employers looking for workers drive up and are often deluged by workers offering their labor.

Carlos Lopez and Jose Hernandez waited Friday morning for jobs at a gas station on Howard Street. Neither had heard about the latest attempt to open a day labor center.

Lopez, who said he has lived in the U.S. for 23 years, was skeptical of a third party involved in his work.

“We don’t need a center,” he said. “I like to work for myself, no one else. I pay my taxes. I don’t want to give my money to anybody else.”

Others who declined to give their names said they would like to hear more. They said they are sometimes nervous about working for strangers and would welcome support.

Lopez said he occasionally has been scammed by an employer who, after the work is done, claims he doesn’t have enough money to pay and threatens to call the police if Lopez objects.

Nearby residents and business owners occasionally complain to the police about the laborers, reporting nuisances including loitering, trespassing, littering and public urination, police Lt. Tim Lyons said. But for the most part, the men haven’t posed a serious problem for law enforcement.

Carol Volpi, who lives a few houses away from a gas station where the men often congregate, said she has never had problems with them. They occasionally park in front of her house, which she said bothers some of her neighbors.

“I’ve used them a lot,” she said. “They’re the hardest workers.”

The men also sometimes wait at a vacant restaurant at Western Avenue where English and Howard streets meet, across from Bill & Jay’s automotive repair shop.

Co-owner Jay Matteri said he appreciates that the men want to work, but it bothers him that day workers undercut the wages of union laborers.

“They basically keep to themselves,” he said. “But I’ve seen construction companies swing by and pick them up. They pay them pennies on the dollar instead of paying union guys. It’s not fair to people in a union.”

Organizer Teresa Lopez, who was born in the United States but whose family comes from the Jalisco region of Mexico, said she understands feelings on both sides. About 10 years ago, she began wanting to help make the employment process safer for the workers and employers.

“Seeing the men standing looking for work on the corners … more and more there was a presence of day labor workers,” she said. “For us to ignore their presence and say, ‘It’s not our issue, it doesn’t affect us,’ that’s not true.

“It does affect us. There is something that can be done. For someone to have to look for work that way — there has to be a more dignified way.”

The goal, said organizer George Beeler, is to develop a system that is fair, legal and morally right. He is a past president of Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, one of the faith-based organizations involved.

“I’ve actually hired day laborers to do yard work. But I wasn’t sure what was a fair amount to pay,” he said. “As soon as I drove up, a bunch of guys were ready to hop in the car and get some work. That was really awkward.”

Organizers said they are confident they can find a method that ensures safety and accountability for both sides while protecting neighborhoods from the street-corner loitering. They said they can work within the laws to assure safety and accountability for workers and employers.

Winter said hiring a day laborer is as legal as hiring a baby-sitter or other short-term temporary worker. Unless a person is hired to do more than $6,500 of work in a year, no documentation, IRS or wage laws apply. He said a day labor center can help employers and workers navigate a work environment that often is fraught with assumptions and misconceptions.

“The day labor center is not brokering the employment,” he said. “It is creating a vehicle where employers and day laborers can find each other. They don’t handle any of the money.”

Lyons said Petaluma police have met with the organizers this year and will continue to be involved in the process.

In addition to connecting workers with employers, Hempel said the center would offer skills training, English language courses and access to help for people in the country illegally who wish to become legal residents.

“It is complicated,” she said. “But we’re focused on the community. They are part of our community. They need work. Let’s give them a safe place to get that work and a method, if they are not legally documented, to get legally documented.

“Let’s work on building a community connection that is safe for all.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Petaluma People Services Center has been providing services in Petaluma for 40 years. An earlier version of this story did not correctly describe the center’s age.

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