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.