Day labor centers in Sonoma County unite in new aid campaign

An $80,000 grant from Sonoma County will be used to expand services and connect day laborers with health and social programs.|

Community organizers have long pushed to create a day labor center in Petaluma that would provide a fairer and safer way for workers to earn a wage.

After numerous unsuccessful attempts, supporters are closer to fulfilling that goal, thanks to the creation of a countywide labor center collaborative. Led by the Graton Day Labor Center, the consortium received $80,000 last month from Sonoma County to expand services and give day laborers and domestic workers more of a voice, as well as connect them to other health and social services.

A portion of the money will be used to hire a part-time organizer in Petaluma who can build trust with the workers who gather on city street corners seeking temporary jobs, as well as figure out what they would like to see in a labor center, or if they would even use it at all.

“The collaborative is going to give us an opportunity to bring in an organizer who can engage the workers in the conversation …” said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, which is part of the new Sonoma County Day Labor Consortium.

The organizer will be trained by the Graton Day Labor Center, Hempel said.

“It takes a lot of momentum for a community-led group to move the needle,” she said. “This collaboration gives us the burst of energy to get some of that work done, which has not been easy.”

Maureen Purtill, director of the Graton Day Labor Center, said discussions started this past October about creating a collaborative with the Petaluma group, as well as with La Luz Center in the Sonoma Valley and California Human Development, which runs labor centers in Fulton and Healdsburg. The four organizations will be sharing resources and best practices in a monthly meetings and weekly conference calls, she said. The goal is to better address the needs of day laborers and domestic workers countywide, as well as provide them with training and leadership development and encourage them to push for fairer pay.

“For the first time, we’re all paying attention to day labor issues together,” Purtill said.

Labor centers evolved as a way to get workers off the streets, secure fair pay and curtail wage abuse. There are three in the county, including permanent facilities in Graton and Healdsburg and a mobile site in Fulton.

Purtill estimated 2,000 day laborers live in the county. She said many of them work in agriculture but in the off-season are forced to look for temporary jobs.

“Our hope is to raise the bar everywhere so that the day labor centers have empowered workers,” Purtill said.

County Supervisor Efren Carrillo said the Graton labor center is considered a national model and other organizations in the area stand to learn much from their experience. The worker-led center will be celebrating its 14th anniversary with a dinner and party at the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center on June 5.

“It’s considered a vibrant part of the Graton community,” Carrillo said. “It enhances the relationship between day laborers and domestic workers and the community in general.”

The money from the county will be divided among the organizations. It’ll be used in part to provide peer training on leadership development, safety, and wages and workers rights to more than 400 workers. The focus of trainings will be determined by the workers, said Kai Harris, programs director at California Human Development.

“What we’re doing takes lead from what the laborers themselves say they want,” he said.

Gervacio Peña, a day laborer who serves as board president of the Graton Day Labor Center, said wage theft isn’t all that uncommon. It happened to one of his uncles not long ago, he said. A contractor hired his uncle to do a fencing job. When his uncle went to cash his check for two days of work, it bounced, Peña said.

“It saddens me this still happens here,” he said. “They take advantage of the newly arrived or the ones who don’t know their rights.”

Organizing day laborers throughout the county would help them combat some of that wage abuse and seek a more livable wage, Peña said.

“The cost of living in this county is high. We have the same necessities” as other residents, he said.

La Luz also will be using the money to do a survey to figure out how many day laborers are in the Sonoma Valley and the services they need, said Malinalli López, community education and engagement program manager.

While she sees about two dozen men congregate regularly on Highway 12 near the Barking Dog Coffee Roaster, she said there could be more living in the area.

“We have a need for their services,” she said about day laborers. “Because they’re integrated in the local community, we do have a responsibility as residents of Sonoma County to help them.”

The consortium also will help connect the often uninsured and under-insured workers with health and other social services, said La Luz executive director Juan Hernandez. He applauded county officials for “not allowing a disenfranchised group to slip under the rug.”

“They’re the backbone of our economy,” Hernandez said about the workers.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.? On Twitter ?@eloisanews.

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