Help Wanted

For local day-laborers, the Southside Worker Center offers safety and community

At this time of year, in the depths of winter, there's not even a hint that dawn is near when day-laborers start heading out from their homes to search for work.

The destination for many local day-laborers sits inside the Southside Presbyterian Church, 317 W. 23rd St. Every weekday morning, the Southside Worker Center—consisting of a small classroomlike space with chairs, a table, a writing board and a coffee maker—fills up with about 25 workers who need help finding a job for the day.

But the center is much more than an intermediary between employers and workers. Over the years, it also has become a collective of men and women who, despite their personal hardships, are there to support and learn from each other.

When Marco Tulio Flores lost his job at a local factory, a friend told him to go to Southside Presbyterian and ask about the worker center. It came as a huge relief for the 56-year-old native of Guatemala, and he has been making his way there almost every morning for the past four years. Sometimes, Flores is absent because he's able to find jobs on his own. But for the last couple of days, there haven't been any jobs, and Flores' anxiety is building, because the money is starting to run out again.

"I haven't worked in a few days, so I told myself I should probably come today and see if I can find something here," Flores says. "Some days, I work for a couple of hours, and then there are days when I don't get anything."

It's about 6:45 a.m. on a Wednesday as Flores sits with the other workers waiting for the "job raffle," which determines the order in which job-seekers will be picked. Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, one of the center's coordinators, spins a drum filled with balls that have numbers on them. The workers wait, hoping to hear their number called first. When employers make their way into the church's parking lot, the first few workers on the list have priority.

On this morning, Flores' number is called out last. He walks outside with his cup of coffee, places his backpack on a picnic table and sits down. He stares at a wall, trying to formulate plan B. He says he can't afford another day without work. "I don't only worry about myself. I worry about all the other workers here, too," he says. When Flores speaks of the other workers, he refers to them as "mis compañeros," my comrades. "Every day is a struggle for us."

For those who aren't picked for jobs, there is an opportunity to participate in another raffle to determine who will be the volunteer of the day: Who will help Ochoa and the other coordinators, Stephanie Quintana and Alejandro Valenzuela, clean up the room and the rest of the church? The worker chosen gets his name in the No. 2 spot for jobs on the following day.

Since it opened its doors in 2006, the worker center has evolved into an educational institution as well as a safe-haven for day-laborers. Before the center opened, many of the workers would wait on street corners or in alleys for someone in need of a carpenter, a gardener or a plumber. Many would-be employers take advantage of such situations. The workers often are paid miserable wages, and there is always the risk of not being paid at all. At the worker center, Ochoa, Valenzuela and Quintana act as middlemen between the day-laborers and potential employers.

"We are in charge of negotiating with the employers," Ochoa says. "We document the type of labor they're looking for, how many hours they'll need the worker for, how much they'll pay. And we write down the employer's information in case there's an issue of unpaid labor."

Center volunteers hold classes on labor rights and other work-related issues at least a couple of times a month. And some of the workers who are experienced in certain fields, such as carpentry or tile work, help train newer members of the worker center.

Ochoa, looking back at when he became a permanent volunteer at the worker center about two years ago, says, "I would come once or twice a week, but I was taken aback by the situation, because sometimes, the parking lot would also fill up with other people who would be there drinking, selling drugs. Fights would break out." But then "we decided to talk to the workers, move them inside away from all of that, and into a more-positive and disciplined environment."

Ochoa and other volunteers created a membership system. People interested in joining the worker center undergo an orientation and review. They're given a contract that lists all of their responsibilities as members of the center, and the consequences if they break any of the agreements. Among other things, the contract asks a worker to "promote and ground myself in the principles of solidarity, brotherhood, respect, equality, and unity ... to always contribute to the development of and improvement of the center ... to never use physical or verbal violence." The center has become a brotherhood where everyone looks after each other, and lends each other a hand regardless of race, immigration status, sexual orientation or age.

"I have suffered a lot in my life, and that has made me realize how important it is to have someone there to help you," Flores says. "That is what I love the most about this place, that we help each other more and more every day. This is a safe place for us to get a job. And even when there are days without work, I'm still so thankful to this church, the center, mis compañeros and everyone here."

Lately, the day laborers haven't been able to work much. Ochoa says that the depressed economy, anti-migrant laws and a lack of information about the center all are factors.

In a few weeks, worker center members will launch a campaign to attract more employers. They plan to make T-shirts, fliers and business cards to spread the word about the center.

"Little by little, we have been able to create a community here where everyone feels comfortable and safe," Ochoa says. "Despite the unemployment and personal problems, they come here for support, and a place that welcomes them with open arms."