COVID-19’s hidden impact: The day laborer crisis minutes away from campus

Opinion by Chiara Giovanni
Nov. 2, 2020, 10:27 p.m.

“So many people have died.” Geraldo’s voice is steady at first. “We’re struggling to find work. We’re struggling to buy food. And now we’re struggling to even keep a roof over our heads.”

He inhales. “We — we weren’t expecting to be hit so badly.”

Geraldo is one of California’s thousands of day laborers, workers employed on a temporary, day-to-day basis in industries like construction, landscaping and domestic work. As the number of cases of COVID-19 seems to steady statewide, restaurant tables spill out into the street every weekend, and the 101 begins to fill up with gleaming Teslas once more, it can seem like things in the Bay Area are finally beginning to return to normal. The day laborer community, however, has still not truly recovered from the initial impact of the pandemic, with devastating personal, economic and social consequences.

If you leave campus and take El Camino Real, it’s not long before you arrive at the Day Worker Center of Mountain View. Tucked away in an unassuming corner right beside Central Expressway, the center exists to serve day laborers like Geraldo in Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale and other places that surround Stanford’s campus. Most of the people who benefit from the services offered by the center lack access to paid sick leave or healthcare: Over 25% do not have stable housing. The center reduces the need for workers to solicit employment in the street, provides English classes, has a dining room that offers breakfast and lunch every day, and works to provide laborers and their families with legal and financial resources that they otherwise would not be aware of. In the longer term, workers are offered the option to participate in collaborative projects, like making blankets for the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, along with avenues into organizing and community activism, including the opportunity to shape the workings of the center itself through positions on the board of directors.  

Workers come to the center at 7 every morning from Monday to Saturday: they sign up on a list in the order in which they arrive and settle in to wait for employment. Even under normal circumstances, work is unpredictable, and it is never clear how many employers will arrive on any given day. Since the pandemic, however, even this very precarious state of affairs has drastically deteriorated. From March to August of this year, the number of day jobs available to workers was barely a third of what it was during the same time period the previous year, meaning the workers’ collective earnings have also plummeted to a third of their 2019 income. Yet the cost of living in the South Bay has not followed suit, and even statewide eviction moratorium protections do not provide much reassurance to workers who are simply without work, and who have been for much of the last eight months.

Ximena, a domestic worker from Mexico who has lived in Mountain View for the last twenty years, does not see any way out of what she calls the “ugly, difficult truth” of her situation. In the first two months of the pandemic, her husband (another laborer who finds work through the center) only found three days’ worth of work. When tax season rolled around, the couple owed $1,200 (“not much,” according to Ximena), which they have had to pay in three installments of $400. They were not eligible to receive the federal government stimulus disbursed this year, also $1,200. Though Ximena, a stately, motherly woman, is relieved by the temporary eviction moratorium, she is acutely aware that her family’s unpaid rent is rapidly accumulating with each month that passes, rent that they were previously able to manage to pay through their precarious employment.

“This is the problem,” she tells me, and her typically measured tone begins to rise and fall more rapidly. “They’re not going to kick us out right now, maybe not right this second, but the day is going to come where we have to pay back everything that we owe, and we just won’t be able to, because of how it’s building up. It’s going to be so much more than what we can ever usually pay.” She speaks quickly, her eyes constantly moving around the room. “Everything is going downhill.”

Graciela has only been in Mountain View for a year, but her experience is much the same. She lives alone, having deliberately left her adult daughters behind in Chile so that they could finish their studies (in engineering and physiotherapy). “It’s so, so sad,” she says of living so far away from them, her voice breaking. Graciela is an entrepreneur by trade and, in Chile, ran an import/export business that was keeping her family afloat until she fell victim to fraud that left her with nothing. To finance her daughters’ education, she decided to come and work in the United States, sending money home every month — until everything came crashing down in March.

“Everything has been paralyzed,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t afford to go grocery shopping, let alone pay for my daughters’ education. Sometimes my daughters say, Mamita, we’re hungry. But there’s nothing for them to eat, because we’ve got to make rent.” She sighs. “The center has really helped us out. It’s the only way we’ve been able to get through this. Nothing else.”

In this point, all the workers, including Geraldo, Ximena and Graciela, are in agreement: The Day Worker Center, along with its beloved Executive Director María Marroquín, is a crucial beacon in the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic. The center has helped connect laborers, even those who did not solicit the center’s services prior to the pandemic, to what little employment can still be found, has offered assistance with telephone and grocery bills, has been a source of relief and community through the daily breakfasts and lunches, has run food drives and bilingual webinars on topics like eviction moratorium regulations and has provided diversion and purpose through employing workers who cannot find jobs to sew face masks. The Stanford community, especially students who take Spanish service learning classes (which is the context within which the research for this article was conducted), has enjoyed a long partnership with the center, which recently celebrated its 24th anniversary. But with students now scattered all over the world due to COVID-19, it can be a lot harder to stay abreast of what’s happening just a stone’s throw from Stanford’s campus. Yet it’s precisely this awareness that the center and the broader day worker community need right now, according to Marroquín.

“We need students to keep breaking out of the university bubble, to really notice what’s going on around you, especially so close to Stanford,” she says. “The pandemic has certainly caused a lot of new problems, but it’s mainly just exposed existing structural issues. Our workers are impacted every day by the racist immigration policies of this administration, pandemic or no pandemic, and we need people to know that. We need Stanford students to know that, and we need you to go out and vote this November. We need you to talk to your families and the people around you. Voting is the single most important thing you can do, right now, to help achieve meaningful and substantive change for the day worker community.”

No matter what happens in November, it is clear that California’s COVID-19 recovery will be uneven as long as it fails to advocate for workers like Geraldo, Ximena and Graciela. As businesses and research institutions resume normal service, the most vulnerable members of our communities, from the day workers at the center to Stanford’s sub-contracted janitorial staff, are the first to be left behind, and the last to be included in recovery plans. With our voices, donations and votes, we must continue to stand in solidarity with workers, to amplify their demands for economic and health protections, to help make their labor visible even as it is pushed to the sidelines.

Donate to the center here or offer your volunteer services here. If you’re interested in finding out more about worker rights and protections even closer to home on Stanford’s campus, you can follow the work of Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights here and get involved here. If you’d like to follow these issues at a national level, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the National Domestic Worker Alliance are both good places to start. 

All worker names and identifying details have been changed; additional research for this piece was done by Mary Mitchell and Saray Bedoya.

Contact Chiara Giovanni at chiarag ‘at’

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