Santa Cruz Students Track Working Poor with ‘Census of the Invisible’

Frank, a landscape laborer, holds up a board to protect workers below from falling gravel and debris. (Edward Ramirez)

Some days, Celia Díaz doesn’t want to get out of bed. But since she’s the major wage earner in her household, she doesn’t have much choice. Six days a week, she drags herself to the Santa Cruz restaurant where she works 10- and 12-hour days as head prep cook. She rarely gets a break and often goes the entire shift without sitting down. She’s developed arthritis in her fingers.

“There are times I want to quit,” she says in Spanish, while eating a breakfast of tortillas and frijoles in the dim light of her tiny kitchen. “But I can’t, because many jobs pay less for more work.”

Díaz, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, has to work more than 60 hours a week in order to make ends meet on her $11.50 per hour wage. Still, her paycheck — which never includes overtime pay (she’s paid in cash for anything above 40 hours) —doesn’t come close to covering the cost of living in this coastal California town. She, her husband, their two small children and four other adults share a cramped two-bedroom apartment. A metal-framed bunk bed dominates the living room. The other adults in the house earn less money per hour than Díaz.

They are all members of Santa Cruz County’s working poor. This population of low-wage earners was the focus of a recent UC Santa Cruz study, “Working for Dignity.” Based on interviews with more than 1,300 people, researchers looked at working conditions of the county’s lowest-paid workers, and put a human face on the unseen labor force that supports the base of the Central Coast’s economy.

“This was a ‘census of the invisible,’ ” says lead author Steve McKay, an associate professor of sociology who also directs the UC Santa Cruz Center for Labor Studies. “Our goal was to look at the numbers, but also tell the stories of low-wage workers in Santa Cruz County.”

The report’s release is timely. The Santa Cruz City Council is debating raising the minimum wage and recently commissioned a study looking at the impact of an increase. Other California cities have already begun raising their local minimum wage with San Francisco planning to reach $15 an hour by 2018 and Los Angeles planning to do the same by 2020.

Bridging the Town-Gown Gap

McKay conceived of the “Working for Dignity” study after he was contacted by the Watsonville office of California Rural Legal Assistance. The agency was looking for data on the low-wage earners of Santa Cruz County.

No such data existed.

So McKay launched the project, with an idea to use students to survey low-wage workers. He connected with the Chicano Latino Research Center on campus to train students how to conduct surveys and collect data. He also redesigned his “Work and Society” class into a research-based course. Students learned research methods, and then McKay sent them off on interviews.

Mario, a day laborer, looks for work at the Day Worker Center in Santa Cruz.
Mario, photographed while looking for work at the Day Worker Center in Santa Cruz. (Edward Ramirez)

“There is often a town-gown split in university towns,” says McKay, referring to the divide that can exist between a campus that generally has money and people in the surrounding community who may not. “This project epitomizes the role that the university should play in the state, building new knowledge and training people to identify and respond to the needs of the local community.”

Students met with interviewees at bus stops, parks, laundromats and the farmer’s market in Watsonville’s central plaza. In addition to interviewing workers, students handed out information about workers’ rights and where they could go for help if they suspect their rights are being violated.

More than 100 students were involved in different aspects of the two-year project.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” says Lizeth Vizcaya, a community studies major. She described interviewing a strawberry picker who was paid $9 for each box he filled with smaller cartons of fruit. After sorting through berries and discarding unripe or rotten fruit, labor he didn’t get paid for, Vizcaya says his average wage amounted to $4 an hour. “Here in California — in America — people still aren’t making enough money to survive,” Vizcaya said.

To define low-wage worker, the study used the California Poverty Measure (CPM), an index designed by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality to factor cost of living into the measure of poverty. By that measure, the poverty line for a family of four living in Santa Cruz County is $32,884, or an hourly wage of $15.81. Twenty-two percent of county residents live below the CPM.

“That’s not a living wage – it’s subsistence level,” says McKay. “People will be in real trouble if they fall below that.”

The median wage of those surveyed fell short of that poverty measure — $10 an hour. And, like Díaz, nearly two-thirds of the surveyed group (62 percent) said they were the major earner for their household.

“Just try to imagine living in Santa Cruz on $10 an hour,” says McKay. “It would be really, really tough.”

The result is a vulnerable workforce, living paycheck to paycheck, dependent upon the whim of employers. Interviewees reported a high rate of labor violations, including wage theft, health and safety violations, sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Forty-one percent said they worked overtime hours and, of those, 38 percent did not receive overtime wages. More than seven in 10 (71 percent) said they either did not get breaks or did not get paid for breaks.

There was also racial disparity between the experiences of low-wage white workers versus low-wage Latino workers, the two main racial groups in Santa Cruz County. Of those who worked overtime, 28 percent of whites reported not receiving overtime pay, and 58 percent of Latinos reported not receiving overtime pay.

Putting a human face on labor

A primary goal of the “Working for Dignity” project was to document the human experience behind low-wage labor — and to put a face on the often-invisible working poor. McKay partnered with the university’s Everett Program, which helps students develop skills to generate social change, to create a website that would feature digital stories and photographs of low-wage workers.

James stirs a vat of kettle corn at the Watsonville Farmer's Market.
James stirs a vat of kettle corn at the Watsonville Farmer’s Market. (Edward Ramirez)

Student Edward Ramirez led the project’s documentary team during his senior year at UC Santa Cruz. Ramirez, a Los Angeles native, was attracted to the project because his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador during its Civil War, had scraped by as low-wage workers throughout his entire life. “I always wanted to give them honor, because society didn’t honor them,” he says.

Working with the local day labor center, Ramirez set out to photograph people who sought day work in various jobs in the area.

One of the biggest rewards for Ramirez was giving the workers their portraits, mounted in wooden frames that he made by hand. “It was great seeing their faces looking at images of themselves,” he says. “They were filled with pride.”

A version of this story first appeared in the California Health Report. 

Santa Cruz Students Track Working Poor with ‘Census of the Invisible’ 12 November,2015State of Health

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