In approving another agreement with Samaritan House to operate the Worker Resource Center Monday, San Mateo officials weighed concerns about the type of activity the facility may attract and whether temporarily closing it could shed light on its effectiveness.
The future of the facility has been uncertain in recent months since plans to build affordable housing units atop the sites purchased with redevelopment agency funds have taken shape. In March, the City Council voiced support for relocating the center where day laborers can connect with employers to a community-serving space included in MidPen Housing’s plans to build 164 affordable units in the rear parking lot at East Fifth and South Railroad avenues where the center currently stands.
But residents concerned the center is attracting loiterers called for city officials to consider winding the center’s operations down as the developer seeks approval for the project and shapes construction plans, a move they say could help gauge the center’s effectiveness but those using and managing the center argue would send workers back out on San Mateo streets looking for work.
San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer acknowledged the center has played a role in helping employ the hundreds of workers who waited along Third and Fourth avenues for jobs nearly 20 years ago when plans for the center were first scoped. But with fewer workers using the Worker Resource Center in recent years and growing neighborhood concerns about loiterers who gather outside the fence surrounding the building, police officials wondered whether the upcoming construction slated for the site could be an opportunity to see what happens if there is no place where workers can gather.
Manheimer noted staff at the Worker Resource Center do a good job of maintaining the space within the fence, but said downtown police officers have observed drinking and drug dealing that is not necessarily tied to the site in adjacent and nearby parking lots.
“I think it’s really time to say, ‘are we the magnet that attracts them more and if we weren’t there providing these employers and jobs, would they go to other places?’” she said, according to a video of the City Council’s June 17 meeting.
Manheimer also noted officials, residents and business owners have been trying to find better ways of dealing with the issues around the center to no avail for years and said she favored terminating the operating agreement with Samaritan House to see if other solutions can be developed.
‘You lose trust, you lose momentum’
Laura Bent, Samaritan House’s chief operating officer, said an estimate that the Worker Resource Center makes an average of 15 daily matches between employers and workers doesn’t reflect the seasonal fluctuations in job opportunities and matches made. She said the daily average can jump in the spring and summer months when more landscaping jobs become available. Bent added workers may connect with an employer at the center and continue to work with them for days or weeks afterwards, but those jobs are difficult to capture in the information staff collects.
Bent worried about a center closure of any length of time and said Samaritan House has reviewed research showing workers lose trust in resources like the Worker Resource Center when they are shut down. She said the nonprofit’s preference would be identify an alternate location for the center during construction or if the community-serving space in the new development is determined not to be ideal for the Worker Resource Center.
“You lose trust, you lose momentum, you potentially lose access or connection with the workers,” she said. “It would be very difficult to bring that back in the same way because again the trust is lost, the workers are feeling a little less stable, a little less secure.”
Reyna Sandoval, who manages the Workers Resource Center, noted the options for those who come to the center for work are limited. She said some who use the center today have reported waiting for work on the streets can expose them to issues with wage theft. San Mateo resident Mario said through a translator that he has used the center since it opened in 2003 and appreciated the support of the city and police, who help make him feel secure as he waits for jobs at the center. He said both of his sons have found work and eventually permanent jobs through employers using the center, and hoped it would continue to operate in the city.
Sandoval said those seeking work at the center must be San Mateo residents, show photo identification and go through an evaluation of their skills so staff can match them with jobs best suited for them. She explained the center opens at 7 a.m. and workers are asked to arrive by 9 a.m. to be placed with jobs, which are usually distributed through a lottery system unless an employer who has hired someone in the past requests to work with that person again.
By asking for information from both the employers and workers, Sandoval said the center establishes trust in both parties and ensures they feel safe within the arrangement, adding the center staff can assist workers should potential wage theft issues arise or if a worker is injured.
“We have an agreement and we make sure that both employer and worker agree on the wage, agree on the job and feel safe as well,” she said.
San Mateo resident Jaime Perez said through a translator he has opted to stand outside the 7-Eleven at 600 E. Third Ave. on the few days of the week when he needs work instead of going to the Worker Resource Center for construction jobs. He said he is usually employed most days of the week and thought there might be competition for jobs at the center. Because he doesn’t have that much of a need for work, Perez preferred to wait at the convenience store, which is two blocks away from his house.
Questions about cost, effectiveness
Resident Anna Kuhre said she has followed the Worker Resource Center over the years and acknowledged the resource made sense when it first opened its doors in 2003. But having reviewed reports that roughly the same number of workers wait for work outside the center as those who use it, Kuhre advocated for a closure to allow officials and residents to see whether the center is creating as many problems as it is aiming to solve. Instead of a physical space for where workers can wait, she favored a hotline residents can call to request help with a project.
“In 16 years, we’ve had plenty of time to evaluate the effectiveness of the current process,” she said. “With these declining numbers … please do not let this process continue without bringing it up to date.”
Though Councilwoman Maureen Freschet supported continuing the city’s contract with Samaritan House to operate the Worker Resource Center, she wondered if city officials should consider shutting the facility down while the affordable housing development is constructed so officials can gather more information on what’s needed for workers. MidPen Housing is aiming to receive approvals for the project to build 164 units and a parking structure on the site in the summer of 2020 and break ground on the project in early 2021, with an estimated construction timeline of 10 to 15 months, said Sandy Council, the city’s housing manager.
Considering the $183,750 the city will dedicate toward the center annually and the $50,000 to $100,000 Manheimer estimated the Police Department allocates toward policing the area each year, Freschet wondered if the funds dedicated to the Worker Resource Center could be more efficiently used.
“You can’t put a price tag certainly on helping people we need to do that,” she said at the June 17 meeting. “I just wonder if the Worker Resource Center and the work that it’s doing is really the most beneficial way for us to be spending that money.”
‘It’s not against the law’
For Councilman Joe Goethals, the funds the city is allocating toward the center were outweighed by the services the Worker Resource Center provides. He voiced support for Samaritan House for serving community members who are not committing any crimes in looking for work.
“I appreciate that some people don’t want to look at them on the street corner, but it’s not against the law and many of them are trying to get jobs and work hard and that’s a hard thing to do in San Mateo right now,” he said.
Though Jose Mares has served as a program assistant at the Worker Resource Center for the last nine months, he has known of the center and the services it provides since 2013, when he first started looking for jobs there. With a background in construction, Mares said he gained carpentry skills through a long-term job he was matched with at the center and has known others who been able to support their families through jobs they were matched with there.
Mares said English as a Second Language classes and trainings are conducted at the center as well, and knows from checking in with workers there that they would wait on San Mateo streets for work if the center didn’t exist.
“The reality is that you have people who have full-time jobs, who own homes, who have businesses who come here and supplement their income and that make the community what the community is,” he said.
Daily Journal correspondent Bethie Loewenthal contributed to this report.
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