‘Census of the Invisible’ Documents the Plight of the Working Poor in Coastal California

Edward Ramirez, a fine art and sociology graduate, led the Working for Dignity project’s documentarian team during his senior year at UC Santa Cruz. Born in Los Angeles, Ramirez was attracted to the project because his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador during the Civil War, had scraped by as low-wage workers throughout his entire life. He says, “I always wanted to give them honor because society didn’t honor them.”
Photo of laborer in Santa Cruz by Edward Ramirez. Ramirez led the project’s documentarian team during his senior year at UC Santa Cruz. Born in Los Angeles, Ramirez was attracted to the project because his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador during the Civil War, have scraped by as low-wage workers for his entire life. He says, “I always wanted to give them honor because society didn’t honor them.”

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, speaking while she eats tortillas and frijoles for breakfast 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 identity, has to work more than 60 hours a week in order to make ends meet on her $11.50-an-hour wages. 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. So she, her husband and their two small children share a cramped two-bedroom apartment with four other adults. Their living room is dominated by a metal-framed bunk bed. The other adults in the house earn less money per hour than Díaz.

They are all members of Santa Cruz county’s “working poor”—the population of low-wage earners that was the focus of a recent UC Santa Cruz study, “Working for Dignity,” led by sociology professor Steve McKay. Based on interviews with more than 1,300 people, the study looked at working conditions of the county’s lowest-paid workers, at the same time putting human faces on the unseen labor force that supports the base of the Central Coast’s economy. The final report was released in August.

“This was a ‘census of the invisible,’” says McKay, who 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. While the nation debates raising the federal minimum wage in response to the “Fight for 15” movement that has mobilized low-wage workers in cities throughout the U.S., the Santa Cruz City Council recently commissioned a study looking at the impacts of a local minimum wage increase. Other California cities have already began raising their local minimum wage incrementally, 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 organized “Working for Dignity” after the Watsonville office of California Rural Legal Assistance contacted him, looking for data on the low-wage earners of Santa Cruz County. But no such data existed, so McKay 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 where, after teaching students about labor issues and research methods, he sent them into the community to survey low-wage workers.

“There is often a town-gown split in university towns,” says McKay. “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, they gave them information about their rights and where they can go for help if they suspect their rights are being violated. Overall, 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 who recalls interviewing a strawberry picker who was paid nine dollars for each box he filled with fruit cartons. After sorting through berries and discarding unripe or rotten fruit, labor he didn’t get paid for, Vizcaya says his average wage amounted to four dollars an hour. “Here in California—in America—people still aren’t making enough money to survive.”

Mario, photographed while looking for work at the Day Worker Center in Santa Cruz. Photo: Edward Ramirez

To define low-wage worker, the study used the California Poverty Measure (CPM), designed by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality to factor cost of living into the measure of poverty. Based on the CPM, the poverty line for a family of four living in Santa Cruz County is $32,884, which breaks down to an hourly wage of $15.81.

“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 was $10 an hour. And, like Díaz, the majority of those surveyed (62 percent) reported they were the major wage earner for their household. Comparing cost of living with median income (which, for Santa Cruz County overall, is $77,900), the Santa Cruz-Watsonville area is the fifth most-expensive metropolitan place to live in the U.S.—more expensive than Washington, D.C. or San Francisco. Rent in Santa Cruz County is 71 percent higher than the national average, and 22 percent of county residents live below the CPM, meaning they can’t afford to live in the area without major hardship. Yet the area’s economy depends on the labor of those who make up the low-wage workforce.

“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. The majority of respondents (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 the 41 percent who work overtime, 28 percent of whites reported not receiving overtime pay, whereas 58 percent of Latinos reported not receiving overtime pay.

And for those who complained to supervisors about violations, a high percentage experienced retaliation. Only 14 percent of those who experienced wage violations complained—and, of those, 20 percent were punished with a decrease in work hours.

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. So McKay partnered with the university’s Everett Program, a student program that develops tools for 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. Photo: Edward Ramirez.

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

Working with the local Day Labor Center, Ramirez set out to photograph people who sought day work in various jobs throughout the community. But he didn’t simply shoot digital images—he took photographs using film, developing the images in a darkroom and printing them by hand using photolithography techniques.

Describing his method, he says, “It takes a lot of time, effort and patience – and the work that these individuals do takes a lot of time, effort and patience. I wanted to give them respect and give them my time, just like they give their time.”

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.”

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