With his crew cut and green jacket, Organista, 39, still looks a bit like an army officer, and the workers seem to regard him as if he were. But since coming to the U.S. nine years ago, he was made his living as a day worker specializing in tree trimming and gardening.
Lately, he has been getting a little extra money from the police department for a part-time job reaching out to day workers on the street. Once a week, Organista meets workers as they wait around on street corners and informs them of their rights and responsibilities, and of the free services at Mountain View's Day Worker Center.
Over the last year, thanks to the efforts of Organista and police Officer Tony Lopez, more and more workers are using the Day Worker Center. There are at least 200 day workers in the city, officials estimate, and about half seek work on the street, where employers have been known to write bad checks or pay egregiously low wages.
The others seek work through the center, where employers and workers alike can be held accountable. The center, open since 1996, also provides English lessons, lunches, legal advice and a mobile medical clinic that visits regularly.
Workers at the center have been hard hit by the slowing economy. Last week, center director Maria Marroquin was surprised when there were only 14 jobs available for the 99 workers waiting for work. It has been "horrible," she said, considering that on an average day in a good economy the center might have 60 to 70 jobs available.
Meanwhile, there are more day workers than ever before, competing for a shrinking number of jobs.
In the San Antonio shopping center parking lot, where many day workers go to await an employer, men gather in small groups of eight or so, usually based on countries of origin, said Officer Lopez. If a man arrives from Guatemala, he will usually hang around other Guatemalans.
Some of these groups don't like the rules that the center imposes, which include no drinking or gambling. Others say there isn't enough work at the center, and still others have developed relationships with employers who don't use the center.
Meanwhile, last year the center had to move to its current location at Hope and Mercy streets, putting it farther from the San Antonio parking lot and making Organista's job that much harder.
But despite all these obstacles, "We have noticed a real change in the attitude of the workers on El Camino," Organista says. "This program has had an impact. More people are arriving from El Camino Real to find employment at the Day Worker Center of Mountain View."
Lately, Organista has been accompanied by Stanford student Joe Mellin, who is working on a Web site for day workers to help them find jobs. It provides each worker's story, work experience, a summary of skills and testimonials from employers. Some day workers have years of experience in skilled labor such as construction trades, but employers usually know little about the workers they hire, Mellin said.
As for Organista, his goal is to save enough money to open a small supermarket. But he admits that is a long way off. Like a lot of the workers, it has been years since he's seen his children — he was forced to leave the four of them behind because there weren't any jobs in Mexico. Now he considers the center a "second home," where people are like family.
Marroquin said money from the Voice Holiday Fund will go towards community relations efforts. The center also is looking for contributions that will help pay to renovate its newly purchased building on Escuela Avenue.
For more information, visit www.dayworkercentermv.org or call (650) 903-4102.