Street Level Health Project: Safety Net for Oakland Workers Celebrates its 15th Year

In the wake of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, national civil rights organizations have experienced a wave of unprecedented support. For example, in one weekend alone, the American Civil Liberties Union national chapter received $24 Million dollars in online donations.

But what about Oakland’s local, grassroots organizations providing the first line of defense to the most vulnerable immigrant populations?  

“We’re seeing a bump in support but still need individual donors for our programs and sponsors for our 15th Anniversary celebration at our annual Fiesta en Comunidad in December,” said Jae Maldonado, Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project.

Located at 3125 E. 15th Street in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood,  Street Level Health provides the social safety net for Oakland’s predominantly Latino day laborers and low wage workers. Their holistic approach to public health includes a range of programs and services, including the Oakland Workers’ Collective (OWC).

Office meeting space for Oakland Workers Collective

Street Level Health Project office in Oakland, California. Photo: K. Ferreira

The Collective offers a fair and safe alternative for day laborers seeking work opportunities. Oaklanders can connect with local day laborers by submitting an online request. Then, Street Level Health staff members educate local residents about occupational health and safety, minimum wage, and other employment related information.

“The Oakland Workers’ Collective utilizes employer education and worker advocacy to decrease the exploitation that often impacts workers who rely on the six hiring sites in Alameda County as primary employment,” Maldonado said.

Safety for the Most Vulnerable Workers

Regardless of their immigration status, day laborers are a highly visible population due to the nature of public hiring sites. Despite being invaluable to the California economy, this heightened visibility makes them easy targets for anti-immigrant vigilantes.  KQED public radio recently reported that Yemeni-American shopkeepers in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood worry for their Latino customers as much as they fear for people in Yemen impacted by Trump’s Travel Ban. Community programs like Street Level Health’s Collective serve as the front line of defense.

Instead of waiting at one of Alameda County’s six hiring sites, where workers run the risk of not being selected or not being paid fairly, OWC’s members receive $15 an hour with guaranteed food and bathroom breaks as required by law.

But the Collective is just one of Street Level Health’s many programs. Founded in 2002 as a mobile medical clinic, the organization is rooted in a holistic approach towards community health.

“We are not an employment center but a health center that recognizes employment is key in the long-term health maintenance of day laborers and low-income communities in general,” Maldonado said.

Health and Safety Beyond the Jobsite

Street Level Health offers a variety of free, drop-in social services in order to provide Whole Person Care that often begins with basic health care.

“Our mobile health clinics and free breakfast programs at the six hiring sites are the main gateway for us to introduce vulnerable workers to other programs like the Collective,” Maldonado said. “Our organization began as a mobile clinic from 2002 through 2012. We’ve had a permanent office and meeting space since 2013, but our work in the field continues to be vital in reaching workers.”

Utilizing a mix of funding sources,  Street Level Health’s programs are designed to raise awareness about workers’ rights and foster civic engagement and pathways to self-sufficiency among workers.

“Our weekly workshops cover immigrant rights and occupational health and safety rights, as well as general vocational training on workplace harassment, wage theft, resume writing, and health care access through the Affordable Care Act (ACA),” Maldonado said.

Oakland Worker's Collective meeting

Oakland Workers’ Collective meeting. March 7, 2017. Photo: K. Ferreira

Bracing for the GOP’s Repeal of Obamacare

Will President Donald Trump’s plans to cut federal funds from Sanctuary Cities like Oakland impact the organization’s Immigrant Rights programs?  “Actually, a relatively small portion of Street Level Health’s funding comes from government sources,” Maldonado replied. “Most of our programs are funded by individual foundations and donations.”

“In fact, one of our largest concerns right now is the repeal of the ACA (also known as Obamacare.) We host enrollment workshops and help workers receive health care coverage through Covered California,” he said.

Maldonado explained that Street Level Health and its partner organizations have made strides in helping underinsured clients gain access to more preventative care and move away from reliance on emergency room care. Combined with fears of an increase in ICE raids, the community is bracing itself.

“If ACA is repealed, it is likely our ERs will see a new influx of underinsured patients,” he said. “Street Level Health and our partners at the county need to think progressively. This is also why Highland Hospital’s Emergency Room has been declared a sanctuary space and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors recently approved a proposal designed to protect threatened immigrants in the area.”

“Don’t Let ICE Disappear Our People”

In February, the County of Alameda, the City of Oakland, and the San Francisco Foundation allocated $1.5 million to create the new rapid-response network called Alameda County Immigration Legal & Education Partnership (ACILEP). Street Level Health is one of many community organizations supporting the effort.

The partnership has already launched a rapid response and legal services hotline. If East Bay residents see Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) in action or if they or someone they know has been detained, they can now call (510) 241-4011 for help.

At a recent meeting of the Oakland Workers’ Collective, Street Level Health staff members Gabriela Galicia and Samantha Vázquez announced this new hotline. They distributed small fliers with the telephone number and the message: “No dejen que el gobierno desaparezca neustro pueblo…Llama a (510) 241-4011 para proteger nuestras comunidades.” or “Don’t let the government disappear our people…call (510) 241-4011 to protect our communities.”

Oakland Workers Collective Flier for New Hotline

Oakland Worker’s Collective flier announcing new ACILEP legal services hotline. Photo: K. Ferreira

When asked if the current political climate has taken a toll on the community Street Level Health serves, Maldonado didn’t mince words. 

“Our recent mental health surveys at the six hiring stops in Alameda County have found a spike in anxiety and depression; 30 percent of our participants reported experiencing severe trauma triggered by fears of ICE raids and detention,” he said.

Partners in Social Justice for Workers

This is not the first time Street Level Health has served as a critical thread in the social safety net by partnering with other local groups. For example, their partnership with Centro Legal de la Raza was in place long before Trump took office.

Thanks to the full suite of services they provide, Street Level Health is able to identify patterns of potential health hazards or wage theft and connect workers with additional resources. Street Level Health’s weekly drop-in clinics allow staff and volunteers to help workers with a range of employer issues. In some cases, the workers are eligible for more help, and volunteers and staff can refer them to legal services. Plus, lawyers from Centro Legal co-host a monthly legal clinic at Street Level Health’s offices.

“This partnership with Street Level Health is important because it’s about reaching the clients where they’re at,” said Derrick Schoonmaker, Centro Legal’s Workers’ Rights Program Director“Our services are more accessible, especially for day laborers, who know and trust Street Level Health.”

Schoonmaker couldn’t comment on their current wage theft lawsuit against Quality Inn on behalf of low wage workers. But he explained how similar cases often begin at Street Level Health drop-in clinics.

“The most common scenario we see is a worker come in who has been fired for no reason,” Schoonmaker said.  “While California is an ‘at-will’ state, meaning employers don’t necessarily need to give a reason for terminating employment, what we often find is that employers who fired our workers with no reason were often also committing a range of violations that occurred before the firing, from wage theft to workplace injuries.”

Maldonado and Schoonmaker also recalled an example of some workers dropping into Street Level Health’s medical clinic with similar asthma symptoms. Street Level Health staff confirmed their health issues were workplace related. The workers were installing attic insulation but their employer had not provided them with any safety breathing masks. Centro Legal then stepped in to provide legal services for the wokers.

“Reclaim Labor! Reclaim Lives!”

Street Level Health also hosts special events and public policy campaigns related to their programs.  For example, Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28th is an international day of remembrance for people who suffered work-related illnesses and injuries. Nationally, twelve workers die every day at work and Latino workers are more likely to be killed on the job than other California workers.

Street Level Health is organizing a special action to honor the low wage workers, immigrant workers, and day laborers who have lost their lives. Workers will travel with Street Level Health to Sacramento on April 27th to conduct legislative visits and advocate for bills that build worker protections. 

If you want to support the advocacy and civic engagement programs offered by Street Level Health, you can visit their website to hire a worker, make a donation, or become a volunteer.

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