By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer Students

While the push to increase the minimum wage for workers across the nation gathers momentum, students in California’s Central Valley have taken to the streets to determine who would benefit. What they learned is that more people than originally thought—both in urban and rural areas—are barely surviving on current minimum wage earnings.

In their so-called “census of the invisible,” about 100 University of California, Santa Cruz students surveyed more than 1,300 people working in the Central Coast’s economy. The survey, conducted during two years, was part of a UC Santa Cruz study taught by sociology professor Steve McKay, and focused on labor issues and research methods.

“There is often a town-gown split in university towns,” McKay told the online California Health Report. “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 went to bus stops, parks, laundromats and the farmers market in Watsonville’s central plaza to find farmworkers, restaurant employees and home healthcare workers. Along with the interviews, the students gave the interviewees information about their rights and what they can do if they think those rights are being violated.

The survey also demonstrated the extreme lack of affordable housing in the area. Santa Cruz County is the fifth most-expensive metropolitan place to live in the U.S., more expensive than Washington, D.C. or San Francisco, and yet the area’s economy depends on low-wage labor.

According to McKay, the students observed firsthand what can be described as a vulnerable workforce. They also found numerous labor violations, including wage theft, health and safety violations, sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

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