Yessica Lopez-Ambriz, a hardworking mom, struggles to make ends meet in the area where she has lived her whole life [FL — USE THIS FOR PRINT SUBHEAD]
“Mommy, I want you to tickle me!” three-year-old Evalett wails, twisting across her mother’s lap. Peppy music blares from a smartphone with a shattered screen that Evalett is clutching.
“She’s something,” Yessica Lopez-Ambriz says of her youngest daughter.
Evalett likes to start fights with her older sister, Suleyma – tearing up her drawings, hiding her things, even occasionally biting. Suleyma asks sometimes: “Mommy, why can’t you take Evalett back from wherever you got her? I want a nice sister.”
Seven-year-old Suleyma is more the sensitive, artistic type. “She’s always trying to make slime, and trying to make all this crazy stuff from videos,” Yessica says. “‘Oh, we need to buy this. Can we go to the dollar store?’”
If not slime, Suleyma loves making treats like cookies and cakes. (Her mom also enjoys baking, but not when the kids leave a mess.)
Yessica Lopez-Ambriz has been working at Stanford Dining for over 15 years.
“I remember that my son was like a year old. A year and something,” she says, trying to pinpoint her entry date.
Her son, Pedro Giovanni, is now 18 — three years older than Yessica was when she had him. When she first started at Stanford, Yessica worked at Manzanita (now Gerhard Casper Dining Commons). She was later transferred to Stern Dining and now works at the Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, the largest dining hall on campus.
“I’ve been switching kitchens, but I’m still here,” she laughs.
Her current station is the grill. She’s in charge of making burgers, hot dogs, fries and other comfort foods that students chow down on (or pass up for the salad bar) at lunchtime. Yessica is a Number Four — as high as she intends to advance in the food service hierarchy. The Number Ones are all dishwashers, where Yessica started out. The system goes up to Number Fives, the cooks.
Although she has been working in kitchens for a decade and a half, food is not something Yessica feels drawn to professionally.
“I did at first,” she says, “but then not no more.”
A tough start
Back in 2004, before her daughters were born, Yessica was going to school to become a medical assistant. She completed some courses, but found that she wasn’t able to get a job in this field. Everywhere she applied, she was told she would have to get a GED.
Yessica became pregnant with her first child, Giovanni, before she began high school. With a baby to think about, her family didn’t want her to keep going to school. Instead, she had to look for work with only an eighth grade education. She has tried to complete her GED, but being a good mother took precedence.
“It was always hard for me to go back to school,” she says, “because I’ve [always been] the head of household. I’ve always been by myself.”
As much as she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a medical assistant, the realities of keeping up with the bills and childcare kept Yessica’s plate full, and then some.
“But I did try,” she adds.
In East Palo Alto, where Yessica grew up, about 20 percent of the adult population has less than a ninth grade education. Income levels also lag behind other Bay Area cities, with average income in East Palo Alto sitting at about half the average for all of San Mateo County. The city has seen many demographic changes over the years, but has predominantly housed communities of color. Today, almost two-thirds of East Palo Alto’s residents are Latinx.
Things became more difficult for Yessica when her family moved away from East Palo Alto. Her mother and father both work for Ross, the popular retail chain — her mother is a warehouse manager, and her father operates a forklift. Ten years ago, the company offered them both raises and relocation funds to move to Riverside, California, six hours south of East Palo Alto. Her parents now own a house there, where all of her five sisters reside with their children.
Yessica thought about going with them, but she had her job at Stanford, and at the time she was married to her son’s father, so she stayed. Her husband, however, did not. The pair soon separated, and Yessica was left to raise Giovanni on her own — that is, until she met Alfredo Ambriz.
With Alfredo in the picture, things began to look up. He and Yessica married and rented a house together in East Palo Alto. Rent was reasonable, about $1,600 per month. Yessica again began going to classes, this time at Cañada College, a community college in Redwood City. She wanted to get her GED and pursue more classes that would help her become a medical assistant. All this time, as she continued working at Stanford Dining and caring for her son and now a daughter too, she managed to find the energy for school as well.
Then, in 2015, Alfredo got deported. At the time, Yessica was five months pregnant with their youngest daughter, Evalett.
“It was hard for me, and then I just stopped going to school,” Yessica recalls.
A single parent again, Yessica was left with few options. She had a newborn baby, a four-year-old and a teenager — arranging and affording childcare presented a challenge, not to mention keeping up with rent and other expenses on her own.
“I had to ask for loans here, loans there, you know,” she says. “Ask for my fidelity, ask for my bank — like to keep up with the rent and everything else. And right now I owe a lot of money.”
Alfredo now lives just across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. It’s about an eight-hour drive for mother and kids to go and see their father — but they do try to visit as often as possible.
“Every time I have a break here, I’ll go see him,” Yessica says.
Challenges of the job
Three years ago, TechCrunch referred to East Palo Alto as “the last 2.5-mile stretch of affordable housing in the heart of Silicon Valley” — but this is becoming less and less of a reality. For Yessica, living in the city where she was born and raised became an impossibility. In her three-bedroom house, she shared space with three other renters, one of whom resided in the living room.
“There’s houses [with] like, I don’t know how many families living in there,” Yessica says. “And I didn’t want that for my kids, I was stressing so much.”
At Stanford Dining, Yessica gets paid $21.90 per hour. That may seem like a decent wage to some, but for a single mother of three in one of the most expensive areas of the country, it barely makes ends meet.
“And I been here over 15 years,” she emphasizes.
Elizabeth Zacharias, Vice President for Human Resources at Stanford, says that the University conducts a living wage analysis every year, completed and published in October.
“And our union rates are above the living wage,” she adds.
As of last fall, Stanford’s living wage — which applies to employees of the University as well as its contractors — was set at $14.55 with health benefits or $16.54 without.
Yessica’s situation, however, puts an extra strain on her finances. Adjusting for three extra mouths to feed, no partner and no family in the area changes the situation considerably — almost tripling the wage necessary to get by, according to MIT’s living wage calculator, which estimates the living wage for a single adult in Santa Clara County at around $16.95 per hour.
Of course, it isn’t the responsibility of any employer to base wages on every individual worker’s needs. Regrettably, government assistance doesn’t always pick up the slack. The system doesn’t offer handouts to someone who gets paid as much as Yessica does.
To qualify for the CalFresh food assistance program in Santa Clara County, the monthly income threshold for a family of four is set at $2,665, well under what Yessica earns per month. She knows people who do receive government aid, who either don’t work or work part-time, but Yessica says she doesn’t want that.
“I just want a better job,” Yessica says. “Better pay. I don’t think I’ll get anything higher here. And we do a lot of work… It’s a lot of stress.”
Commercial kitchens are notoriously difficult work environments. Physical demands, risk of burns, cuts and other accidents, and a culture of sexism add up to make life especially challenging for female cooks. Yessica doesn’t mind being on her feet all day, but she does get hot and sweaty standing over the grill. Without the deep drive and passion that fuels so many cooks, it’s difficult to imagine powering through this demanding job.
Some of her colleagues have a different view of the work. Giselle Clements, a friend and coworker of Yessica’s at Arrillaga Dining, feels that workers need to think more critically about what they’re contributing, and what they’re asking for — “like in any relationship.”
Giselle agrees, of course, that living in the area can be tough and that, geographically speaking, pay is a struggle. “But then on the other hand,” she says, “it’s up to you, your growth, on how much money you’re gonna earn. You can’t just go to a job and be like, hey, I want a raise.”
Like Yessica, Giselle has been with Stanford Dining for 15 years. She is also a Food Service Worker Four — unlike Yessica, though, Giselle’s future pursuits lie in the greater culinary world, and she has been able to take advantage of the career incentives that Stanford Dining offers in this realm. Currently, she’s in an Apprenticeship Program to become a sous chef with R&DE. Giselle also participates in a newly founded Women’s Chef Collaborative, co-chaired by Chef Junelle Fronda and Chef Erica Holland-Toll. This network invites respected female chefs from the area to come and speak to R&DE workers; their goal is to support and inspire women in the industry.
Giselle, for her part, believes that Stanford Dining does notice and reward hard workers. She wanted to earn a higher place (and higher pay) in the kitchen, and looks forward to stepping into the role of sous chef through the Apprenticeship Program.
Yessica, whose career interests lie outside the kitchen, makes do with the job she has now.
A few years ago, Yessica says, she had an issue with her schedule. Even though she was a senior employee by this point, she was getting assigned to work some early mornings and some late nights throughout the week, which made it nearly impossible to take care of her kids.
“They were giving me a really hard time,” she remembers.
When she had a meeting with Human Resources (HR), she says, they told her that her assigned hours were the only option. If this was the case, Yessica felt her only real option would be to leave.
“I’m willing to go back to the dish room,” she recalls trying. “I’m willing to go take the position I used to have, you know, get paid less.” But “they didn’t want to, they didn’t want to,” she says.
Finally, Yessica recounts, she told HR: “You’re making me decide between my kids and work. I need the job, but what am I gonna do with my kids?”
If it came to an ultimatum, Yessica knew where her priorities lay. “I’ll just take my kids, you know I’ll figure it out,” she says.
According to Yessica, the HR representative asked why Yessica couldn’t get someone to watch the kids for her or ask family to help out. But Yessica couldn’t afford professional childcare, and her family had gone. She told them: “No. I don’t have nobody. Nobody here. It’s only me and my kids.”
It is R&DE’s policy not to comment on specific cases. However, R&DE stresses that all unionized workers have recourse through their union — Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2007 — to address scheduling and compensation issues. Anne Marie Musto, executive director of Human Resources, explains: “If workers have a level of discomfort of coming forward to a manager, or even somebody in HR, they do have the avenue with their union representation. They always have that.”
Yessica’s conflict ultimately resolved in her favor, though she says her boss was not happy with her. She remembers him shoving a piece of paper in front of her and saying, “Okay, okay — here. Write your schedule in this paper.”
She did, she recalled, and that was the end of it.
“I think I am okay,” Yessica says of her situation now. “I don’t have no problems or anything.”
She comes to work, minds her own business, and spends as much time as she can with her family.
The housing problem
Yessica and her kids now live in Stanford West Apartments, where she receives a below-market rate as a Stanford affiliate. According to SEIU, she is one of only three Stanford union workers to have secured this subsidized housing in the area — out of a total of over 1200 workers represented by the union.
Staff housing is outside the purview of R&DE, but Stanford as an institution has contributed to the stiff competition for houses in the Bay Area. The University does have programs to secure housing for employees; SEIU Local 2007 worksite organizer Johannes Raatz says he feels that the workers who make the least amount of money are most often excluded from these opportunities.
“If the University is going to say that it’s providing housing for its community, that includes everybody. That includes service workers,” he says.
Yessica happened to be one of the lucky three who managed to secure an apartment in Stanford West, which her kids love. The complex has a gym and a pool and makes for an easy commute for mom.
Moving forward, the union plans to push for expanded housing. Stanford is negotiating a new General Use Permit with Santa Clara County this year, which will guide development plans on the University’s land through the year 2035. The union is hopeful that this plan will include more housing units for University employees and will help address the “absolute crisis” that is housing in the Bay Area.
According to University spokesperson E.J. Miranda, the University recognizes the severity of the housing issue and is taking steps to tackle it holistically. Provost Persis Drell recently created a housing task force — comprised of leaders from the University Budget Office, R&DE, Land, Buildings & Real Estate, Faculty Staff Housing and University HR — in the interest of cross-departmental collaboration on the housing front.
“In the fall, we received approval from the City of Menlo Park to proceed with Middle Plaza,” E.J. says, “a new complex that will add 215 apartment units with an expected priority for Stanford faculty and staff.” However, per the project website, only “ten of the units will be designated in the Menlo Park affordable housing program for below-market-rate units for applicants at low income levels.” Faculty and staff are not eligible to use their priority status on these units as the affordable housing program is governed by the city, not Stanford.
Giselle and Yessica also feel that the University could be doing more to support workers in basic ways — for instance, with something as simple as parking.
“If they give us employee parking, that’s like $600 a year extra in my pocket,” Giselle says.
Union organizer Johannes agrees that parking presents a significant problem for workers, many of whom commute for hours every day. ‘C’ Parking Permits cost just under $400 per year. However, Johannes says that those spaces are difficult to find after a certain time in the morning, and employees don’t want to be made late to work for lack of a parking space. ‘A’ permits cost over $1,000 per year.
“If you’re making $40,000 a year, there goes 2.5 percent of your income for the year,” Johannes says.
Contract negotiations are coming up in a little over a year for all service worker positions; parking and pay are both likely to be on the agenda.
Parking at Stanford is handled by Parking & Transportation Services rather than R&DE. The University does incentivize various commute options — including free parking for carpools as well as free Caltrain and VTA passes — in efforts to reduce carbon emissions and ameliorate the parking problem on campus. E.J. Miranda says that these programs have drastically reduced the drive-alone rate of Stanford commuters. For folks who can’t arrange a carpool, make use of public transportation or bike to work, parking and the associated costs remain an issue.
Logistically, Yessica’s days are challenging. Every day at 6:30 a.m., she drops Evalett off at her sister-in-law’s house in East Palo Alto — Alfredo’s sister, who moved to the area about a year ago, takes Evalett to school. This is about the only time Yessica sees her sister-in-law.
Yessica’s upstairs neighbor, who has a daughter in Suleyma’s class, takes Suleyma to school. Giovanni is old enough to get to and from school on his own. From 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Yessica works, making burgers, fries and other grilled goods for the student patrons of Arrillaga Family Dining Commons.
She goes straight from work to pick up Evalett at 4:30 p.m. Suleyma, on the other hand, gets out from Escondido Elementary while Yessica is still at work, so she takes the bus to East Palo Alto, where she attends a Boys & Girls Club after school program. The program goes until 6:15 p.m. If Yessica tries to take her daughter out early, the program facilitators won’t want Suleyma to come back — they want kids who are going to participate fully. So Yessica and Evalett find something to do for an hour and a half before Suleyma is ready to go. They’ll all be home close to 7 p.m.
“And by that time, you know, they have to take a shower, maybe eat something else, because they’re still hungry,” Yessica says. “So they eat something, read books, whatever. It’s time for bed.”
The next day starts and ends the same way.
“I think I was able to keep up until now because my son helps me a lot,” Yessica offers.
Ever since he was about 12, Giovanni has been helping out with his younger sisters. He babysits them on Sundays, while Yessica works. He even cooks for them.
“I think without him I would be, like, I don’t know where,” Yessica continues.
Giovanni will graduate from Redwood High School this year.
“He’s about to go to college, and it’s like — I don’t have no money saved,” she worries.
She’d like to be able to buy him a car and set him up for the future. Still, she has worked hard to make sure he succeeded in school and found his stride. Right now her son’s plan is to attend Cañada College for two years, and from there he hopes to transfer somewhere else. He is interested in engineering but unsure exactly what his career path will be. Yessica has taken him to a few career counseling sessions, and she knows he’ll figure out his path sooner or later.
Yessica provides for all her children. Career counseling for Giovanni, who is now doing well in school, tutoring for Suleyma, “the sentimental one,” and mischief-management classes for Evalett — to “teach her how to be nice, kind.”
For Yessica, the dream is still to one day work in the medical field. Maybe when her daughters are older, she’ll be able to finish her GED and take steps towards the career she has always wanted. Maybe she’ll move to Riverside, to be closer to her mother. Maybe she’ll stay. Her children are growing up in a Silicon Valley very different from the one Yessica grew up in. This is a land of innovation, inertia and intellectualism, struggling to reckon with its ever more massive inequalities.
Contact Claire Thompson at clairet ‘at’ stanford.edu.