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California North Coast farmworker group compiles list of demands amid virus, smoke

Farmworker Erick Longoria worries like a mother would — except that the 39-year-old Cloverdale man is concerned about his own.

The family members have worked long, hard days in the vineyards of Cloverdale and Alexander Valley, pruning, planting, laying stakes and de-leafing. In 2020, Longoria’s 59-year-old mother remained in the fields, dodging a raging coronavirus pandemic, heat waves and fiery infernos starting in 2017 with the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County.

Longoria left the fields not by choice, but the termination only added to the family’s concerns they’d have enough to live on. He has an arm disability at birth that kept him from working through last year’s grape harvest, which requires a quicker pace to get the $17.50-plus-an-hour in wages. Instead, he works at McDonald’s now.

“I felt discriminated against because of my physical disability. First my hours were cut, then I was let go,” he said.

Still with the financial security, being on the job presents no picnic for farm workers.

“The conditions are awful. We both have respiratory issues, exacerbated by the smoke. We tried to cover our mouths with masks and bandanas, but it’s never enough. We’ve coughed up soot and ash,” he said. “It weighs heavily on me — the smoke. I’m really anxious over her physical health.”

Longoria also contends the labor contractor supervisors were pushy and uncaring, creating a “hostile work environment.”

Organizers say his story is an example of why talk occasionally emerges over whether farmworkers toiling in harsh working conditions should unionize. In Southern and Central California, the discussions have become more prominent.

In the North Bay, the notion of unionizing has given way to a stopgap measure — a quasi bill of rights for these workers. The advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice surveyed 95 farm workers, sampled from the more than 11,000 in Sonoma County, to find solutions for workers’ biggest demands. More than 1,200 people have signed a petition supporting the demands.

A culmination of six months of work, the five “priorities” the group plans to present to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, city councils, select employers and area farm bureaus are as follows:

  • Language justice
  • Disaster insurance
  • Community safety observers
  • Hazard pay
  • Clean bathrooms and water
Language justice was a top demand from local farmworkers in a survey North Bay Jobs with Justice conducted. (courtesy of North Bay Jobs with Justice)
Language justice was a top demand from local farmworkers in a survey North Bay Jobs with Justice conducted. (courtesy of North Bay Jobs with Justice)

Would more demands lead to fewer workers employed as the burden falls on the employer and labor contractor?

“There’s a ton of value in grapes grown in Sonoma County and Napa. These workers tend to the land where these grapes are grown. The costs should not be at the expense of the workers,” North Bay Jobs with Justice lead organizer Omar Paz said.

Labor contractors could complicate matters by mistreating workers without the employers knowing.

“It’s a tricky situation because the people in companies might not know what the supervisors are doing,” Paz said, referring to the use of labor contractors. “It’s something we want to get to the bottom of.”

Renteria Vineyard Management Chief Financial Officer Blanca Wright agreed. Wright also serves as the president of the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, a trade group.

“There are obviously a select group of farm labor contractors not complying. They give us a bad name. Unfortunately, they conduct business that way, and unfortunately for farmworkers, they have to put up with that,” she said. “Most labor contractors want to do the right thing.”

Wright acknowledged more problems exist with the pandemic and wildfires, creating “a perfect storm” of challenges for the workers, middlemen and employers needing the fields tended to.

Renteria, based in Napa, provides more than 300 laborers to work on 2,200 acres for wineries and vineyard owners. Her company stages team building events, health fairs and vaccination clinics. The workers have access to grants, scholarships, free lunches on Fridays and N95 masks.

The Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office also distributed 300,000 free surgical masks last year to ease the issue of workers inhaling smoke.

Of the worker demands compiled by the North Bay Jobs with Justice, Wright believes hazard pay may be a tough nut to crack.

“I’m not saying they don’t deserve it,” she said.

Renteria workers are employees, not independent contractors, requiring documentation of citizenship. When asked if other companies insist on the paperwork, Wright replied: “I would be surprised if they didn’t. Compliance has been getting stricter every year.”

And the question remains whether workers who cross the border do so on their own terms.

Despite recent Cal Matters reporting that California is one of the most prominent sites of labor trafficking in the United States, North Bay Jobs with Justice Executive Director Max Bell Alper said he’s unaware of a particular problem in the Wine Country.

“I just have not heard that to be an issue,” he said.

If anything, the H-2A visa immigration standards have expanded to accommodate more temporary agricultural workers, he added.

But according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 1,600 of the nearly 11,000 cases logged in 2018 were made in California — with 150 of those involving labor.

“Are they forced to work in unhealthy conditions and in the smoke? I think there are huge problems out there. I wouldn’t call it human trafficking, but there’s a problem with the control of ag workers,” North Bay Jobs with Justice founder Marty Bennett said.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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