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Farmworkers show support for wine industry in front of Sonoma County Board of Supervisors as debate continues over wildfire safety

The committee looking into the issue intends to hold a May 26 community meeting on the subject.|

About 150 farmworkers turned out Tuesday in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to speak in support of the wine industry and against claims by a labor group in the debate over worker safety during wildfires.

The workers were part of the Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees group, which is backed by members of the local wine industry, to present an opposing view against the campaign launched by North Bay Jobs with Justice. The labor group is calling on the board to enact better protections for workers who may enter evacuation zones during wildfire season and additional safeguards such as hazard pay, disaster insurance and a greater focus on those who speak Indigenous languages.

“Where I work, the safety conditions, the safety practices are enforced very strongly. And they are among the best in the industry to ensure our safety,” said Gustavo Gonzalez, a vineyard worker who has worked in the local industry for eight years. Like most of the workers, Gonzalez spoke to the board in Spanish through an interpreter.

The workers spoke during an open comment session as the board is trying to revamp its policy on the issue.

The effort Tuesday served as a preview to a bigger meeting later this month when an ad hoc committee that is delving into the issue will hold a community hearing, tentatively scheduled for May 26, on the subject. Supervisors Chris Coursey and Linda Hopkins serve on the panel, which is trying to craft rules permitting how farmers can access their property within an evacuation zone during wildfires as current policies were developed amid the frenzy of the 2017 wildfires. Former California Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar, who helped craft the initial policy, had argued for a statewide protocol on the issue.

The industry group is arguing that a formal policy be put in place to spell out rules for those who are issued permits. It also agrees that public safety officials on the ground should be final arbiter of who should be allowed to access property, said Mike Martini, founder of Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol and former mayor of Santa Rosa. Both Napa and Santa Barbara counties have formal policies in place, he added, which could serve as a road map as Sonoma County officials draft their plan.

“There is no debate in the sense, ‘Is it safe to go in? Under what conditions?’ You tell us. You're the (public safety) professional,” Martini said. “I want to be proactive so when the emergencies hit there is a process in place.”

In contrast, North Bay Jobs for Justice wants to expand the debate to guarantee pay safeguards for when workers are not able to safely work in evacuation zones or when smoke damages the fruit making them unusable, so they are not picked and workers are not paid.

“That’s where the rubber meets the road rather than smoke and mirrors,” said Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs for Justice, who addressed the board. He also described the effort by Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees as “astroturfing,” implying it was more an effort orchestrated by their employers than a grassroots movement.

Hopkins asked through an interpreter if the farmworkers attended the meeting at the request of their employer. No one inside the boardroom raised their hands. Everyone raised their hand after Hopkins asked if they were paid at least $15 an hour and about half responded that they were paid $20 an hour or more.

The Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation provided financial assistance over two years to 11 families of vineyard workers who were displaced by the 2017 fires, said Karissa Kruse, executive director of the group. In 2019, the group helped 970 families affected by the Kincade fire, she added as she addressed the board.

Hopkins raised the issue that the county could look at the potential of helping displaced workers during the board’s budget hearings later this year as part of reaching a middle ground in the debate.

“I believe that there are many grape growers who do treat their employees like family and do treat them with dignity and respect,” Hopkins said.

“I also believe that there are workers in our community, in agriculture, in hospitality in other industries as well, who are not treated with dignity and respect and need our help,” she added.

Board Chairman James Gore noted that supervisors were hearing from different sides of the issue but said that the process should be guided by “professionals in safety and safety regulations.”

Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this article.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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