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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors push decision on revamp of evacuation zone policy to August

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday gave itself another six weeks to strike a policy compromise on protecting farmworkers during wildfires while allowing farm owners to monitor their crops if they are not in immediate danger.

The board voted to direct its staff to report back Aug. 30 on a new comprehensive plan that would regulate how those in agriculture could access their properties during mandatory evacuations if allowed to do so by local public safety officials.

County officials are attempting to craft a formal policy after an initial agriculture property access system was implemented amid the 2017 North Bay wildfires, which most stakeholders agree is now inadequate.

Local labor group North Bay Jobs with Justice has argued for additional worker safeguards, as well as hazard and disaster pay for farmworkers.

The supervisors are acting in the aftermath of the passage of a state law signed last year that would grant commercial livestock producers entry to evacuated areas under specific conditions to be overseen by local counties.

Tuesday’s debate during the board’s meeting centered on how farmers, outside of those who tend livestock, could access their property if the land was not in immediate danger — most notably those in the wine industry, though other planted crops also would be affected.

“I think it's imperative for the Board of Supervisors to protect the health and safety of the people who work in the fields of Sonoma County,” Supervisor Chris Coursey said. “I support their call for the board to create policy that ensures safety and evacuation zones and I hope we can get to that today.”

The wine industry, through a new group called Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees, has called for a proposal that would create an agricultural pass program overseen by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The agency would determine who should be allowed to access property depending on the risk.

Only Supervisor David Rabbitt appeared to embrace that option. Most supervisors were looking for a middle ground between that option and another proposal for a more comprehensive program.

The board directed county staff, led by Chris Godley of the Department of Emergency Management, to come back next month with a policy draft that could fill in the key specifics even though wildfire season has already started.

The draft will likely address whether the county will limit potential access to only commercial businesses; allow such visits for areas only permitted for agricultural use; and whether to cap the number of employees per business who would be allowed to enter.

It also would spell out the fire training requirements that those employees would need to be able to enter such evacuations zones.

“It’s very disappointing that while most counties already have access plans in place, the Board of Supervisors chose to kick the can down the road until Aug. 30,” said John Segale, spokesperson for the wine industry group.

Workers aligned with North Bay Jobs with Justice have argued they should receive hazard pay for working in disastrous conditions; as well as disaster insurance to recoup pay when they can’t work because of safety conditions; and requirements for better information for those who speak Indigenous languages.

The labor group also advocated for the board to choose a more comprehensive program.

“We need this disaster payment because after the fires we're left with no support,” one female worker told the board in Spanish via an interpreter.

Looking for a compromise, the board last month allocated $1 million in the county’s budget so staff could explore a new program that would offer a type of disaster insurance for farmworkers and another $2 million for a disaster fund to help those with immediate needs in the community. Supervisors said the funding discussion was a separate matter from the access issue they focused on Tuesday.

“We need to really be proactive in exploring sources of funding for the future,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who added that such monies should come from more reliable avenues outside the county’s general fund.

The board was informed by Jennifer Klein, chief deputy counsel for the county, that most of the workplace issues raised by the labor group were under the purview of the state and overseen by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

“But that doesn't mean the county can’t explore options to partner with (the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health) to achieve better enforcement in that area,” she added.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 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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