Sonoma County wine industry responds to farmworkers’ plight
The Sonoma County wine industry has ramped up its efforts to improve social and economic conditions for the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 farmworkers who permanently live here.
The Sonoma County Winegrowers, the trade group that represents more than 1,800 county grape growers, earlier this year revived its Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. In its first action, the foundation persuaded vintners to donate almost $100,000 to speed up construction of Ortiz Plaza, a 30-unit farmworker housing complex west of Larkfield.
And the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance this spring partnered with the La Luz Center, the nonprofit dedicated to helping Sonoma Valley immigrants, to help it better provide social services for local farmworkers and their families, almost all of whom are Latino.
Growers said the outreach is a further example of the responsibility they feel toward their employees, some of whom have worked at the same vineyards for 20 to 30 years and play a vital role in the business that is a key driver in the local economy.
“We’re trying to do the right thing,” said John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards and Winery in Santa Rosa, who noted that he has about a dozen farmworker families who pay a subsidized rate to live on his properties.
But such efforts also reflect the new normal in the wine industry. The industry faces a very tight labor market as immigration restrictions have tightened and younger workers increasingly opt to work in other sectors. Skilled workers are in demand, especially with an increasingly aging workforce.
Time to compete
“Growers are realizing that labor is a commodity that they can’t take lightly,” said Armando Elenes, third vice president for the United Farm Workers, which represents from 600 to 1,000 workers in the North Coast, depending on the season. “Growers are realizing that they have to compete. It’s something new for them.”
The activity comes after an unsparing report last year by the county’s Department of Health Services and California Human Development, a nonprofit that works with farmworkers, which brought additional scrutiny to the multibillion-dollar industry. The survey found that “farmworker families are not earning enough to meet their family’s basic needs.” Their wages ranged from about $19,000 to $24,000 annually.
The survey found that farmworkers lacked access to affordable housing in Sonoma County and their housing conditions were overcrowded. Approximately 30 percent received housing support from their employer, with 14 percent living on the worksite. About one-third lived in overcrowded residences, defined as those in which residents share a bedroom with two or more roommates. The national rate for overcrowding is less than 3 percent.
The survey found only ?30 percent of the county’s farmworkers reported having health insurance coverage, compared to 86 percent of all county adults.
Some farmworkers are able to get by without as much hardship as shown in the survey. Antonio Campa, for example, has been a farmworker for 38 years for Gallo of Sonoma and works under a UFW contract that pays ?$16 an hour. Campa, 62, has health insurance and gets holidays off as well as sick days. He works almost 65 hours a week and rents a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa for $1,300 a month.
“I rent a two-bedroom apartment with my wife, but I know about other farmworkers that have to live with two or three families in the same house. That happens at my house complex. People can’t afford to pay $1,300 monthly plus water, energy, phone,” Campa said.
A variety of services
Over at the La Luz Center, about 20 percent of the estimated 6,500 individuals it serves annually work in agriculture, so partnering with the Sonoma Valley vintners came naturally. The nonprofit center provides a range of classes on computing, financial literacy and English as well as offering health-related and employment services. It also hosts a family resources center at nearby El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma.
“It allows us to cast a bigger, wider net to go to the wineries locally,” said Juan Hernandez, executive director. “They (vintners) know that they want to support their workers, but their No. 1 focus is grapes.”
The outreach falls to Angie Sanchez, community engagement manager for La Luz, who grew up in the area. Sanchez said she has already talked to workers at Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards and Enterprise Vineyard Management, both in Sonoma, since starting on July 1. She has more places on her list.
Sanchez said she has already noticed a difference in her visits. Contract vineyard managers generally don’t know as much about their workers’ lives outside of work as opposed to winery management officials who have had workers that have been with the business for many years. That is especially important given that many vineyard owners have outsourced maintenance of their land to such management companies.