Wine industry seeks stable labor supply in immigration debate
As he hears tales of the plight of North Coast vineyard workers, Carlos Falcon can relate to their struggles as they seek a toehold into the middle class.
Falcon, the new North Bay organizing coordinator for the United Farm Workers, can easily rattle off the obstacles his members face. There are the ones who go without cellphones in the winter months to save money when work has dried up. There are others who have to double up with family to afford the ever-escalating rents in Wine Country. One hasn’t seen his family in about 15 years because he entered the country illegally and fears he would never be able to return if he visited Mexico.
“When you look at the day to day, it’s still a struggle for some of the families,” Falcon said. “Whether it’s work or leisure, they’re limited.”
The issue is personal for Falcon. He was born in Mexico and came to Modesto with his family at the age of 5. He was able to get legal resident status in the late 1990s and later attended junior college as he began working in the social justice field, with his eye on becoming a lawyer. His current step in that journey is to help boost the fortunes of local farmworkers, especially the undocumented.
“There is stability with being legal here in this country. You’re able to flourish and your family as well,” said Falcon, 29.
Falcon’s tale is one part of the overall saga of how immigration plays out in the North Coast wine industry, where the increasingly limited supply of workers has driven up wages and raised concerns over the future of the workforce that picks the area’s most profitable crop. It also has brought both labor advocates and growers together to call on Congress to resolve the immigration issue and allow those who are undocumented to work legally in the United States. Congress has so far not heeded as House Republicans have balked at any proposal that provides a pathway for citizenship.
President Barack Obama tried to force the issue in his executive order issued last month. Farmworkers weren’t specifically addressed in the executive order and it did nothing to change agriculture work visas for migrants, also known as H-2A visas.
The order would provide relief for about 4 million of the nation’s estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants by deferring their deportation proceedings and extending certain work permits to three years. Those who would benefit primarily are youths who came into the country before they turned 16 and parents who have lived in the United States for five years and whose children are legal residents, at a minimum.
The United Farm Workers has estimated that the ?Obama order would benefit ?250,000 farmworkers, and at least 125,000 in California. At least half and possibly more of the nation’s approximately ?2.3 million farmworkers are undocumented, according to federal and other estimates.
“It’s a good first step, but much more is needed because many farmworkers are not covered and there is no pathway to be a U.S. citizen,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Would like to see resolution
The North Coast wine industry would like to see a full resolution to the issue, as it has been increasingly hard for local vintners and growers to find workers in recent years.
For example, Enrique Castillo, owner of Enrique Vineyard Management in Sonoma, said his 25-person crew was stretched during this year’s harvest and that he could have used 15 more workers. Late in the season, his crews were pulling double duty, picking at night in one location and then during the early morning at another spot. At times, he had to turn down work or pay overtime for shifts that could extend as much as 14 hours.
During harvest, Castillo pays $25 an hour. He has taken steps to keep his workers employed throughout the year with chores such as leafing, replanting of vineyards and other vine maintenance - a tactic that is common in the industry to retain workers by keeping them busy until next year’s harvest. Pay for that work can drop to a minimum of $12 an hour, Castillo said. The jobs do not come with health benefits.
The wages make it hard to live in the area compared with other agricultural regions such as the Central Valley. According to the state Employment Development Department, the median 2014 hourly wage for farmworkers and laborers in Sonoma County was $10.05, with a median annual salary of $20,896. In Napa County, it is $11.21 per hour with a median annual salary of $23,325.
Castillo attributes the labor scarcity to a lack of workers coming from Mexico and undocumented workers who have been deported. He came from Mexico to the United States at age 16 in the early 1980s. “I don’t see people coming like years ago,” Castillo said.