Panel marks progress in Wine Country farmworker safety discussion

Friday’s Los Cien panel was made up of a farmworker, the leader of a local labor advocacy group and the general manager of a Sonoma vineyard.|

When Anayeli Guzman, an Indigenous farmworker from Sonoma County, began organizing with the labor group North Bay Jobs with Justice in support of five farmworker safety and wage demands, she said her hope for significant change wasn’t high.

The campaign, which started last year, came out of interviews the labor group did with farmworkers about the working conditions they said they faced in local vineyards. It sought to boost Sonoma County farmworkers’ access to emergency information in Indigenous languages, hazard pay and disaster insurance, among other provisions.

“It was something that was impossible for me,” Guzman, who hails from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, said of the campaign’s goals. “But over this past year, I’ve see many things that make me feel like there are people who support me, and have made other workers feel like if they speak up, people will support them.”

Guzman was one of three speakers Friday on a panel hosted by Latino leadership group Los Cien, focused on the issue of farmworker safety amid the onslaught of climate change, including catastrophic wildfires, rising temperatures and severe drought.

The event spotlighted what is one of the most closely watched and contentious local farm labor campaigns in a generation, especially in Wine Country, where farmworker appeals for stronger safeguards are now before local lawmakers and working through California’s legislature.

Large wildfires over the past decade have increasingly clouded Northern California’s wine grape harvest, exposing the industry’s field workers to air that can range from unhealthy to hazardous, or leaving them without work when it is called off for safety issues.

An audience of about 80 people listened to the discussion, held at Santa Rosa’s Epicenter sports and dining venue.

Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, and Rob Izzo, a general manager at Sonoma’s Eco Terreno Wines & Vineyards, were the other two panelists.

Patrick McDonell, a member of Los Cien’s board, served as moderator.

Los Cien first discussed the topic of farmworker safety in September, though the evolving nature of the issue motivated the group to revisit the topic, Los Cien program committee member Kerry Fugett said.

“What has happened, what progress has been made in the last year and what progress needs to be done,” Fugett said of the focus for Friday’s panel.

Asked about the changes in the past year, Bell Alper spoke about the general surge in support for local farmworkers since his organization kicked off its campaign last year.

It was the work of farmworkers, including Guzman, that led the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to set aside $1 million in the county’s budget earlier this summer for a new program offering disaster insurance for farmworkers and others affected by emergencies, he said.

E&J Gallo Winery also has guaranteed their employees and contractors hazard pay whenever air quality is deemed unhealthy for the general population, Bell Alper said.

“We believe if Gallo can do it, others can do it as well,” he said.

Bell Alper and Guzman spoke about their efforts to include in the county’s evacuation access policy provisions that would ensure workers: pay even when emergencies make it too dangerous to go out into the field; emergency safety information, translated into languages they understand; and hazard pay.

The policy, to be discussed Aug. 30 before the Board of Supervisors, would determine how and when farmers and their employees are given access to evacuated agricultural area lands and crops during emergencies that result in evacuation orders.

Representatives of the local agriculture and wine industries contend farmworkers are protected under existing safeguards and that access to evacuated areas should be overseen by the Sheriff’s Office.

Guzman said she would prefer for the county to set those rules through policy. She explained that for those who are undocumented like herself, law enforcement’s presence can sometimes stir up worries about whether one will be detained or ticketed.

“Instead of promoting security, it creates panic,” Guzman said of law enforcement’s presence during emergencies.

Izzo, the vineyard general manager, said he hasn’t seen much progress at the county or state level in terms of the policies around farmworker safety in the past year. In order for industrywide change, he said action at both levels is needed to “add real rigor and teeth” to the conversation around farmworker safety.

Still, Eco Terreno Wines & Vineyards has taken it upon themselves to make employee safety an integral part of the company’s culture, Izzo said.

They’ve done that through bonuses when employees help the company meet safety objectives, he said, and have translated work protocols into Spanish and formed a bilingual leadership team that can step in when language accessibility issues arise.

Employees seem to have taken notice, he said, noting that retention among their farmworkers has been strong.

“It’s about attracting people to the organization that care about social justice, environmental justice … but you don’t have that at a lot of these larger corporations,” Izzo said.

Mike Martini, a former Santa Rosa mayor and the owner of Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol, dropped out of the panel Friday morning, he said. Last-minute changes in “format, focus and panelists” prompted his decision, Martini said.

Members of the Board of Supervisors, the wine industry group Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees, the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association and several vineyard management companies were invited to participate in the panel but were not able to join, Fugett said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   


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