Sonoma County farmworkers’ struggles include housing, health

Some 4,000 to 6,000 farmworkers form the backbone of the Sonoma County wine industry. A new study provides an unprecedented look at their lives.|

Long hours spent hunched over, installing countless drippers on a vineyard irrigation system, did a number on Jose Luis Apolinar's back.

His wife, Rosa, knows what to do next. After dinner, she takes a pair of scissors and goes into the backyard of their southeast Santa Rosa home, snipping off several leafy sprigs from a potted rue plant. The pungent herb, mixed with 16 ounces of rubbing alcohol in a warm bath, is the key ingredient to an age-old remedy Rosa learned from her mother, who she described as an indigenous woman from Michoacán, Mexico.

'But once he gets out of the tub, he has to wrap himself up and it's straight to bed,' said Rosa, coming out of the bathroom, drying her hands after stirring the concoction. 'By tomorrow, he'll be really strong.'

Strong enough for another day in Sonoma County's vineyards. The labor is hard, but Jose Apolinar, 54, doesn't complain. It's full-time, year-round work that — along with an occasional catering gig cooking carnitas — pays the rent and bills. Rosa is a vineyard worker as well, though only part-time during the harvest and a couple of months leading up to it.

Jose and Rosa Apolinar are among 4,000 to 6,000 farmworkers who live in the county year-round and form the backbone of the local agriculture sector. Nearly all work in the wine industry, where they tend and harvest the county's $600 million grape crop.

Twenty years ago, a greater share of that work was done by migrant farmworkers, young men who passed through the North Coast, especially during the harvest season.

But now, most of that work is done by farmworkers who have sunk roots in the local community. They rent local apartments and homes. Their children attend local schools. While the vast majority are men, more women are joining their ranks, according to those familiar with the industry. And they are among the county's most impoverished residents.

The presence of a local workforce rooted in the community and struggling to survive is among the key findings in a new county survey that seeks to document the health and well-being of the county's agriculture workforce.


The survey, which county officials described as the county's first, found that 92 percent of farmworkers work in the wine industry. Significant numbers live in costly and crowded housing; earn insufficient incomes to meet their family's basic needs; have limited health insurance coverage; have restricted access to preventive and medical care; and experience significant health disparities.

'We really need to recognize that they are part of our community, and we need to include them in our health planning,' Sonoma County Public Health Officer Karen Milman said. 'The goal is to start with an awareness of who is in our community and how to improve their health.'

The survey, which was released last month, was conducted in late 2013 at day labor centers, community health centers and other locations frequented by those who work in agriculture. The county's Department of Health Services partnered with California Human Development to conduct and analyze the grant-funded survey.

The findings mirror statewide labor trends in agriculture that are in part driven by the nation's immigration policies, said Chris Paige, CEO of California Human Development, a local nonprofit agency that provides education, housing and other services. The farmworker population has gotten older in the past 10 years, with many forming families and settling into local communities, he said.

'We value open space and sustainable agriculture, but that sustainability is linked to a sustainable workforce,' Paige said, adding that such a workforce needs affordable housing, health care, education and other necessities to prosper.

Abraham, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Healdsburg, was a migrant farmworker until the border became too difficult and dangerous to cross. Abraham, 56, who asked that only his first name be used for fear of being identified and deported, said that throughout the 1990s he frequently and easily crossed the border illegally.

But heightened border security following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made illegal crossings at urban points of entry such as El Paso and San Diego far more difficult. Abraham and other undocumented immigrants, crossing for the first time or eager to get back to their jobs in the United States, instead entered the country in remote and inhospitable areas such as the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.

Abraham, who is originally from the impoverished Mexican state of Oaxaca, said he hasn't crossed the border since 2004, when he witnessed a fellow countryman, a young man in his 20s, nearly die in the desert. Since then, Abraham has chosen to stay in Sonoma County, refusing to risk the border even though his wife in Mexico is becoming increasingly ill from osteoporosis.

'You can get out, but you can't come back in. It's too hard,' he said.


With harvest over, there's little vineyard work for Abraham until the pruning season begins in the winter. Like many other farmworkers, he supplements his vineyard work by doing yardwork, maintenance and tree pruning.

His current vineyard job pays about $12 an hour and provides health insurance, he said, which comes in handy for treating his high cholesterol. Abraham is more fortunate than many of his peers; only 30 percent of the county's farmworkers reported having health coverage, according to the survey. By comparison, 86 percent of adults in Sonoma County had insurance in 2011 and 2012.

The 106-page report paints a detailed picture of the local agriculture workforce:

Nine in 10 farmworkers in Sonoma County are male. The median age is 37 years, and 90 percent reported being Mexican. Only 5 percent were Mexican- American.

Most lived either in unsubsidized apartments (45 percent) or houses (41 percent) in Sonoma County. About 30 percent received some kind of housing support from their employer. A third shared a bedroom with two or more roommates — considered overcrowded by housing officials. Nationwide, less than 3 percent of the population live in such crowded conditions, the study said.

63 percent of farmworkers drove a car to their Sonoma County jobs, while about 20 percent utilized raiteros, individuals whom farmworkers pay often-high prices to drive them to and from work.

58 percent of the county's agriculture workers sent remittances to their families in 2012, with the median remittance totaling $3,000 annually.

The median annual income for single, childless farmworkers was $18,750, compared with the overall median annual income for single-person households in the county, $35,510.

The median farmworker family income was $23,750 in 2012, compared with $69,920 for Sonoma County family households.

'These data suggest an economic disparity between farmworker and Sonoma County households, and farmworkers' low socioeconomic status may have deleterious effects on their health,' the report states.


Paige said the report found that farmworkers are paying between 30 to 50 percent of their income for housing, a financial burden that some workers offset by living in crowded conditions. He said the farmworker housing crunch is part of a larger housing affordability crisis in Sonoma County.

Funding for subsidized farmworker housing is harder to come by with the statewide elimination of redevelopment agencies, he said.

One example of what it takes to pay for such housing is a $10.5 million farmworker housing development called Ortiz Plaza in Larkfield. The project, which consists of 29 two-bedroom units, was primarily funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and tax-exempt bonds from the California Housing Finance Agency, as well as federal and state tax credits. Local funding came from Marv Soiland, American AgCredit and the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

'It's not cheap at all, and it's not cheap in this market,' Paige said of the difficulty in getting such projects funded. 'It's a small part of the solution and you have to do what you can. It's a good step.'

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers Commission, said the difficult socio-economic issues facing local farmworkers, though real, are not new. Nor do they solely affect local agriculture workers, she said, noting that the survey highlighted socio- economic and health issues that affect much of Sonoma County's Latino community in general.

Kruse applauded the county's effort to create benchmarks for measuring the progress of any attempt to correct or improve conditions for farmworkers.

'We really have to work as a community in Sonoma County to solve some of these issues,' she said. 'We as grape growers and advocates, we can't solve this problem alone. We have to work in collaboration with the county and nonprofits.'

Brian Vaughn, a county health policy director, emphasized the need for communitywide cooperation in resolving issues raised in the survey.

'It's going to take a coordinated approach, basically, between everyone in the county,' he said.

Duff Bevill, a grower and owner of Bevill Vineyard Management, echoed Kruse's assertion that the financial burdens facing farmworkers are the same challenges facing all lower-wage employees in the county. Bevill said he was suspicious of some of the findings in the survey, including one that found only 77 percent of children in farmworker families have health insurance when, in fact, all Sonoma County children are eligible for health insurance.

He said the finding that only 30 percent of farmworkers reported having health insurance also seemed low.

'One hundred percent of my full-time employees have health insurance,' Bevill said, adding that full-time workers include office staff, farm laborers, tractor drivers, foremen, agriculture technicians, mechanics and vineyard managers.

Bevill said he has about 50 full-time employees and another 50 to 100 part-time workers who are brought in for seasonal work.

But Bevill insisted that other low-wage employees in the county face similar economic hardships.

'You could have the same discussion at Rite Aide, McDonald's,' he said. 'Housing is an issue, no doubt about it. But I don't think it's unique to farmworkers. No one is asking McDonald's to provide housing for their employees or solve the housing problems. … The reason the farm community is expected by society at large to do that is that, historically, we have.'


Christopher Silva, president and CEO of St. Francis Winery and Vineyards, said the 'permanent nature' of the farmworker population presents challenges to the agriculture industry, but also economic and cultural opportunities. That means paying a living wage, offering generous health benefits and bridging a cultural gap that often keeps farmworkers in the dark about health and wellness programs and initiatives available to them.

'I'm very proud of the fact that at St. Francis Winery our vineyard workers enjoy the exact same medical, dental and vision insurance benefits that I enjoy as CEO,' Silva said. 'When a business is doing the right thing, other businesses will emulate that.'

For the Apolinar family, vineyard work alone would not cover the cost of living in Santa Rosa.

Rosa, 40, works four months before and during harvest, while Jose works full time. During that four-month period, the couple brings home $4,000 a month. The two try to save as much money as possible during that period to cover the other eight months, when the family only makes about $2,000 a month from Jose's salary. They have two daughters, Britney, 8, and Ana, 3.

Rent and essential bills are about $1,600, while the remaining $400 must cover food and other expenses. Jose has invested in cooking equipment for making carnitas and goat birria, which can bring in an average of $350 for a catered event.

'That pays for clothes for the girls,' Rosa said, pointing to Britney, who played a video game on a smartphone as Jose prepared to take his herb- and alcohol-infused bath.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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