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Sonoma County supervisors join debate over farmworker safety during wildfires

Listen to PD’s Nashelly Chavez talking about working conditions for vineyard workers on this KQED podcast.

Agricultural work comes relatively easy to Margarita Garcia, a farmworker who harvests Sonoma County’s vineyards.

Raised on a farm, she had an upbringing that instilled in her a respect for the earth and the harvest.

But, the impact of this region’s recurring wildfires has made the fast-paced job of reaping the fields — in which workers are typically paid per ton of grapes they collect — more difficult.

When fires strike the area, Garcia said, the ash that sweeps in covers the portable bathrooms workers share. She added that some of her co-workers who primarily speak Indigenous languages struggle to understand safety information.

And, as she and other laborers hustle to cut the grapes from local vines, the N95 masks covering their faces make it hard for them to breathe. Garcia said some have opted to work without them, exposing themselves to the respiratory dangers caused by wafting wildfire smoke.

“I’d love to see people running up and down Taylor Mountain with those masks on,” she said, giving an example of what it’s like to harvest grapes during a wildfire.

“It’s like going on a 10K marathon. Put on that mask, see if you can breathe.”

Garcia shared her story on Sept. 23 as part of a conversation about farm laborer safety during wildfires. It was hosted by the Latino leadership group Los Cien, which was launched in 2009 and has more than 2,000 members.

The panel discussion, titled “Behind the lines: Wildfires and farmworker safety,” included representatives from Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency; North Bay Jobs with Justice, a local nonprofit founded in 2013 that is spearheading a list of demands created to improve farmworker safety during major blazes; and a viticulture consultant, someone familiar with the science of growing grapes.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the county’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission were invited to be part of the panel, but none were able to participate, said Kerry Fugett, a Los Cien board member and the panel’s moderator.

“Our community has found itself under the national spotlight to ensure we keep our farmworkers safe in the face of increasing fires,” Fugett said during the Sept. 23 meeting.

The discussion came on the heels of efforts by North Bay Jobs with Justice to address growing concerns about this region’s yearly wildfires, which frequently coincide with the grape harvest.

“I’d love to see people running up and down Taylor Mountain with those masks on. … It’s like going on a 10k marathon. Put on that mask, see if you can breathe.”

Now, the effort is extending beyond the grape growers.

In interviews this week, it’s clear Sonoma County supervisors intend to get heavily involved in the issue, as well.

Two supervisors, Chairwoman Lynda Hopkins and Supervisor James Gore, said they plan to ask their colleagues to set aside federal COVID-19 relief dollars to boost workers’ safety during wildfires. Both are also calling on Cal/OSHA to provide local governments with more guidance on this issue.

North Bay Jobs with Justice’s demands include hazard pay, disaster insurance for workers who lose out on wages as a result of nearby wildfires, translated safety and evacuation information in Indigenous languages to better accommodate fieldworkers who primarily speak those languages, and community safety observers that would ensure employers are meeting wildfire-specific health and safety regulations when blazes strike.

“I would love to have Cal/OSHA and our state legislators at the table,” said Gore, who also serves as the president of the California State Association of Counties.

“We need to create the right criteria because we need to stop innovating through disasters. We need to embrace the new normal.”

Farmworkers and their advocates say the large blazes could put a long-term strain on the local vineyard worker community, a group that doesn’t have the same financial safeguards as the companies that employ them.

Loss of wages when wildfires destroy or damage crops, as well as the smoke farmworkers breathe when they harvest, can devastate workers and their families, they say.

At the same time, farmers are bracing for a light crop because of California’s ongoing drought. And last year, smoke from local wildfires tainted some of the region’s grapes, forcing many farmers to leave fruit on the vines, resulting in a 32% decrease in the tonnage of grapes picked as compared to 2019.

Farmworker safety concerns came to the forefront in 2020 after a coalition of local groups wrote to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors with concerns about a “lack of consideration for the farmworkers’ health and safety” when the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture allowed more than 300 businesses, including vineyard owners, to bring workers into evacuation zones during the LNU Complex fires.

Listen to PD’s Nashelly Chavez talking about working conditions for vineyard workers on this KQED podcast.

“We need to create the right criteria because we need to stop innovating through disasters. We need to embrace the new normal.”

Leaders of those groups described the region’s agricultural workers as mostly undocumented immigrants, who cannot access unemployment benefits or federal emergency assistance. They added that some are also members of Indigenous communities who face extreme poverty.

In-depth surveys conducted earlier this year by North Bay Jobs with Justice of about 100 local farmworkers gave a more comprehensive view of other issues they experienced during wildfires.

That information helped shape a list of five demands to provide more support to farmworkers in those situations, said Max Bell Alper, the organization’s executive director who has 20 years of labor organizing experience.

North Bay Jobs with Justice is a coalition of more than 30 community and labor groups that strive to achieve economic and racial justice for workers.

The group also addresses issues of climate justice, which is a form of environmental justice that seeks equitable treatment of all people in the creation of policies and projects that address climate change.

It sent about 100 companies in Sonoma County’s wine industry letters outlining their demands, with invitations to meet. Several of the businesses, including wineries, also received in-person visits in August from North Bay Jobs with Justice volunteers, who were following up on the letters that had been sent.

So far, several businesses have contacted the group to have discussions about the demands, Alper said. He declined to specify how many or which businesses responded, citing ongoing talks.

“We think that we all have a responsibility here in our community to make sure that the people who do the work, the people who are … tending to these vines, harvesting, that they are respected and able to live good lives,” Alper said during last month’s meeting.

Karissa Kruse is president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, a marketing commission under the California Department of Food and Agriculture that received a letter from North Bay Jobs with Justice. She said their members already follow wildfire safety regulations required by the state and they shouldn’t be expected to cover wages for work that’s not completed.

Only about half of local growers have some level of crop insurance, which covers the loss of crops as opposed to a home or business, she said. Also, strict guidelines dictate who can qualify for reimbursement, Kruse said.

The group represents roughly 1,800 grape growers in Sonoma and Marin counties and promotes the grape-growing region.

A survey of 965 full-time vineyard workers in Sonoma County was conducted by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the trade group that’s provided $1.5 million to support vineyard workers since 2017, Kruse said.

It found just two of the employees surveyed were familiar with North Bay Jobs with Justice while nearly half indicated they had received support from the foundation, she said.

The foundation’s surveys were printed in Spanish and were distributed along with sealed envelopes so workers’ responses remained confidential, Kruse said.

“These requests are being made by a group that does not work with or represent our vineyard employees,” she said. “Our local grape growers are family farmers working with the 6,000 full-time vineyard workers in Sonoma County. (North Bay Jobs with Justice’s) wants are not founded in fact.”

Kruse added that because Sonoma County Winegrowers is a marketing commission under the state’s Food and Agriculture Department, it is barred from negotiating with a collective bargaining organizations like North Bay Jobs with Justice on behalf of grape growers.

Alper said his organization is not a collective bargaining organization. Rather, it’s a coalition of community and labor organizations.

The demands and the broader issue of worker safety during wildfires have reached the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, whose members say it’s time for formal conversations about worker safety, along with the demands being raised by North Bay Jobs with Justice.

A revamped “Ag Pass” program is slotted to be ready for the board’s review next year, said Hopkins, the board chairwoman. The county-based “Ag Pass” is a kind of permit designed to allow farmers and ranchers special access to their lands, which have been evacuated during natural disasters.

Hopkins said she was interested in having additional community discussions on the demand related to community safety observers. Organizers say they’re needed to make sure businesses comply with worker safety regulations during fires, such as providing employees masks when the presence of smoke causes unhealthy air quality levels.

Cal/OSHA is too understaffed to enforce those safety protocols, the organizers say, adding that wineries should allow volunteers to enter their properties to check on the well-being of farmworkers.

“I do see this as a failure of government in that it doesn’t sound like Cal/OSHA has been accessible or responsive to these concerns, or the people don’t feel like they have an avenue for recourse,” Hopkins said.

Both she and Gore expressed interest in allocating a portion of the remaining funds sent to the county through the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion federal economic stimulus bill passed in March, to support employees impacted by wildfires.

The county received $96 million from the act, $20 million of which was diverted to cover ongoing COVID-19 response costs, county records show.

For Gore, whose district includes some of the county’s premier wine grape-growing areas, he said his conversations with local farmers about the demands centers mostly around logistics. Should hazard pay be based on whether the work is taking place in an evacuation zone, or should it be based on the air quality of the work site?

“I do feel we need a state law administered by Cal/OSHA that sets some damn standards,” he said. “This should not just be farmworkers and farmworker advocates lobbying a board of supervisors on statewide issues.”

And while he said he’s certain there are wineries and grape growers who go above and beyond to support their workforce by providing good pay and housing, advocates tell him it's a mixed bag when it comes to which employers offer those type of benefits.

Supervisor Chris Coursey said he discussed the demands with North Bay Jobs with Justice about a month ago, and they’re “absolutely something I want the board to have a discussion about.”

After community members raised concerns last year about farmworkers harvesting in wildfire evacuation zones, Coursey said that he encouraged grape growers and labor organizers to work through their issues.

But the issues between the two groups persist, he said.

“It doesn’t sound like there’s been any negotiations yet, so if the board of supervisors needs to be involved here, I welcome that discussion,” Coursey said.

He said he’s heard many workers feel they have no choice. They continue to work in places under evacuation orders even if they are worried about their own safety.

“Feeding their family, paying their rent, it’s basic economics for folks living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to provide for their families,” Coursey said.

Supervisor Susan Gorin said the priorities laid out by farmworkers were worth bringing before the board, though she was “not sure what we would have control over” in terms of meeting their demands.

“I would have to have staff think about it,” she said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said he wants more information about how the North Bay Jobs with Justice survey was conducted, though he generally supports discussing the concerns brought up by farmworkers.

“My bottom line … I don’t want anyone to feel like they are being coerced into either an unsafe working situation or a bad working situation,” Rabbitt said.

“If that was the case, I would want to make sure that we could broach that subject and see if we can make that situation better.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. 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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