Storms are another disaster for Sonoma County farmworkers who call for more aid
For many farmworkers in Sonoma County, the early January storms — which weather experts attributed to an unusual string of atmospheric rivers that dumped massive amounts of rain across the region — have made their lives go from bad to worse.
“So we have to understand that farmworkers, the money they earn in a six-week period during the harvest, is what holds them over for November, December until the pruning starts in January,” farmworker advocate Zeke Guzman, president of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma, said.
Much like the agricultural industry in recent years, farmworkers have endured a number of economic setbacks attributed to wildfires, the ongoing drought, and COVID-19.
But the weeks of drenching rain delayed the start of the local pruning season and workers then had to wait for many water-logged, muddy fields to dry out.
No work means no pay.
Rafaela, a single mother and farmworker from Cloverdale, said she hasn’t worked since October. She usually starts work the first week of January, but this year it’s been harder. And, by the last week of January, she still hadn’t been called back to work.
She worries that by talking publicly about the difficulties she is dealing with she’ll endanger her ability to get work, so she asked that her last name not be used.
“I don’t even have money for rent,” she said, adding that she’s been a farmworker for five years and is aware of the seasonal fluctuations. In the past, she’d been able to prepare for them.
“I used to save a little, but not anymore,” she said.
Her concerns are echoed by other farmworkers, as well as those who work with the social service agencies that provide financial aid and other support to farmworkers.
Everyone, they said, is asking the same question: How will we pay for rent?
No emergency pay when it’s ‘impossible to work’
According to a news release issued in October by the Sonoma County Winegrowers, last year’s harvest was down compared to previous years, which the group attributed to “the ongoing drought, spring frost, a heatwave and then the mid-September rains.“
Even before the January rains many farmworkers were already concerned because the below average harvest meant they had earned less than in previous years.
Once the rain began to fall at the end of Christmas, their worries compounded.
“It was impossible to work at that time,” said Anayeli Guzman of Santa Rosa.
She formerly worked year-round in the vineyards, where she pruned vines and harvested grapes. She now works at a small vegetable farm tending crops.
When she could work during the storms, she said it was about two days a week. The $600 she made in two weeks of work was not nearly enough to cover the monthly rent of $900 for herself and her daughter.
There are about 8,500 agricultural workers in Sonoma County at the peak of harvest, according to Andrew Smith, the county’s agricultural commissioner/sealer of Weights and Measures.
Those who are undocumented or who have temporary visas that allow them to work in the country legally do not qualify for emergency pay or paid time off.
Because of the work interruptions caused by the winter storms, hundreds of farmworkers have turned to local nonprofit organizations and now the county for emergency financial aid and support.
More help on the way
In mid-January, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors announced a pilot program to distribute $300,000 in emergency funding to assist residents impacted by the storms.
Hundreds of farmworkers stood in line for hours to qualify for some kind of financial help.
The county had set up storm recovery centers in Guerneville, Healdsburg and virtually, but the $300,000 was allocated within two days, said Alegria De La Cruz, director of the Sonoma County Office of Equity, during Tuesday’s board meeting.
Of the nearly 1,080 people who visited the storm recovery centers, 56% worked in the agriculture industry and 82% doubted their ability to pay rent, De La Cruz said.
“We were overwhelmed with the level of need in the community,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. She had requested $2 million during last year’s budget meeting to start a Community Disaster Immediate Needs Fund, which funded the pilot program.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, supervisors tripled funding for the disaster relief pilot program, which is not to exceed $1 millionand will provide disaster relief across the county.
Though aid hasn’t been distributed yet, Hopkins said people who qualified for assistance can expect it to be mailed to them over the next few weeks.
During the board meeting’s public comment period, many farmworkers and activists questioned why grape growers weren’t more involved in financial assistance efforts.
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