With no safety net, Sonoma County farmworkers struggle through pandemic and aftermath of wildfires

Lidia Chavez, a Cloverdale vineyard worker who left her village in Oaxaca, Mexico, more than 25 years ago, recalled vividly that her mother used to tell her that men have strong arms for work.

“But she would also say women have strong arms, too,” said Chavez, 56, speaking in Spanish and raising her fists.

The weathered, sun-baked skin on her arms is a testament to her words. Like so many undocumented immigrants, her ability to work is the essential yardstick by which Chavez measures her worth, her existence.

Today, however, she represents a crisis, as one of thousands of Sonoma County’s undocumented farmworkers struggling to pay rent and to stay healthy due to crushing blows from the lingering coronavirus pandemic and recent wildfires that decimated the annual wine grape harvest.

For the past month, Chavez only has been working a fraction of the 60 to 70 hours a week she’s accustomed to toiling during the busiest time of year for area vineyard workers, picking tons of grapes from August through October. Since wildfire smoke curtailed the harvest, she can no longer depend on her livelihood.

“There is no work,“ she said. ”I feel very anxious, like I’m not serving any purpose.“

She’s turned to house cleaning, logging 6 or 7 hours a day in between idle time worrying and longing to work amid the rows of grapes. She’s begged her boss, a local vineyard manager she holds in high regard, to put a shovel in her hand but his answer is always the same: sorry but no.

Chavez and other farm laborers interviewed for this story, several of them undocumented, say they’ve reached the point of desperation. Chavez agreed to tell her story and be photographed because she said it is important for people who are undocumented to to speak out about their experiences.

To be sure, public health emergency restrictions to stop the spread of the virus have taken a tremendous toll across the county, leaving many residents to rely on unemployment benefits and various forms of government assistance. But undocumented immigrants don’t have that safety net. They are ineligible for food stamps, Medicaid, state jobless pay, Social Security and health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

Essential yet left out

Gabriel Muchabanski, associate director of the Graton Day Labor Center, said there is not adequate help for agricultural workers, although they are an essential part of the labor force. Many vineyard workers, he said, rely heavily on their income from the grape harvest to get through the winter months when jobs for them are scarce.

This year, however, many vineyard workers made only 20% to 50% of the pay they earned in previous years picking grapes, he said. Typically, farmworkers are the strongest and most resilient laborers, but, he said, these are not normal times.

“That resilience is so fragile,” Muchabanski said. “They are literally the cannon fodder for economic sustenance in moments of crisis, as we’ve seen in the last seven months, as the frontline and essential workers. And they’re disproportionately impacted in terms of their health as it relates to COVID.”

Indeed, the coronavirus has disproportionately infected Sonoma County’s disadvantaged communities, many of which are Latino. Latinos represent 54% of all COVID-19 cases in the county, when race or ethnicity has been determined, yet they are only 26% of the nearly 500,000 population. Over the summer, that demographic disparity peaked at an alarming level; almost 80% of those contracting the contagion were Latinos.

On Friday, county public health officials said they are finalizing a $4 million “enhanced strategy” to address COVID-19 disparity. The new targeted pandemic response includes greatly increasing community virus testing in Latino neighborhoods, giving gift cards to encourage people to be tested and issuing cost-of-living stipends to those who contract the virus but do not have paid sick leave through their employers.

’We’ve never seen this before’

For undocumented farmworkers, the August and September wildfires wrecked their finances, after the virus had threatened their physical health.

“This year, the grape harvest was no kind of windfall, neither for vineyard owners nor vineyard workers. It was a loss for many,” said Adan, a vineyard tractor driver from Cloverdale who asked that only his first name be used because he is undocumented.

Adan, 69, said after smoke from the Walbridge and Glass fires contaminated a significant portion of the county’s grape crop and prompted an early end to harvest, many workers were unable to bank a “reserve” of money to carry them through the months of November and December, until it’s time to prune the grapevines.

“When have you seen fires of this magnitude?” he said. “We have never seen this kind of crisis. In all the years we’ve lived here, we’ve never seen this before, where there’s no work.”

County leader hears their woeful stories

Last Sunday, county Supervisor James Gore visited with a group of farmworkers and their families at a low-income apartment complex in Cloverdale. Adan and others expressed their fears and anxieties to him.

One worker after another spoke of unpaid utility bills, lack of child care and, most of all, the inability to pay rent. Gore’s visit was organized by Latino advocate Zeke Guzman, who for weeks has been coordinating food bank donations for more than 300 undocumented farmworking families in Clovderdale.

Guzman, 67, also has been arranging for taco trucks to come from as far as San Francisco to help feed struggling families. Guzman, who grew up in a farmworker family picking grapes, apples, walnuts and prunes across the North Coast, said vineyard workers now have it much tougher than when he was a youth.

Wages have not kept up with the area’s high cost of living, and so far greater economic disparity exists today, he said.

“These farmworkers are struggling so much, the economic disparity is 10 times worse today,” Guzman said. “When we grew up, we never saw two or three families in one house in order to afford the rent. That just didn’t exist.“

Muchabanski of the Graton Day Labor Center said members have expressed a deep sense of despair, with bouts of anxiety and depression. Such mental health issues, he said, are now evident in an “outwardly transparent” way that is uncommon for Latino immigrants.

Job opportunities dry up

The wine grape harvest began early this year in the first week of August, so it likely would have ended sooner than usual. But the extreme heat and then wildfires accelerated grape picking before the Glass fire in late September effectively ended the annual ritual.

Rafaela, a 39-year-old undocumented vineyard worker who asked that only her first name be used, said during the final few weeks of harvest she was only working 8 or 9 hours a week. A single Cloverdale mom with three children, she often worked at a local fast-food restaurant after the seasonal grape picking was finished. That’s not an option for her this year.

“I already asked, but there’s no work there because of the pandemic,” she said, speaking in Spanish.

Rey, a 33-year-old Cloverdale farmworker who also requested anonymity, said he was able to work just one week of this year’s harvest, about 36 hours. Rey, who is also from Oaxaca, said in previous years he’d average 50 hours a week.

Exacerbating inequities

It’s unknown how many of Sonoma County’s more than 10,000 vineyard workers are undocumented. A March 2017 report by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California said there were 38,500 undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County as of 2013, the organization’s most recent estimate. The number of undocumented immigrants in California has appeared to be declining since the mid-to-late 2000s, according to the institute.

Although undocumented immigrants here and nationwide have comprised a large share of the nation’s essential workforce during the ongoing pandemic, they were denied financial emergency assistance through any of the federal relief programs that have doled out trillions of dollars to individuals, communities and small businesses, said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York.

“COVID and natural disasters, they both expose and exacerbate inequities and injustices that already existed, and that’s clearly what you’re seeing in California with agriculture workers,” Kerwin said.

To help make up for the lack of federal funds, Undocufund, which was created three years ago to assist local undocumented immigrants hurt by the Tubbs fire, was reactivated at the start of the pandemic in March to help this disadvantaged group of county residents.

From March to early October, Undocufund has distributed $3.35 million in individual grants of $500 to $2,000, said Omar Medina, the entity’s coordinator. The fund received $2 million from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrant and Refugees, a national organization that partnered with the state to distribute $125 million in public and private money for undocumented immigrants adversely affected by the pandemic.

With the winter months approaching when jobs for farm laborers are scarce, Medina said more financial assistance is needed.

“We’ve got a crisis coming,” Medina said. “There’s way more need than what we’ve been able to provide.”

Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, said since the 2017 Tubbs fire the trend toward more machine or automated picking and grape processing and more full-time vineyard workers has meant there are fewer seasonal positions for vineyard laborers. However, she said the county’s robust yearslong economic expansion before the pandemic created other job opportunities in construction and hospitality sectors for seasonal farmworkers.

Since the 2017 North Bay fires, full-time vineyard employment has increased 20%, while automation of grape harvesting has led to an almost 50% decrease in seasonal vineyard work, Kruse said.

Hoping to return to vineyards

On a narrow cul-de-sac of modest cabins in southeast Santa Rosa, Cecilia, a 50-year-old undocumented vineyard worker, lives with her husband. Cecilia, who asked that only her first name be used, said she logged less than two weeks of labor during this year’s harvest. In previous years, it was usually eight weeks. Her husband cleans people’s yards.

Cecilia’s neighbor, Maria, another undocumented farmworker, worked less than a month in the vineyards this season. Maria said she’s grateful for Guzman collecting food bank donations that have helped her feed her 13-year-old daughter.

But more than anything, Cecilia and Maria said they desperately need jobs to help pay the rent and monthly bills.

“The internet alone is $100 (monthly),” said Maria, noting the online connection is a necessity for her daughter’s distance learning for school.

Cecilia, who’s worked in vineyards for 18 years, said she hopes to get back to it. “I don’t know how to work in a factory or in a restaurant,” she said.

’I love to work’

Chavez, the Cloverdale vineyard worker, said she’s disheartened for her disabled son, Jesus Mendoza, who recently lost his janitor job working 5 hours a week for a local nonprofit. Mendoza, who is in the country legally because of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, walks with difficulty because his feet point outward 180 degrees. His left leg does not bend, and he said he can work only a few hours a week without getting “super tired.”

“I love to work because,” he said, standing in his front yard, his voice muffled by his face mask, “I need to help my mom pay for some bills.”

Decades ago his mom at 25 had fled with him when he was a 2-year-old boy from her home in Oaxaca to Mexico City, two months after her husband was murdered. She doesn’t know who killed him or why, but one thing was clear, she said, “in my pueblo, when they kill someone, they usually finish off with the whole family.”

In Mexico City, she found work as a house cleaner and nanny, and her disabled son, now 33, received badly needed medical care at a Shriner’s hospital. Soon after that, she made the trek to the United States, crossing the border illegally in 1993 to work. Six years later, she made sure her son and mother also got to America.

“In Mexico, you make enough to survive one day to the next,” Chavez said. “You can’t save any money and there’s no future for your kids.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

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