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Close to Home: Farmworkers and the wealth of Wine Country

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The contribution of Sonoma County’s farmworkers to creating Wine Country wealth is rarely acknowledged. Now that the grape harvest is wrapping up, it is appropriate to consider the wages and working conditions of vineyard workers.

Nine out of 10 Sonoma County farmworkers are employed in the wine industry. Farm labor analyst Don Villarejo examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 census and calculated the average hourly wage for a county farmworker employed directly by a farm operator for at least 150 days was $15.43 an hour; the weighted annual average income of all farmworkers who were employed by growers and farm labor contractors was $21,920.

The Department of Labor’s national agricultural survey reports that few California farmworkers are employed full-time in agriculture. On average, they work just 36 weeks annually. UC Davis economist Phillip Martin calculated that in 2015 the average California farmworker, employed primarily in agriculture, earned only $20,500. Three out of four California farmworkers had only one employer, and just 15% crossed the border or migrated between California agricultural regions.

Farmworkers and their families are working poor, belonging to one-third of the county workforce that cannot make ends meet. According to the California Budget and Policy Project, in 2017 two parents working full-time had to each earn $23 an hour, or approximately $81,000 a year, to support two children and pay for necessities — food, transportation, child care, rental housing and medical care. This conservative estimate came before the county’s dramatic 35% spike of median rents following the Tubbs fire.

In 2018, Sonoma County growers and farm labor contractors employed approximately 11,060 vineyard workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An overlooked 2015 Sonoma County Department of Health Services report (from interviews with nearly 300 farmworkers) provides insights into the working conditions and health of county farmworkers:

— Nine in ten vineyard workers surveyed were male, under the age of 40, born in Mexico and year-round county residents; 29% single; 24% married and living with a partner; 43% married and living with a partner and children.

— Just 30% of the farmworkers had health insurance provided by their employer, the state or a spouse’s plan; 44% indicated that their health is fair to poor.

— Ten percent reported an injury or illness on the job, due to repetitive motion tasks, constant lifting and bending, pesticide poisoning or prolonged exposure to heat and sunlight; 13% lacked consistent access to shelter and shade from the heat.

— Most Sonoma County vineyard workers lived in unsubsidized rental housing or apartments. Only 14% had grower-provided worksite housing; 30% received some housing financial assistance from their employer. Housing is unaffordable for most farmworkers, and they pay 30-60% of gross monthly income in rent.

To address runaway inequality and working poverty, 33 California cities and one county have implemented local minimum wages higher than the state’s – currently $12 an hour for large employers ($11 for small employers) and phasing in to $15 an hour by 2023 for all employers. Santa Rosa recently implemented a minimum wage law phasing in to $15 for large employers by July 1, 2020. Petaluma, Sonoma and Novato have also approved $15 minimum¬ wages, and other North Bay jurisdictions may do so as well.

Last year, the estimated value of Sonoma’s grape harvest was a record $2 billion. Sonoma and Napa produce most of California’s premium wines, which yield the highest profits. Premium wine production is dominated by a handful of global corporations -- Constellation Brands, E and J Gallo and the Wine Group.

Bank of America is raising its entry-level minimum wage to $20 an hour by 2021. To make the Sonoma County wine industry more just, equitable and sustainable, growers should do the same for farmworkers, including those employed by labor contractors.

Martin J. Bennett, an instructor emeritus of history at Santa Rosa Junior College, is a member of North Bay Jobs with Justice.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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