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CAUSE Study Cites Health, Safety, Wage Concerns for Santa Barbara County Farm Workers

Report on labor condition released as California Agricultural Labor Relations Board plans to hold Tuesday hearing in Santa Maria to get feedback from workers, employers

Field workers pick vegetables Monday west of Black Road in the Santa Maria Valley.
Field workers pick vegetables Monday west of Black Road in the Santa Maria Valley. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A day before an Agricultural Labor Relations Board hearing in Santa Maria, a group of activists has released a study highlighting numerous health, safety and other concerns cited by Santa Barbara County farm workers about their workplace conditions.

The Central Coast Alliance United for Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE, on Monday released the results of a study, Raising Up Farm Workers Santa Barbara County, which was conducted by activists.

Lack of overtime pay, wage theft, inadequate breaks, pesticide exposure, workplace injuries and no time off were some of the concerning labor conditions cited by the 300 workers surveyed in northern Santa Barbara County by CAUSE and its allies. 

The vulnerable population of field workers fears speaking up publicly, filing claims or reporting labor concerns, with 3.7 percent of workers saying they had submitted a complaint against employers although many more, 22 percent, said they had been fired, sent home early or given fewer hours for unfair reasons, according to CAUSE community organizer Olga Santos.

Others reported being threatened by bosses or unable to take time off work, she said. 

Santos worked in the fields picking strawberries more than 10 years ago and remembers the fear.

“Nowadays, there still exists that big fear,” Santos said, becoming emotional as she shared about inviting several field workers who declined to show up Monday to discuss workplace conditions.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the fear. It’s such a huge fear that they have that they say they can’t …

“I just think this is something that needs to be changed. There shouldn’t be a fear for people that work in the fields to the point they say they can’t stand up for what they believe in,” she said.  

CAUSE representatives said the first step toward improving conditions for farm workers will come Tuesday when the Agricultural Labor Relations Board will hold the last of three state hearings in Santa Maria, according to Hazel Davalos, CAUSE organizing director.

Armed with photos of farm labor actvitists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, local activists gathered Monday to reveal results of a study about current conditions for field workers in the Santa Maria Valley. Pictured are Olga Santos, CAUSE community organizer, Alma Hernandez Wilson, project coordinator for THRIVE Guadalupe, and activist Hilario Rodriguez. Click to view larger
Armed with photos of farm labor actvitists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, local activists gathered Monday to reveal results of a study about current conditions for field workers in the Santa Maria Valley. Pictured are Olga Santos, CAUSE community organizer, Alma Hernandez Wilson, project coordinator for THRIVE Guadalupe, and activist Hilario Rodriguez. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

State officials said the hearing is to gather comments from farm workers, employers and others on the board’s proposed rule to allow its staff to visit agricultural work sites to educate farm workers and field supervisors about the rights and responsibilities provided by the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

The local hearing will be from 1 to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Historic Santa Maria Inn, 801 S. Broadway. Spanish interpreters will be available at the early session; Spanish, Mixtec, Trique and Hmong translation will be offered at the second session.

Hearings also were held in Fresno and Salinas.

“It’s really a unique opportunity that they’re even in our city,”  Davalos added.

“If any workers or anyone who works with farm workers would like to come and express their concerns to this statewide agency, this will be a really key opportunity to speak up on these issues.”

More than 13,500 farm workers live in the Santa Maria and Orcutt areas, according to CAUSE. Approximately 3,400 others live in Guadadalupe, Lompoc, Solvang and Buellton with 1,104 reportedly living on the South Coast communities.

Those who pick and package vegetables and fruits in local fields are exempt from national overtime laws although most shifts for the physically difficult labor span 10 hours or longer, according to Alma Hernandez Wilson from THRIVE Guadalupe and Guadalupe Family Resources Center.

“For many farm workers, rest breaks are not a reality,” she said. “Nearly one in seven farm workers say they had work responsibilities during their work breaks.”

Breaks often don’t provide enough time to walk to rest areas to use bathrooms or get water, agricultural employees said.

One out of 10 farm workers said drinking water wasn’t easily available at work, according to the study. 

Four out of 10 farm workers said they had negative health effects from pesticide exposure, the study claimed.

“A lot of it’s over the long term and it’s subtle,” Davalos said, adding it includes eye, breathing and other problems.

One in four workers said they had been injured at work, with 73 percent saying they had received no benefits or compensation, and nearly all saying they continued working.

Wage theft also is concern with one in three workers saying they had been victims including being paid for fewer hours than they worked or paid for fewer boxes than they picked.

Additionally, some reported having responsibilities before or after their actual work hours or on breaks, and not getting compensated.

“Farm workers are especially vulnerable to wage theft as work is often paid piecemeal — per unit picked rather than per hour,” Davalos added.

“For a worker already being paid poverty wages being robbed of 10 percent of their earnings can make or break their family’s ability to make ends meet in a month.”

She said CAUSE plans to hold a forum in a month to determine what issue field workers feel is most important to get resolved immediately.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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