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Plight of Farmworkers Focus of Santa Barbara County Workshop in Santa Maria

Concerns discussed during the standing-room-only meeting include wage theft, pesticide exposure, working conditions

With the main room full, the crowd stood several people deep in the lobby for a Santa Barbara County workshop on farmworker issues. Click to view larger
With the main room full, the crowd stood several people deep in the lobby for a Santa Barbara County workshop on farmworker issues.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

From wage theft to labor law violations to pesticide exposure, farmworkers in Santa Barbara County face numerous issues, several speakers said during a Monday night workshop in Santa Maria

In addition to hearing about various regulations designed to protect them, farmworkers also were told during the workshop they need to speak up to help authorities enforce assorted laws.

First District Supervisor and Congressman-elect Salud Carbajal and Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf hosted the meeting held at the Betteravia Government Center in Santa Maria where a standing-room-only crowd spilled into the lobby.

“Clearly, there were a number of grievances that have been raised today and I hope there was a good dissemination of information as to how these grievances can be pursued and addressed by the various agencies,” Carbajal said at the end of the two-hour meeting.

“I think today was very educational and informative,” he added.

Wolf said it was gratifying to see the large crowd but added the number of people who attended the meeting shows the huge concerns.

After the panel presentations, more than a dozen people, many of them farmworkers, spoke up to air concerns or ask questions.

Hazel Davalos, organizing director with CAUSE, said too many farmworkers deal with wage theft and health and safety risks.

“Unfortunately, sometimes the laws on the books are not the laws in the fields, and existing laws are not being properly enforced in our community. That’s why many of us are here make sure we can pass protections locally,” Davalos said. 

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf and First District Supervisor and Congressman-elect Salud Carbajal speak during a workshop on farm worker issues Monday night in Santa Maria. Click to view larger
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf and First District Supervisor and Congressman-elect Salud Carbajal speak during a workshop on farm worker issues Monday night in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Farmworkers face huge barriers — language, lack of education and more —  to reporting violations, Davalos said. 

“At the heart of this many farmworkers are afraid of retaliation — getting fired or getting deported — if they speak up so they accept unsafe conditions in order not to take the risk,” Davalos said.

The solution, Davalos added, is a partnership involving county, state and federal agencies to leverage resources.

The centerpiece of their solution, under the Santa Barbara County Farmworker Bill of Rights, is a local ombudsman, to educate workers on existing rights and protections, operate a hotline for farm labor complaints and help connect them with state agencies, Davalos said.

Juan Cervantes, from United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 5, told about an ongoing labor battle involving Pacific Harvest and alleged violations affecting 43 employees.

“I’m just letting the people know — you have to speak up because I as a paralegal, or they as the district attorney or agencies, can’t do nothing if they don’t have a client,” he said. “And they’re giving you the tools to do it.”

One tool available Monday night was a work-hours calendar so employees can keep track and have supporting information in case paychecks are shorter than they should be, according to state representatives.

Not all the speakers were farmworkers. Representatives of the California Strawberry Commission and the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties also attended.

“There’s a lot of really great people working together to make sure that people are trying hard to follow the rules, that they understand the rules and that the rules are something they can abide by,” said Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association.

A panel of speakers included County Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Fisher, employees from the District Attorney's Office, the County Agricultural Advisory Committee, and officials from state agencies including the Department of Industrial Relations and the Labor Commissioner and a 211 Helpline Services representative. 

Representatives from state and county agencies participated in a Monday night panel discussion about farmworker issues including work safety concerns and wage theft. Click to view larger
Representatives from state and county agencies participated in a Monday night panel discussion about farmworker issues including work safety concerns and wage theft.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The agencies don’t share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speakers said, while pointing out various worker protections provided such as requiring shade for workers during break, rules to protect women who are pregnant, required breaks, and more.

Chief Deputy District Attorney John Savrnoch urged farmworkers who are victims of crime to work with law enforcement. 

“One thing I want to make clear to the audience … In the state of California there is no citizenship requirement to be a victim of a crime,” he said.

At the end of the workshop, Carbajal said ag industry employees need a clearinghouse to help workers untangle the web of regulations and agencies that enforce the rules.

“It seems to me that 211 may be the best number for the time being until such time that a different system is developed,” Carvajal said. 

Wolf, who said she worked in industrial relations for 25 years, urged employees to use the resources revealed during the Monday meeting.

“I think they’re here really to help you,” Wold added. “I hope you feel that. … I’m telling you trust these people. Get the information. Make the phone calls.”

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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