Nonprofit Calls for Additional Protections, Pay for Farmworkers During Wildfires

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North Bay Jobs with Justice - August 2021
North Bay Jobs with Justice volunteers gather on Saturday, Aug. 21, before distributing letters requesting additional worker protections to over 30 local businesses. Photo by Will Carruthers

With the threat of another disastrous wildfire season looming, Sonoma County farmworkers and their supporters are pressuring local wine businesses to improve working conditions during wildfires.

Last summer and fall, farmworkers throughout the state worked outdoors as over 4 million acres burned and the air filled with smoke. During both the 2017 and 2019 wildfire seasons, Sonoma County allowed over 250 employers to access their properties in wildfire evacuation zones, sometimes bringing workers with them to harvest grapes.

While the employers had an understandable need to complete last-minute work on their properties, local labor advocates argue that the workers taken into the evacuation zones do not have enough protections and may not have the financial resources to turn down dangerous work.

Earlier this year, North Bay Jobs with Justice, a Santa Rosa-based labor advocacy nonprofit, interviewed 100 local farmworkers about what changes they would like to see to their working conditions during wildfires. The interviews resulted in five requests: safety and evacuation training courses translated into farmworkers’ first languages; disaster insurance funds for workers who lose work due to wildfires; community safety observers allowed to oversee worker’s conditions during wildfires; hazard pay during wildfires; and clean bathrooms and water.

The nonprofit sent a letter to businesses requesting that they endorse five proposals. Many of the recipients did not respond to the letters, so, on Saturday, Aug. 21, NBJWJ rallied over 50 farmworkers and volunteers to hand-deliver the letters to more than 30 companies, including local wineries, vineyard management companies and farm labor contractors.

Max Bell Alper, NBJWJ’s executive director, frames the campaign as a fight for more equity in dealing with the impacts of climate change.

“This [issue] is not going away. Climate change is actually changing the way that it is to live on this land. And, as usual, it’s working class people, it’s immigrants, it’s people of color, it’s workers, who are most impacted by these changes. We believe that there is an opening here to say ‘We don’t want to continue the way things have always been,’” Alper told attendees on Saturday.

NBJWJ did not release current statistics as part of its campaign, but a past study indicates that Sonoma County farmworkers live precarious lives. A Sonoma County Farmworker Health Survey of 293 workers conducted in late 2013 found that 81% reported earning less than $30,000 in 2012.

“Nearly all (88.3%) of surveyed farmworkers considered Sonoma County their permanent residence, and 91.5% reported wine grapes as the primary crop in their current or most recent agricultural position,” a 2016 report on the survey’s results states.

Meanwhile, the wine industry faces its own challenges. Following several years of widespread wildfires, many wine businesses struggle to afford insurance policies due to rate hikes. Then there’s corporate consolidation. In July, after years of corporate mergers in the beverage industry, President Joe Biden signed an executive order tasking several federal agencies with studying “patterns of consolidation in production, distribution, or retail beer, wine, and spirits markets.”

Despite little response from the wine industry so far, Alper says that NBJWJ hopes to negotiate with local businesses.

“We continue to be hopeful that there are people within the wine industry that want to do the right thing by workers, and we are open and interested in partnering with growers and wineries and farm labor contractors that want to listen to the workers,” Alper told the Bohemian.

So far, at least one wine industry group seems less open to discussion. In an emailed response to questions about the NBJWJ’s petition, Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said that the organization is “not negotiating or adopting any of these items as their demands are not valid. The NBJWJ is an activist organization that does not represent vineyard workers.”

For better or for worse, the NBJWJ’s campaign does seem to have drawn the Winegrowers’ attention. In her response, Kruse questioned NBJWJ’s connection to workers, citing a recent survey of Sonoma County workers conducted by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, a local nonprofit.

“Only 2 of the 965 [full-time vineyard] workers knew of [NBJWJ],” Kruse stated. The Bohemian requested the Grape Growers’ full survey and asked whether it was completed in direct response to NBJWJ’s campaign. Kruse did not respond before the Bohemian’s print deadline.

As part of a group participating on Saturday, NBJWJ volunteers Anabel Garcia and Yolanda Valdivia helped distribute letters to three wineries.

Both women told their stories of working conditions they experienced during the wildfires, and were impressed with some of the empathetic responses they received from tasting-room employees and patrons. 

“They gave us attention, and they listened to Anabel’s stories, so from that we’re hopeful that the message will be passed on,” Valdivia said through a translator.

Then, Valdivia summarized the basic need for the campaign.

“Agriculture work is essential work that needs to be done. But, at the same time, [agriculture workers] are treated as if they are lesser,” Valdivia said.