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January 1999 Volume 5 Number 1
California: Freeze, Welfare, Housing
The lemon and navel orange crops in the San Joaquin Valley<< back
were severely damaged by freezes on December 21-22, 1998; losses were put at
$634 million; 90 percent reflected lost oranges and lemons. About 15 percent
of California lemons are produced in the San Joaquin Valley and the small
amount of sugar in lemons makes them especially vulnerable to freezes.
California produces 90 percent of US lemons and 20 percent of US fresh-market
There are an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 workers employed in the San Joaquin
Valley winter citrus harvest and preliminary estimates were that 6,500 to 9,500
(43 to 63 percent) of these jobs could be lost due to the freeze. The
Employment Development Department reported in early January 1999 that 1514 UI
claims in Fresno, Kern, Madera and Tulare counties could be attributed to the
Unemployment was already high before the freeze. In October 1998,
unemployment in the Fresno metro area was 13 percent; it was 15 percent in the
Visalia-Tulare area. Since the San Joaquin Valley citrus industry harvests
125,000 acres of navel oranges in the winter and Valencia oranges in the
summer, most harvest workers are year-round residents. About 70 percent of the
navel orange acreage was covered by federal catastrophic crop insurance, which
provides growers with 55 percent of the market price for 50 percent of the
crop, or about 30 percent of usual revenue. Farmers with salvageable citrus
can expect much higher prices.
Fresno, Kern, Madera and Tulare counties were declared state disaster
areas, making legally authorized jobless workers immediately eligible for UI
benefits. LoBue Bros. packing plant in Lindsay--Tulare county's largest
employer--laid off 450 of its 500 workers just before Christmas because of the
freeze. (Tulare county's 100,000 acres of oranges are about half the total
California's acreage). Lindsay has nine packing houses that employ a peak
2,500 workers and all packing houses laid off packing line workers, generally
women who earn the minimum wage.
In citrus dependent communities such as 8,000-resident Orange Cove, with
eight citrus packing sheds, unemployment of up to 50 percent is expected.
Fresno County Social Services opened a temporary satellite office in Orange
Cove to take emergency food stamp and welfare applications. Most citrus
workers are not migrants, and many have moved their families from Mexico to the
In December 1990, a freeze led to joblessness and hunger among farm
workers. The government was slow to respond, and the outcry led to the
establishment of a Governor's task force on farm workers to coordinate services
for farm workers in November 1991. The Farm Worker Services Coordinating
Council, charged with working "to establish uniform, coordinated, and
consistent administrative policies and guidelines for the state agencies
dealing with farm worker programs and issues." The Council issued its report
in November 1992, and listed over 14 actions, including the development of the
Targeted Industries Partnership Program (TIPP).
In August 1994, the Council issued a "Status Report" that highlighted
progress, primarily meetings held with farm workers and employers.
A study comparing the effects of the drought and freeze of the early 1990s
on farm workers concluded that freezes cause far more joblessness because they
unexpectedly eliminate harvesting jobs, especially in winter droughts. Farmers
anticipating less water, by contrast, shift the water that is available to
higher value and often labor intensive crops, thereby stabilizing farm worker
In the nine months after the December 1990 freeze, the EDD received 14,482
valid freeze-related claims for Unemployment Insurance (UI) and 4,171 eligible
claims for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA); 58 percent of the UI claims
were from Tulare county and 16 percent were from Fresno county. By contrast,
there were 415 drought-related UI claims in 1991, the fifth year of below
average water availability.
Welfare. In September and December 1997, there were farm-welfare
"summits" in Bakersfield and Fresno, in which farm groups such as the Nisei
Farmers League promised to work with welfare directors to find farm jobs for
welfare recipients leaving the rolls. According to the Nisei Farmers League,
three people responded to job flyers sent to 560 welfare recipients' homes in
On January 4, 1999, the Fresno Bee published an article asking why so few
welfare recipients found farm jobs in 1998. Phil Larson, past president of the
Fresno County Farm Bureau, said: "When people are on welfare and they don't
accept an ag job, they just don't want to work." Larson also said that farmers
have no time to train welfare recipients at peak harvest times. In 1998, 4,500
adult welfare recipients participated in Fresno County-funded job training, and
the average hourly starting wage for welfare recipients going to work in 1998
was $6.14 .
Manuel Cunha Jr., president of Nisei, says that welfare recipients
experience "culture shock" in the fields: its "hard work. And they've got to
produce. There's no trial period." Cunha says that farm workers earned $5.75
or more an hour, although many harvest workers are paid piece rates and they
must pick fast enough at the prevailing piece rate of about $0.19 for each
25-pound tray of raisin grapes to earn $5.75. Cunha says that "I don't think
higher pay would change things."
In 1999, the first welfare recipients reach the 18-month mark; after
receiving cash assistance for 18 months, recipients can be required to accept
any job, perform community service or lose their benefits. Don Pierce of
Fresno County Human Services System said: "If someone comes and wants to
continue to do farm labor, we don't discourage them. But we'll encourage
them to find full-time work. And we want them to make a wage that allows them
to be self-reliant." Pierce mentioned $10 to $14 an hour jobs.
TulareWORKs division manager David Crawford said that it proved impossible
to match welfare recipients, 75 percent of whom are unmarried women with
children, with farm jobs: "It's really not that easy to get the kids to child
care and be there on time for normal field work."
California farmers plan a January 14, 1999 summit to develop a labor
strategy for 1999. Cunha said farmers "can no longer take the chance of
relying on welfare recipients to do" farm work given the 1998
Housing. US Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told
Central Valley farmers in October 1998 that they must "improve the housing and
working conditions of their employees if they hope to solve labor problems."
In November 1998, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded
$800,000 to help create housing for 40 migrant farm workers in the Coachella
Valley, part of the $5 million Colonias Initiative aimed at helping farm
workers along the U.S.-Mexico border to move into improved housing.
The Fresno Bee profiled a harvesting crew that field-packed melons in
September 1998, one of the 130 harvest crews of Escamilla & Sons labor
contractors, based in Spreckels in the Salinas Valley. All of the melon
harvesters earned at least $6 an hour, and most reported earning $10,000 to
$12,000 a year, implying almost full-time work of 2,000 hours a year by
switching to other crops in the area. Many of the workers complained of
high-living costs, from monthly rent of $400 to child care costs of $100 a
Karen Mcallister, "Welfare recipients stay out of fields," Fresno Bee,
January 4, 1998. Dennis Pollock and Robert Rodriguez, "Citrus takes mammoth
hit as losses skyrocket for lemon, orange growers," Fresno Bee, December 23,
1998. Jim Steinberg, "Labor issues seem miles away from melon harvesters in a
Huron field," Fresno Bee, September 27, 1998. Farm Worker Services Coordinating
Council. 1992. Coordinating California's Far Worker Services. Sacramento.
Health and Welfare Agency. November.