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July 2017, Volume 23, Number 3

California: Robots, Cannabis

A combination of a $15-state-minimum wage by 2022 and fewer unauthorized newcomers is prompting more interest in labor-saving mechanization. Venture capital firms are investing in firms that develop robots to move plants in nurseries, pick fruits and berries with gentle arms or vacuum tubes, and transplant seedlings so that crops ripen more uniformly.

Instead of replacing farm workers, some farm operators and firms aim to make hand workers more productive. For example, dwarf trees eliminate the need for workers to climb ladders to pick apples and peaches, and growing strawberries at table-top level eliminates the need to stoop for picking.

Some Napa vineyard management firms raised entry-level wages from $15 to $16 an hour, but noted that workers who speak English or can operate equipment can earn higher wages in nonfarm jobs. Napa has high living costs, forcing workers to pay much of their earnings for housing or commute up to two hours one way each day. Some Napa firms are hiring more women, others are mechanizing where possible, and many recruit in neighboring counties with lower wages.

Napa's Renteria Vineyard Management said that 28 percent of its 400 workers in June 2018 were women. Renteria pays at least $16 an hour and offers benefits, and seeks workers within commuting distance of Napa rather than migrants who would need accommodations in Napa.

Napa has over 800 wineries, including many that make fewer than 1,000 cases of wine a year but require farm, cellar and sales staff. These success-driven wineries, owned by those who made money outside the wine business, tend to drive up costs in Napa, including for housing; 60 percent of Saint Helena homes are weekend vacation homes.

Unauthorized worker Jose Arias and other workers complained that Angelo Dairy violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, prompting Angelo attorney Anthony Raimondo to report Arias to ICE to encourage him to drop his FLSA claim. Arias sued Raimondo for retaliation, and a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in June 2017 agreed that Raimondo had unlawfully retaliated against Arias, even if he was not Arias's employer.

Up to 2,000 employees at the Taylor Farms lettuce packing plant in Salinas went on strike June 5-6, 2017 to demand a wage increase of $2.50 an hour. Teamsters 890, which represents some 2,000 Taylor employees and another 3,000 agriculture-related workers, reported that Taylor workers returned to work June 7, 2017 with a $1.50 an hour increase and another $1 increase on January 1, 2018.

Taylor Farms, the largest US salad producer, has plants in Salinas and Tracy. Teamsters 890 has represented workers at the Salinas plant for two decades, but workers in Tracy voted 154-168 against union representation in a March 2014 election.

Fresno resident Efren Alverez was charged with human trafficking in June 2017 after confiscating the passports and visas of three Mexican farm workers as security for a loan so they could rent an apartment in winter 2016. Alverez acted as a farm labor contractor, paying the workers $10 an hour and charging them for rides to work and for cashing their paychecks. One worker was fired and the others quit, and the three sought help from CRLA.

Cannabis. California is one of 26 states that have legalized the growing and sale of marijuana to some extent, prompting a new focus on worker safety in the fast-growing industry. The UC-AIC estimated legal medical marijuana sales of $2 billion in 2016 and illegal sales of $5.7 billion. With legalization, medical marijuana sales are expected to shrink and legal recreational sales to increase, with up to a third of marijuana sales remaining illegal.

Safety experts liken working on marijuana farms to working in nurseries producing flowers, citing ergonomic issues that range from repeated motion injuries to security because of the use of cash. Cal/OSHA in June 2017 decided that no new regulations were needed for the medical marijuana industry.

Growers use butane to extract tetrahydrocannabinol or THC from cannabis buds to get the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects. After refining, the marijuana creates a high-concentrate gel or solid often called "hash" or "honey oil."

There are 100,000 Hmong in California, and 1,000 Hmong families have reportedly moved to the mountains of northern California to grow marijuana; Hmong are 10 percent of the 13,000 residents of Trinity county. Many of the Hmong came to the US as refugees after helping the CIA wage a "secret war" against the Viet Cong in Laos; in the Golden Triangle at home, some were opium farmers.