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January 2019, Volume 25, Number 1

California: Wages, H-2A Housing

California's minimum wage rose to $12 an hour January 1, 2019 for employers with 25 or more workers, and will be $15 an hour for large employers on January 1, 2022. Some 2.3 million California workers earned less than $12 an hour in 2017.

AB 1066, the farm worker overtime bill, requires farm employers with 26 or more workers to pay workers 1.5 times their usual wage after 9.5 hours a day or 55 a week. By 2025, all farm employers will have to pay overtime wages after eight hours a day or 40 a week.

Wonderful, a Kern county major producer of pistachios and mandarin oranges, began paying all workers at least $15 an hour January 1, 2019, raise in wages for 2,000 farm and packing workers. Wonderful said that the wage increase reflected its wish to be a desired employer rather than labor shortages. Wonderful is owned by Stuart and Lynda Resnick, who have over $5 billion in wealth and also own Fiji Water and Teleflora.

Christopher Ranch raised its entry wage to $13 in 2017 when the state's minimum wage was $11.

Wonderful, formerly Paramount Farming, owns 180,000 acres in California, two-thirds of which is irrigated with about 400,000 acre feet of water for 15 million trees; the city of Los Angeles uses about 600,000 acre feet a year for almost four million people. Wonderful's 4.4 million almond trees each produce about 25 pounds of almonds and pistachio trees about 40 pounds each; nuts are processed in a $300 million plant 13 miles north of Lost Hills with 1,300 employees.

Wonderful marketing slogans include "Cheat?Death" for pomegranate juice, "Get Crackin'" for pistachios,?and "Untouched?by Man" for Fiji water. Iranian pistachios are not irrigated and are considered better by Chinese consumers.

Lost Hills, California has 2,000 residents in the heart of farmland owned by Wonderful, and "Lady Lynda" has vowed to improve the unincorporated city. There is a five-acre Wonderful Park and Wonderful Soccer Field with an all-weather track, stadium lights, and artificial turf. The Wonderful Community Center holds healty cooking classes. Over half of Wonderful employees are overweight, and an eigth are obese.

The Resnicks decided to invest in Lost Hills after seeing a 2010 article documenting poor housing and living conditions in the company town in the Earth Island Journal. In addition to their contributions to Lost Hills, the Resnicks are creating an $80 million charter school complex in Delano for 1,800 K-12 students staffed by Teach for America teachers.

The Renicks live in a 25,000-square foot mansion in Beverly Hills, and got their start in agriculture buying Paramount's 2,500 acres of oranges and lemons for $9 million in the late 1970s. Mobil, Texaco and Prudential Life sold their California farm land in the 1980s, and Paramount bought it and soon produced two-thirds of US pistachios.

Interviews with Wonderful workers found some being paid the state's minimum wage in 2017, although Wonderful workers also receive health insurance and contributions to a 401k plan. Some Wonderful workers say that 80 percent of field workers are unauthorized.

The California Labor Commissioner reported receiving more complaints from workers who say that employers threatened to retaliate against them on the basis of their immigration status, such as threatening to call ICE if workers demand pay increases. Such retaliation is a violation of state law. There were 29 immigration-retaliation complaints between 2014 and 2016, and 172 in 2017-18.

A twice-deported unauthorized Mexican killed an immigrant deputy in Newman on December 26, 2018, prompting complaints about California's sanctuary law SB 54, which prohibits state and local police agencies from notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement when some foreigners potentially subject to deportation are to be released from custody. However, San Joaquing Valley sheriffs were careful to distinguish between unauthorized criminals and unauthorized farm workers.

Housing. Salinas, which allows a maximum of six residents per rental dwelling, may crack down on single family houses with more than six H-2A workers. September 2018 inspections found an average of over 10 H-2A workers per house, including one house with 40 H-2A workers in a three-bedroom home.

Strawberries have become the most valuable commodity in Santa Barbara county, with 8,200 acres in 2017. Over 60 percent of the 2,600 H-2A workers in Santa Barbara county in 2018 were employed in strawberries; by some measures, the city of Santa Maria has the highest share of H-2A workers among residents. Average employment in Santa Barbara county agriculture was almost 22,000 in 2017.

Santa Barbara county approved a new housing ordinance in December 2018 that allows farmworker housing on land zoned for agriculture to be built for one to four employees with a zoning clearance, five to nine employees with a land use permit, 10 to 19 employees with a minor conditional use permit, and 20 or more employees with a full conditional use permit.

Mechanization. Leafy green salad producer Taylor Farms is automating the harvest of fruits and vegetables. Over half of Taylor's cabbage, celery and romaine lettuce is harvested by machine, and Taylor expects to harvest broccoli and iceberg lettuce by machine within two years. The machines, which use water-knife techonologies, cost $750,000 each.

The California Farm Bureau Federation reported that over 55 percent of the 762 farmers who responded to an online survey in 2017 experienced labor shortages. The CFBF wants a new guest worker program that would allow unauthorized foreigners in the US to convert from illegal to legal status without having to return to their countries of origin and re-enter the US legally (no touchback) and visa portability for guest workers, who would be responsible for finding their own housing and free to change farm employers.

Turkey processor Zacky Farms of Fresno and Stockton filed for bankruptcy in October 2018, eliminating 500 jobs. Zacky previously filed for bankruptcy in 2013, when it was spending $1.8 millon a week to feed 2.5 million turkeys and chickens.