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April 2021, Volume 27, Number 2

California: Covid, Labor

California?s Housing for the Harvest program was revived in March 2021 with an additional $24 million. The program began in summer 2020, and spent $155,000 by March 2021 to provide 137 hotel rooms to farm workers who were in quarantine and wanted to avoid spreading the virus to their families, an average of over $1,100 per room, most of which is reimbursed by the federal government.

The revised Housing for the Harvest program would provide $1,000 grants to farm workers who quarantine at home, and expects to support 17,600 farm workers. Riverside county offers $2,000 grants to farm workers who test positive or were exposed to Covid with no conditions, and has a long waiting list.

Riverside farm workers were offered the Covid vaccine in the fields in January 2021 at clinics organized by farmers and NGOs, prompting some county residents to ask why farm workers got workplace vaccinations while they were unable to make vaccine appointments. California has 20 mobile clinics that offer vaccines in agricultural areas, including 15 in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Coachella City Council in March 2021 enacted an ordinance that requires employers of 300 or more agricultural, grocery and retail workers to pay their employees an additional $4 an hour for 120 days, and allows private attorneys to sue employers who fail to raise pay. Grower organizations sued to block implementation and enforcement of the ordinance.

In May-June 2020, the CIRS interviewed 915 farm workers and later conducted 63 interviews to determine how covid was affecting the state's farm workers. The CIRS urged governments to make it easier for farm workers to access government-provided services, from income support to affordable housing, and to offer free health care services. CIRS urged more funding for more services for farm workers, paying special attention to their unique language and cultural needs.

Farm publications ask farmers about their major issues, and grape growers said that finding workers was their top priority: ?It?s getting more and more difficult to find workers, let alone qualified workers, to come out to the vineyards? We have to look into robotics, which is going to be difficult to get farmers to adapt to, as it is just too big of a change for most.?

Three of the top five issues identified by the California Fresh Fruit Association in 2021 involved labor, including the state?s $14 an hour minimum wage that will rise to $15 in 2022, immigration reform that provides ?labor security? for farm employers, and state labor regulations governing overtime, safety and other issues. Fruit growers were also concerned about employer-paid health care costs and sick leave, enforcement of laws against hiring unauthorized workers, and workers compensation costs.

AB 364 would require California farm labor contractors who employ H-2A workers to register with the state labor commissioner as foreign labor contractors. SB 477 in 2014 was interpreted to apply only to H-2B workers. AB 364, which would apply to all foreigners in California on temporary work visas, bans worker-paid fees and requires full disclosure of wages and working conditions at the time of recruitment.

AB 125, the Equitable Economic Recovery, Healthy Food Access, Climate Resilient Farms and Worker Protection Bond Act, would sell $3 billion in state bonds to make the state?s food system more equitable and provide state funds to increase resilience against wildfires and climate change.

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