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October 2021, Volume 27, Number 4

California: Santa Maria

USDA in September 2021 provided $700 million to non-profit groups so they could give $600 to each farm and meatpacking worker who incurred expenses while working during the Covid pandemic. USDA is distributing another $700 million to food processors, farmers markets and distributors.

Table grape growers in Kern country complained of too few workers in September 2021 to harvest grapes, with some growers turning to labor contractors when their direct-hire harvest crews were smaller than desired.

SB 9, which took effect March 29, 2020 and expired in September 2021, required California employers to offer up to 80 hours of supplemental paid sick leave to employees in firms with at least 25 workers who missed work due to Covid or to care for someone with Covid. Employees who contract Covid at work can receive paid time off via the state’s disability insurance system and their employer’s worker’s compensation policy.

Santa Maria. Northern Santa Barbara County has become a center of strawberry production with too little housing for H-2A workers. As employers of H-2A workers took over motels and private homes to house H-2As, there was resistance from residents who did not want large numbers of solo men nearby.

HUD sued Santa Maria after the city enacted an ordinance that limited the number of H-2A workers in single family homes in residential areas; HUD argued that the ordinance discriminated against H-2A workers on the basis of their “race, color, or national origin.” Efforts to build dormitory-style housing floundered amid resident opposition as well, with some farm worker groups saying that planned labor camps were like Bracero-era farm worker housing.

Efforts to build housing for up to 3,600 H-2A workers in an 18-acre industrial area in western Santa Maria were put on hold after worker advocates objected to the “segregation” of farm workers. Dan Blough Construction said that the planned dorms would be better for H-2A workers and local residents than the motels that now house many H-2A workers in the Santa Maria area.

A 2016 plan by Betteravia Farms to build housing for 600 H-2A workers was also opposed by worker advocates and later abandoned.

West Coast Berry Farms in Guadalupe in July 2021 raised piece rate wages from $2.25 to $2.40 per tray of eight one-pound clamshells, rejecting demands for a $14 an hour wage plus $1.25 a tray piece rate. At an average seven trays an hour, workers earn $16.80 an hour; under the worker proposal, they would earn $14 plus $8.75 or $22.75 an hour.

California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower led a July 2021 caravan that aimed to educate farm workers in the Santa Maria area about their rights. The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency is leading COVID-19 Workplace Outreach Projects in many areas of the state.

Taylor. Salad processor Taylor farms has 22,000 employees around the US, some of whom were slow to be vaccinated against Covid. Over 90 percent of the employees at the Teamster-represented main plant in Salinas were vaccinated by August 2021, but only half of the employees at plants in Florida and Texas. Taylor Farms had sales of $5 billion in its fiscal year ending in June 2021, and worried that mandating vaccines would prompt some employees to quit and leave to labor shortages.

In August 2021, Taylor invested in Pure Green Farms, an indoor leafy greens grower that can produce closer to consumers. Europe’s leafy greens are produced outdoors in southern Spain and Italy and indoors in the Netherlands, with indoor production considered safer and more likely to be organic.

SB 62, the Garment Worker Protection Act, requires hourly wages for garment workers beginning in 2022 unless they are represented by a union that negotiates piece-rate wages. SB 62 makes clothing brands jointly liable with their sewing factories for labor law violations.

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