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Fear could be one reason for ongoing field worker shortage at Central Coast farms

Geovanni Ximénez-García/KCBX News
The charred remains of a proposed farmworker housing project in Nipomo. The April 7, 2016 fire was ruled an arson.

California’s Central Coast is suffering from an ongoing farm worker shortage.

Undocumented workers in the Santa Maria Valley have told KCBX that fear over a recent arson incident at a Nipomo farmworker housing project and multiple immigration (ICE) raids may be contributing to the shortage.

Jose, who asked that we only use his first name, has worked in agriculture in Santa Maria for 20 of his 40 years as a field hand. He became a U.S. citizen decades ago.

He told KCBX that after the raids and rumors about increased deportations, many undocumented workers are scared and living in a climate of fear.

“Now that we have the ICE facility, there’s a lot of uncertainty among the people," Jose said. "They’re fearful of being deported, or of losing their jobs."

Despite this fear, some still choose to work because they have to feed themselves or their families, he said. Others, however, make a different choice.

“Well many have chosen to move somewhere else. Many people have gone to Nebraska, Texas and other states, looking to leave the uncertainty that exists here,” Jose said.

This exodus of workers has growers concerned too. Claire Wineman is the president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

She works with several farmers in the area and confirmed to KCBX, there is indeed a worker shortage.

“Locally, our members have consistently been reporting labor shortages particularly in harvest job opportunities in the range of 20 to 25 percent,” Wineman said.

She said that’s in line with the average in California. Because of this, some of her members reported losses last year, because crops went unharvested. In 2014, that amount was more than $11 million here on the Central Coast alone.

“When you’re growing the crops that we grow locally, they’re highly perishable and very sensitive to the timing of when they are being harvested," said Wineman. "It’s very important to have labor available when that crop is ready to be harvested."

In addition, Jose explained that many companies he works for have had to scale down their production because of fewer workers.

“Some farmers that I know, have had to reduce the quantity of land that they cultivate, especially with strawberries because it’s one of the crops that requires the most manual labor,” he said.

To help offset the worker problem, some farmers are turning to the guest worker program, also known as H-2A, which keeps more workers in the general labor pool for all farmers.

“We have seen a benefit in that, in a slight reduction in the labor shortage with the incorporation of the H-2A guest workers in our community,” Wineman said.

However, some don’t think this is a complete solution. Jose believes two of the challenges of this program are the time and money needed to bring and train guest workers, many of whom, he said, don’t have experience.

“It’s very demanding for them not being as productive. So at the end of the day, you need two guest workers to do the same job as someone who’s already familiar with the work," said Jose. "In the long run, it’s more expensive."

Another issue of the H-2A program is the current inability to quickly meet the demands of employers, especially given the crop’s high perishability, Wineman said.

She said immigration reform with a focus on agriculture might be a possible long-term solution.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen that labor consistently be available through the H-2A program due to a variety of factors causing delays,” Wineman said. “Certainly, in the long-term we would be looking for federal immigration reform that has a agricultural guest worker provision.”

Like Wineman, Jose says the only way to address this shortage and undocumented workers’ concerns is through a federal reform.

“One of the solutions that we want as Latinos is a comprehensive immigration reform in which these workers can have their full rights. Perhaps then they would also be subject to fewer abuses,” he said.

Hazel Davalos from Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) agrees.

“Locally, we are dealing with a labor shortage, but although this is a local problem it is very much related to national and federal policy around immigration enforcement.” Davalos said.

For local farm workers, CAUSE and allied organizations are working to pass a farm worker bill of rights in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, Davalos said.

This bill of rights addresses issues like overwork, health and safety concerns, and wage theft, she said.

“These examples of attacks on farm workers really make the case for how vulnerable they are, and how much they need increased protection as a vulnerable workforce,” Davalos said.

The organizations are still waiting for the Boards of Supervisors in both counties to put the issue on their agendas so it can be put to a vote.