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Examining the intricacies of farm labor contracting

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U.S. Department of Labor
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A screenshot of the Department of Labor's Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) Registered Farm Labor Contractor Listing.

Before exploring the nitty gritty of farm labor contractors, there’s a big picture to acknowledge first.

KCBX News asked one farmworker point blank: Why is his work important? This farmworker gave his opinion about vaccines a few weeks ago, and he asked to remain anonymous when we spoke with him then.

“All the Mexicans, all the immigrants, all of Central America — we move this country forward,” the farmworker said. “Without immigrants, this country is nothing. Day after day, we fight and put effort to support both our families and the United States. We are with the United States — they are not alone — but we also need them to support us. That they give us the support that we want as workers, and that the perfect wage is right.”

Being paid fairly for their work is an issue farmworkers have repeatedly brought up throughout this series.

Based on a 2015 survey of Santa Barbara County farmworkers done by the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE, one in three say they experience some form of wage theft.

While farmworkers can face wage theft from the growers they work for, many farmworkers have a middleman they deal with: farm labor contractors.

According to UC Davis’ Rural Migration News publication, 40% of California’s crop workers come from farm labor contractors.

The U.S. Department of Labor requires farm labor contractors to be federally certified in order to do any related activities as part of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

Across the nation, there are 8,962 farm labor contractors registered with the Labor Department. Santa Barbara County has 121 of them — 1.4% of the nation’s total farm labor contractors.

A lot of farm labor contractors in the county means a lot of farmworkers — and a lot of farmworker stories.

Zulema Aleman, a community organizer with CAUSE, said farmworkers have told her about the lack of labor law enforcement when it comes to contractors.

“A quote that's common between organizers, or labor organizers, is that ‘the law in the books is not the law in the fields,’” Aleman said. “And that is the experience that I've come to now.”

Aleman stressed not all contractors practice wage theft, and says there are contractors and growers who keep workers safe, treat them fairly and pay them just wages. “But it's more common to hear the opposite,” Aleman said. “And that's always really heartbreaking to know about.”

A 2020 report published by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) explores the enforcement of labor standards in agriculture — including on farm labor contractors.

The EPI found that 70% of investigations done between 2000 and 2019 by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division resulted in some violation being found.

In California, almost 85% of farm labor contractors that were investigated between 2005 and 2019 resulted in at least one violation being found. In Santa Barbara County, the EPI calculated a statistically significant probability that around four in five agricultural investigations by the Wage and Hour Division will have at least one violation.

Lupita Rodriguez, a farm labor contractor who owns A&R Agriculture Services in Lompoc, said she wants to make sure she gets the correct information to ensure she’s doing what’s right. She said she reaches out to others for help to make sure she’s in line with regulations. Rodriguez has been a labor contractor for five years.

“As an industry, to bring the numbers down would be to stay consistent and reaching out to those agencies like the [county agricultural] commissioner to stay updated,” Rodriguez said. “There's even resources that will email you the new regulations that are up in place, especially now that they keep changing and changing.”

When asked about how she deals with changing regulations, she said there’s no other option than to simply deal with them.

“I think it can be challenging to implement constant, changing regulations, obviously, depending on what it consists of. Because it takes time for everyone to get on the same page.”

For another labor contractor, Noe Perez, his time working in the fields — experiencing discrimination through previous crew bosses and supervisors — shapes the way he works now. Perez is a general supervisor at Valle Dorado Harvest, and said he treats workers the way he wants to be treated.

“I want to be honest with you: I like to sleep at night,” Perez said. “You know, when you treat your employees unfair, I'm pretty sure it's gonna keep you up at night.”

Mesa Vineyard Management vineyard manager Kevin Merrill said his company has a hired labor force, and only goes to labor contractors depending on the time of season, such as pruning or harvest. Templeton-based Mesa manages vineyards across the Central Coast, according to Merrill. He serves on the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau board of directors.

“The people that are with us a long time care about the vineyard. They've been here for, in some cases, over 15 to 20 years,” Merrill said. “And they — they're a part of our family, and they know what we're doing. And you don't get that same sense with the labor contractor. They're in and out when you need them.”

Merrill also said that when Mesa uses labor contractors, his company stays on top of them to make sure all regulations are followed. If not, they get the axe.

The same report from the Economic Policy Institute showed the 5% of farm labor contractors nationwide with the most violations reported account for 65% of all violations committed by farm labor contractors.

When asked about this study, Wage and Hour Division assistant district director Francisco Ocampo said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the study, but did say the Department of Labor’s enforcement program helps out with reducing violations. Ocampo’s coverage area includes Santa Barbara County.

He said education is one of those ways to reduce violations, so farmworkers know their rights and farm labor contractors can’t cut corners.

“One of the things we want to do is to ensure that there's an even playing field,” Ocampo said, “so that if farm labor contractor A is doing all that he or she needs to be doing, we want to ensure that farm labor contractor B over here, on the other side, is doing the same thing: making sure that there's not a competitive advantage for one or the other.”

Lucas Zucker, the policy and communications director at CAUSE, said farm labor contractors are part of a wider trend of companies relying on middlemen to get the job done.

“When you contract and subcontract, eventually you're creating these very small, informally run companies without the resources to understand new legislation sometimes and effectively implement it, compared to a big company that's directly hiring workers and has their own HR department and knows how to kind of handle compliance with labor law,” Zucker said.

That creates issues farm labor contractors, like Perez and Rodriguez, see on their end of the bargain, who need to stay on top of changing regulations.

“Those strawberries never have the name of the farm labor contractor that the workers are working under,” Zucker said. “And so there's no ability for consumers to recognize, ‘Oh, this is a bad actor company’ and choose a better actor company because there's so many levels of contracting.”

But there is change in California. 2015 modifications to the state’s labor code now place joint responsibility on employers and contractors to ensure fair work conditions. And in 2022, farmworkers at large operations of 26 workers or more will start to receive overtime pay after 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. Those at smaller operations, 25 or less, will see that overtime pay rate in 2025.

When there are new regulations put in place, Ocampo said the Department of Labor uses its database to reach out about these changes.

“Whenever new regulations come out, there's a conscious effort to try to educate them by sending out that information to them, so that they're aware in terms of what the new regulations may be,” Ocampo said. “We also go out and conduct an active outreach program to the farm labor community, to reach employers, as well as employees, so that they're all informed of what their rules and responsibilities are.”

Ocampo said the Department of Labor partners with the likes of community organizers via mobile outreach units, or through Mexican consulates across California, to establish a presence in rural communities and make the Wage and Hour Division a known resource.

Zucker said while there is progress being made, “it could feel like one step forward, two steps back. The trend still — within the entire economy of the U.S. — is towards contracting.”

It’s why Zucker argues for a bigger picture safety net that protects not just farmworkers, but all workers — through health care, regardless of employer — or through unemployment benefits, regardless of immigrations status.

“Part of it also is in changing how we think about finding economic security for people and being able to provide that kind of safety net and economic security outside of the workplace, through policy,” Zucker said.

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Francisco Martinez joined KCBX in January 2021 as a substitute announcer for on-air programming. You can hear him host regularly during KCBX midday programs, and also occasionally on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Francisco also hosts the alternative music show Citizen Sound each Sunday night at 11:00 on KCBX. In addition, Francisco contributes reporting to KCBX News. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in June 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in journalism and a minor in history.
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