California Drought Leaves Farmworkers Hung Out to Dry (UPDATED)

Julia Wong

The view from Marine One illustrates the empty acres of otherwise thriving produce that lay across California's Central Valley.

The crops being har­vest­ed in Cal­i­for­nia this sum­mer are small­er than usu­al thanks to the record-set­ting drought that has reached the most extreme lev­els in more than half of the state. While that may be good news to the con­sumers and chefs who enjoy the more con­cen­trat­ed fla­vor of small­er fruits and veg­eta­bles, it’s anoth­er blow to California’s hun­dreds of thou­sands of farm­work­ers, many of whom are undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, that are strug­gling to sur­vive in this third-straight year of drought.

When the grow­ers use a lot of water, the oranges are big­ger,” says Anto­nio Cortes, an orga­niz­er for the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers, a union rep­re­sent­ing farm­work­ers in Cal­i­for­nia. With less water, the oranges are small­er, and you have to work longer [to fill a buck­et].” Most of the work­ers Cortes rep­re­sents in the Cen­tral Val­ley are paid a piece rate for buck­ets of oranges, toma­toes, mel­ons and oth­er crops.

Dr. Ann López, the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Farm­work­er Fam­i­lies in Fel­ton, Cal­i­for­nia, hears sim­i­lar com­plaints from the straw­ber­ry pick­ers she works with in near­by San­ta Cruz Coun­ty. The fruit is very small. It’s not the same size it’s been in the past, and there’s not as much fruit,” she says. To fill bas­kets, it takes more work — but they’re not get­ting paid more.”

Indeed, López believes wages have fall­en this year for some farm­work­ers. In the past, they would get $5 per hour and $1 to $1.60 per case. Now that’s gone out the win­dow,” she says, and employ­ers are only pay­ing work­ers the piece rate.

Farm­work­ers in Cal­i­for­nia earn an aver­age hourly wage of $9.22 and annu­al income of $19,180, accord­ing to the most recent fig­ures from the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics. Most farm­work­ers are immi­grants (prin­ci­pal­ly from Mex­i­co) and many are undoc­u­ment­ed. Accord­ing to López, the aver­age life expectan­cy for a farm­work­er is just 49 years.

Since this win­ter — California’s third dry win­ter in a row — farm­ers and farm­work­ers have been antic­i­pat­ing a dis­as­trous sea­son for the state’s $42.6 bil­lion agri­cul­tur­al indus­try. But it’s only in the past month that researchers have been able to quan­ti­fy the eco­nom­ic impacts of the drought. A new report from the UC Davis Cen­ter for Water­shed Sci­ences has found that the drought will cost Cal­i­for­nia $2.2 bil­lion in rev­enues and result in the loss of 17,100 sea­son­al and part-time jobs.

Accord­ing to Jay Lund, one of the report’s five authors and the direc­tor of the UC Davis Cen­ter for Water­shed Sci­ences, near­ly all of rough­ly 7,500 lost jobs from direct agri­cul­tur­al employ­ment are from work­ers in the fields. The oth­er 9,600 lost jobs are from relat­ed indus­tries such as pro­duc­ing fer­til­iz­er, trac­tors, or seed. All told, 88 per­cent of these job loss­es are occur­ring in California’s Cen­tral Val­ley. That’s because 409,000 of the 428,000 acres of crops lost due to lack of water are locat­ed in the Cen­tral Val­ley, which runs inland down the length of Cal­i­for­nia from Red­ding to Bakersfield. 

Cal­i­for­nia is no stranger to droughts, but the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse than what’s been seen in recent years. Accord­ing to the report, the cur­rent job loss­es are more than dou­ble the 7,500 jobs lost in the last major drought of 2009, and the com­bined socioe­co­nom­ic effects of the 2014 drought are up to 50 per­cent more severe than in 2009.”

Speak­ing at a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., press brief­ing on the release of the report, lead author Richard Howitt, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of agri­cul­tur­al and resource eco­nom­ics at UC Davis, empha­sized the impor­tance of the job loss­es to California’s farm­work­ers. What real­ly hurts is that we’re also los­ing 17,000 jobs,” he said. “[And] they are from a sec­tor of the pop­u­la­tion who have the least abil­i­ty to roll with the punches.”

Help­ing farm­work­ers make it through the hard times is one aspect of Ephraim Camacho’s work as a com­mu­ni­ty out­reach work­er with Cal­i­for­nia Rur­al Legal Assis­tance (CRLA) in Fres­no, Cal­i­for­nia. A for­mer farm work­er him­self, Cama­cho has been edu­cat­ing farm­work­ers about their legal rights with CRLA for the last 36 years. His work includes assist­ing farm­work­ers with over­time or wage theft issues, help­ing farm­work­ers con­front issues of work­place vio­lence, and edu­cat­ing farm­work­ers and grow­ers on pre­vent­ing heat ill­ness in the fields.

On July 11, Cama­cho was work­ing at a health resource fair in Men­do­ta, a rur­al farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty west of Fres­no. Of the 100 or so farm­work­ers who attend­ed, Cama­cho says more than half were being affect­ed by the drought. What peo­ple are say­ing is that there’s just not the same amount of work that there was pri­or to the drought,” Cama­cho says. Peo­ple are out of work. Peo­ple can’t pay their bills, their mort­gage. They can’t sup­port their families.”

Cama­cho says the decrease in work may be depress­ing wages as well. We hear about work­ers ask­ing for wage increas­es and get­ting laid off because there’s some­one else will­ing to work for $9 per hour,” he says, which is below the mean wage for farm­work­ers in Fres­no Coun­ty, accord­ing to the BLS. Peo­ple should be paid more but there are oth­ers will­ing to work for less.”

Cama­cho has also heard about farm­work­ers who are giv­ing up on find­ing work for the sea­son. Work­ers who came up to Fres­no Coun­ty from Coachel­la and El Cen­tro have gone back home, he says, because there’s no work.”

Cortes, of the UFW, says he is even see­ing farm work­er fam­i­lies leave the area. The UFW has con­tracts with many grow­ers in the area, but Cortes says the farms have all reduced plant­i­ng by 30 to 40 per­cent this year because of the drought. The sea­son start­ed about a month ago, he says, and it will be over in just three to four weeks because of the small­er crop size.

For some grow­ers, reduc­ing the size of this year’s crop has not been enough to stave off eco­nom­ic ruin. One UFW-con­tract­ed grow­er hired just 400 farm­work­ers instead of its usu­al 600 to har­vest its toma­to and mel­on crop this year. Despite these cuts, Cortes recent­ly received a let­ter inform­ing him that the grow­er is going out of busi­ness. Now those 400 farm­work­ers will have to find oth­er jobs. (He did not reveal the name of the employ­er because nego­ti­a­tions for pos­si­ble sev­er­ance pay are con­fi­den­tial and ongo­ing.) Accord­ing to Cortes, many of the work­ers are con­sid­er­ing mov­ing to Ore­gon or Wash­ing­ton, where they hope to find stead­ier employment.

As a for­mer farm work­er who has been on staff with the union for six years, Cortes describes a sea­son of hope­less­ness for farm­work­ers around Madera, the coun­ty north of Fres­no where he’s based. Farm­work­ers are not get­ting any sup­port from the grow­ers,” he says. The grow­ers have sup­port from the gov­er­nor and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, but the farm­work­ers get noth­ing.” Accord­ing to Cortes, more than 90 per­cent of the farm­work­ers he orga­nizes are undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, which lim­its their abil­i­ty to receive gov­ern­ment aid. Accord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Depart­ment, undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants are not eli­gi­ble to seek unem­ploy­ment insurance.

It’s very, very hard for the farm­work­ers,” he says. They don’t have any hope. They lost hope for immi­gra­tion reform this sum­mer. They have dif­fi­cul­ty with not hav­ing papers. They don’t have reg­u­lar driver’s licens­es. For any lit­tle issue, the police can stop them and pull them out of their cars. They don’t have mon­ey because they don’t have work. The prob­lem is very, very serious.”

There’s lit­tle hope for sig­nif­i­cant relief for farm­work­ers any­time soon. Accord­ing to the UC Davis report, the drought will prob­a­bly extend through 2015 and 2016, although it should be less severe. The report antic­i­pates total job loss­es of 8,495 in 2015 and 8,047 the fol­low­ing year.

Still, there is hope farm­work­ers may not be caught in the drought cycle for­ev­er. One of the UC Davis report’s key pol­i­cy rec­om­men­da­tions is that Cal­i­for­nia pass leg­is­la­tion to bet­ter man­age ground­wa­ter . Cur­rent­ly, it is the only West­ern state that does not reg­u­late ground­wa­ter. Two such mea­sures are cur­rent­ly under con­sid­er­a­tion by state law­mak­ers in Sacra­men­to. The author of one of the bills, Assem­bly­man Roger Dick­in­son (D‑Sacramento), told the Wash­ing­ton Post, The old phrase nev­er let a good cri­sis go to waste’ applies.”

UPDATE: This piece was changed to reflect a com­ment from the Cal­i­for­nia Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Department. 

Julia Car­rie Wong is a free­lance jour­nal­ist liv­ing in San Fran­cis­co. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @juliacarriew or email her at julia.carrie.wong [at] gmail​.com.
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