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California Drought Leaves Farmworkers Hung Out to Dry

California’s ongoing drought is another blow to hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, that are struggling to survive.

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.

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