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Migrant Farmworkers Have No Safety Net in the Face of Catastrophic Flooding

Many farmworkers are still out of work and struggling to afford food in the wake of California’s disastrous floods.

A flooded vineyard near the Russian River after a powerful storm of rain and wind in Guerneville, California, on January 4, 2023.

Workers in California who grow and pick the majority of fruits and nuts in the United States are experiencing an acute crisis of un- and under-employment, and ensuing food insecurity, following the procession of atmospheric rivers that drenched the state in January.

In a mere matter of days, many locations across the Golden State absorbed upwards of half the precipitation that tends to fall over the course of an entire year: over 32 trillion gallons between December 25 and January 20. Amid record drought conditions, soils shifted from scorched to soaked overnight, leading to hundreds of landslides, cars swept away by flood waters and at least 22 deaths.
Farm owners are now tallying the damage to apply for federal disaster assistance, and amid the welcome sunshine, public discourse has turned to silver linings like fuller reservoirs and how the rainfall was “great for wine.” But the people at the heart of the “fruit basket” of the U.S. (over three-quarters of nuts and fruits and one-third of vegetables consumed in the U.S. are grown by California farmworkers) have weathered long stretches without work, or with significantly fewer hours, making it all but impossible to feed their own families.

Julia Huerta, a single mother of four who has lived in Oxnard, California, for 10 years, felt the impact of the storms in December. Huerta, who works growing blackberries and strawberries, made $200 per week that month, with fewer hours available due to wet conditions. It wasn’t nearly enough to cover all of her expenses — her rent alone is $2,000 per month — though she was able to feed herself and her children, who are 6, 10, 12 and 13 years old. As of this writing, she hadn’t worked a single day in January because the fields were oozing with water and mud.
“It’s really difficult to support my kids right now,” Huerta told Truthout.

When asked what she would like to see elected officials do to support farmworkers like her who remain out of work, or with lost hours, the first thing Huerta listed — and swiftly — was “migration reform,” adding also, “help paying rent,” and “food.”

Global warming, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, is altering the behavior of atmospheric rivers — the vast, aerial tides of water vapor thousands of miles long and hundreds wide that drive the majority of precipitation on the U.S. West Coast. As atmospheric rivers warm and widen, they are projected to produce winter storms dumping up to 40 percent more water by mid-century.

The extremes have grave implications for the food system. In 2022, irrigated cropland in California shrank 752,000 acres when compared with 2019, due mostly to drought. Flood waters are presenting a new layer of complications.
Consumers, who were already experiencing rising prices linked with extreme weather, are now taking a hit for the January storms, as Andrew Stevens, assistant professor of agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told WEAU News. According to Stevens’s projections, prices for produce like lettuce are likely to continue rising over the next few weeks due to a shortage in supply, though he expects the ripple effect will be short-term. Farm owners and other impacted agricultural operations are estimated to have absorbed millions in damages to livestock, crops and infrastructure.

But short of social reforms that take stock of how climate change will heighten personal insecurity for the most vulnerable, perhaps no one stands to be more intimately impacted than the state’s 500,000 to 800,000 farmworkers, an estimated half of whom are undocumented and, under existing laws, do not qualify for unemployment or any other benefits. Even when hours are available, farmworkers in the U.S. earn an average of $14,000 annually, as Prism has reported. In spite of the complex skills required, that level of compensation does not leave workers with much potential for savings. Workers like Huerta currently rely on support from food distribution events, or efforts like private GoFundMe campaigns.

Huerta says she has friends who have been called back to their farms two days per week, a few hours each day. But anecdotally, thousands were still without work the last week of January, according to United Farm Workers (UFW) Communications Director Antonio De Loera-Brust, who noted that if studied comprehensively, that figure would likely be much higher — somewhere in the tens of thousands.

Unsalvageable Crops

One-third of Javier Zamora’s organic farm in Santa Cruz County is still inundated with water and debris that under the pressure of ongoing storms, burst from the swollen Carneros Creek. “The whole 22 acres [just] became a lake,” he told Truthout.

Zamora, the owner of JSM Organics, lost his full strawberry crop, which alone cost $144,000 to put in the ground. Like many growers, he has only just begun assessing the full extent of damage to his farm, which he and his wife pieced together acre-by-acre over 11 years. He imagines it will amount to no less than a quarter million dollars in damage overall. But Zamora has insurance and trusts the disaster relief process.

The worst part of the flooding, he said, is that he can’t afford to pay the usual 16 to 18 employees who work through the winter. Zamora, whose farm also serves as a classroom for workers he hires and mentors, usually scales down from 48 workers to just over a dozen in the winter months. But this season has been different.

“I’m broke, there’s nothing to sell. The soil is saturated,” Zamora said, noting that other extreme weather events, like wildfires, have also caused dips in employment for farmworkers, though for much shorter two- to three-day stretches. This is the first time in his experience that operations have been stalled for weeks on end.

De Loera-Brust worries that workers who are called on to return to work will be asked to tackle hazardous tasks. “These conditions where it’s really muddy, slippery, it’s cold, your fingers get numb, your feet get stuck, you’re operating sharp tools in some cases — this is creating dangers for workers in what was an already risky job.” According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, agricultural work is statistically the most dangerous form of labor.

“We All Pay Taxes. Where Are the Resources?”

Amid back-to-back deluges, California Gov. Gavin Newsom missed a major opportunity to provide relief earlier this month, by failing to include funding for unemployment benefits for excluded immigrant workers in this year’s state budget proposal, unveiled on January 10, in spite of ongoing urging by activists. It was an intervention that, while far from a comprehensive solution, could have had an immense impact, advocates say. The decision followed his December veto of proposed legislation to support farm-working families in the midst of increasingly variable climatic conditions, which would have made available $1,000 per month in supplemental assistance to households with at least one farmworker.
In response, on January 20, a network of 120 advocacy groups known as the Safety Net 4 All coalition launched a campaign to extend unemployment benefits to undocumented workers, on the heels of similar legislation passing in Colorado. A complementary effort is also underway in New York.

Oralia Maceda Méndez is a member of the coalition, and director of programs for the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, which serves an estimated 160,000 primarily Indigenous migrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, many of whom now work agricultural jobs and live in California’s Valle de San Joaquín. Méndez says not having access to unemployment like other workers with documents is not only unfair but also groundless. “They pay us the same, they take the same deductions from our checks, [and] we all pay taxes,” she told Truthout. “Where is this money, where are these resources?”

Plus, according to the Safety Net 4 All coalition, California employers pay $489 million in unemployment insurance taxes on behalf of undocumented workers, which in theory should mean there are funds to be had. “We are in a moment in which we need to demonstrate solidarity,” Méndez says. “We need to appreciate farmworkers for the work that they do day-to-day. Not just with words, but appreciating them and recognizing them by way of providing benefits.”

At the intersection of social and environmental crises, it’s worth noting what is within our immediate sphere of influence, which activists argue include measures like extending the social safety net to all workers regardless of immigration status and ensuring that farmworkers earn a living wage. Those changes, in turn, have the potential to lessen the negative impact of the climate crisis — including the sharpening force of winter weather in California — on vulnerable, skilled, essential workers.

“We can’t control a storm, but we can control the fact that the workers in our food system are paid poverty wages,” de Loera-Brust said. “American agriculture is built on the assumption that there’s going to be a low-wage labor force that is almost outside of the protection of American law, whether that’s undocumented workers … or sharecroppers,” de Loera-Brust said. “That’s really what we’re trying to change.”