“Farmworkers are society's canaries,” according to Cesar Chavez, a founder of the National Farm Workers Association. Unfortunately, the “canaries” in San Mateo County aren’t singing. We should be worried.
San Mateo County is home to more than 1,000 farmworkers, and that number is in decline. Lack of housing, access to clean water, and labor and health violations create the perfect storm for farmworker flight. This is an impending disaster, since the county’s ag industry employs thousands of workers and is worth millions of dollars. Half Moon Bay Councilmember Joaquin Jimenez, who has been on the front lines with farmworkers, said, “the results of no farmworker housing are more unfarmed farmlands, empty nurseries and the standing nurseries are contracting with farmworkers from other counties — bottom line is, San Mateo County is losing farmworkers.”
In a 2015 letter to the Board of Supervisors, then Director of Housing, William Lowell, wrote that much of the county’s farmworker housing is “substandard. San Mateo County farmers, farmworker advocates and farmworkers themselves are concerned about the quality of this housing as much of it is beyond its useful life. … Over the years, a trend has developed as farmworkers [sic] bring families with them to establish residency. … This has often resulted in families occupying housing built for single male farmworkers. These two factors, year-round use, and overcrowding have accelerated the physical decline of the housing stock.”
What has changed in the last six years? This year, the state shut down Castillo Seed Company Farm after it did not pay its workers for eight weeks. Already at-risk people worked through the 2020 pandemic-holiday season into the new year without pay, and they continued working in hopes that the money would come — but it never did. Instead, workers were sent home with IOU notes so their landlords would not evict them. Let’s think about this for a second. People who make about $30,000 per year or less in San Mateo County went without pay for two months. Eviction moratorium, you say? Unfortunately, many farmworkers can’t get formal leases; they rent bedrooms or makeshift rooms under the table, disqualifying them from relief. The other option is living on the farm.
Following an investigation by the District Attorney’s Office, the FBI arrested the company’s owner in Texas. If it were not for community organizations like Coastside Hope, these farmworkers would have been left homeless without pay and nowhere to turn. The situation with Castillo Seed is just one egregious example of what many farmworkers are experiencing.
All roads lead to housing. A housing needs assessment in 2016 estimated an unmet need of 1,020 to 1,140 affordable housing units for agricultural workers and their families. According to the report, many San Mateo County’s farmworkers pay an “excessive portion of their income” and/or live in overcrowded units in poor condition.
Over the past year, community organizations, county agencies, elected officials and activists came together to form the Farmworker Affairs Coalition to respond to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on farmworkers in San Mateo County. The county offered educational materials in various languages, COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, emergency housing, wage-loss benefits and vaccines for farmworkers. However, these much-needed benefits did not always reach the farms due to logistical, technological and language barriers, so the coalition stepped in to assist. The community organizations, like ALAS, Coastside Hope and Puente, worked closely with the county to administer hundreds of vaccines.
With vaccinations being administered, the coalition has turned toward housing. Stories of farmworkers being housing insecure or evicted are now taking up the meetings. Unfortunately, housing protections for farmworkers do not exist as they do for employer-based health insurance (such as COBRA). Farmworkers who live on the farm where they are employed are not guaranteed housing if they lose their job, even though they pay rent. There is a gap in the law.
Fortunately, the California Department of Housing and Community Development demands housing for farmworkers as part of its housing-element process (“housing element” is legal jargon for state-required housing plans for jurisdictions across the state). For example, Half Moon Bay is working with local farmers to provide more. Councilmember Jimenez tells me “the city is working to upzone agricultural land to allow for farmworker housing and in turn, farmers will not be able to evict the farmworker if they cease to work on their farm. However, this would only protect farmworkers that would live in this new housing.”
If we are to protect our agricultural industry, we must start with our farmworkers. They need a living wage, safe working conditions and housing. This is both good economics and just plain humane. If Cesar Chavez was correct, and “farmworkers are society’s canaries,” it’s not looking real good for us in San Mateo County.
Rudy Espinoza Murray is a Redwood City resident and community organizer on housing, gun violence prevention, LGBTQ+, and LatinX issues. He is a co-founder and lead of the San Mateo County Farmworker Affairs Coalition.