Sonoma County’s wine industry rakes in $1.9 billion each year, but the farmworkers who pick the grapes each harvest for about $25 per hour face unique health and safety challenges, and local organizers are demanding change.
With the unprecedented wildfires in recent years, harvest pickers might be working in conditions of dangerous air quality, excessive heat, unsanitary conditions or even in evacuation zones, as they scramble to pick as many grapes as possible as quickly as possible.
These conditions, complicated further by language barriers and lack of representation for undocumented workers, have spurred Sonoma County labor reform organization North Bay Jobs With Justice (NBJWJ) to release its “5 for Farmworkers in Fires” petition.
NBJWJ is a coalition of over 30 different labor and community organizations “with a real focus on working on the intersection of economic, racial and climate justice,” according to Executive Director Max Alper.
“What has been happening over the last few years is we as a community have been dealing with devastating wildfires. Climate change has made our wildfire season start earlier, last longer and burn longer. For farmworkers — the vast majority of whom work in wine grapes — the harvest season now coincides with wildfire season,” Alper said.
The demands focus on the wine industry, which employs 90% of the county’s 11,060 farmworkers. A ton of grapes picked over six or seven hours by one worker can earn them about $165 and net $2,700 for the vineyard owner — nearly double the statewide average, according to Alper.
After hearing about the scope of the issues of health, safety and the lack of visibility that seasonal farmworkers often deal with during their most lucrative months of the year, NBJWJ planned 30 in-depth surveys on farmworkers’ lived experiences. Because of the positive response, Alper said, the organization interviewed 100 farmworkers.
Alper said the interviewers were also farmworkers trained by the organization, who were able to conduct the interviews in Spanish and establish a rapport based on shared culture.
“Oftentimes their experiences are very traumatic — to work in the extreme heat, sometimes alone in evacuation zones. These are troubling stories, so we take the time to hear them,” Alper said.
After processing the surveys, which were conducted in April, NBJWJ put out the priorities at the end of June. They hope to get businesses responsible for harvesting grapes to sign on to the “5 for Farmworkers in Fires” demands, and for the county to apply pressure to help improve workers’ conditions where possible.
1. Language justice
In addition to Spanish, Sonoma County’s farmworker population speaks a variety of Indigenous languages. In the surveys, which themselves were conducted only in Spanish, Alper said they found translation of safety trainings into Spanish wasn’t sufficient.
To achieve language justice, private and public organizations should incorporate trainings and educational material published in each of the diverse primary languages spoken among the often seasonal or migratory workers picking Sonoma County’s grapes, Alper said.
“Trainings were not done in their primary languages, and this was especially concerning about how to stay safe during evacuations,” he said.
The “5 for Farmworkers in Fires” lists Mixteco, Triqui and Chatino, of southern Mexico, and the Maya language of the Yucatán Peninsula as four Indigenous languages that have been passed down for generations among farmworkers.
2. Disaster insurance
According to NBJWJ, when smoke or fire damage the grape crop, the wine industry is covered by insurance with “significant assistance” from the federal government. In 2019, for instance, Sonoma County wineries received $63 million for fire damage, and 60% of that sum was covered by taxpayer funded federal crop insurance premiums.
Farmworkers, many of whom depend on the income from harvest to last throughout the year, received nothing for lost income.
Alper said governments and private industry should work together to ensure that farmworkers receive support when they lose out on income as a result of natural disaster, the same way wineries do when they lose out on grapes.
“When the smoke and the fires are so bad, it often means they are unable to work. The harvest is a time when farmworkers can make a significant amount of their yearly income. When you don’t work the harvest that can affect your family for the whole year,” Alper said.
3. Community safety observers
Of the 10 Cal/OSHA inspectors covering a five-county district that includes Sonoma County, only one speaks Spanish. Not a single one speaks an Indigenous language.
“What we heard over and over was that workers felt isolated and alone and there weren’t enough checks on their safety — that nobody knows what they’re going through,” Alper said.
NBJWJ has been training health and safety workers to go out into the vineyards during red flag warnings or when workers call them. This requires consent from the owners of the vineyards, something Alper said the county could help them get.
4. Premium hazard pay
“It feels like running up Taylor Mountain with a mask on five times,” one farmworker said about working the harvest during heavy wildfire smoke. Harvest pickers are paid by yield, not hour, so workers often push themselves physically, even in dangerous air quality.
NBJWJ proposes that vineyard workers should receive hazard pay while exposed to dangerous wildfire smoke. The law states that employers must offer masks when the air quality reaches 151 AQI, but Alper said people should be compensated for putting their bodies at risk.
“A lot of people have come to know about hazard pay during COVID-19 as we’ve started to identify certain workers as essential. Agricultural workers in our county have never received hazard pay. We think there’s no doubt that working in extreme heat, smoke and sometimes evacuation zones is hazardous,” Alper said.
5. Clean bathroom and water
The fifth demand may seem basic, but Alper said clean bathrooms and cold water are harder to come by in past years as the industry has grown.
“We were surprised to hear that was an issue,” Alper said. “Workers were really bringing up this concern, especially women workers. In the last few years there’s been an increase in the number of women workers in the fields, and with increased ash and soot and the number of people working during harvest, it’s made it so that the bathrooms are getting really dirty.
Alper said that it was a question of dignity that women of color were provided sanitary bathroom access in an industry dominated by white men.
Everyone knows that a significant portion of the farmworkers harvest the grapes that make Sonoma County wealthy are undocumented, Alper said. These workers, who lack representation and are further marginalized through language barriers and a lack of visibility, provide labor and pay taxes, but don’t receive benefits. So community organizations like NBJWJ step in to help fill the gaps.
During the 2017 fires, for instance, undocumented residents impacted by wildfires weren’t entitled to public benefits, so NBJWJ started Undocufund — a donation-based, private resource.
Alper said the main sign things are changing is that farmworkers feel comfortable coming forward. He said the rapid deterioration of conditions amid the rise in wildfires prompted the renewed activism.
“Ag workers coming forward with these priorities this year makes it all the more significant. We really see that as bravery. This year the workers decided they need to come forward and make these issues clear because it’s become such a desperate situation,” he said.
While the “5 for Farmworkers in Fires” has no legal authority, the movement hopes that, with enough public attention, private wine industry companies and local government agencies will sign on to help improve the conditions outlined.
“We’ve started to have some businesses in the wine industry reach out to us. We believe in listening to the workers and this is really urgent. We are going to continue to take this to the public and the industry,” Alper said.
NBJWJ sends “delegations” of activists and farmworkers out to businesses, including tasting rooms, to try and win business support. For some of the farmworkers who work year after year picking grapes, these trips to tasting rooms were their first time witnessing the luxurious — and expensive — consumer side of the industry. Alper said they were consistently astonished with how much people were charged for wine tastings.
Some businesses and county leaders have started to express support with public attention. A protest on Sept. 26 supporting undocumented workers’ rights made headlines, bringing the “5 for Farmworkers in Fires” platform more into the public eye. Another event, held on Oct. 10 in the Healdsburg Plaza, aimed to raise awareness among tourists who visit Wine Country.
Alper said he has hope that, with continued organization, farmers in Sonoma County can improve their working conditions.
“We’re moving in the right direction because more and more workers and families are getting involved, and more and more people in the community are supporting them,” he said.