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Sonoma County wine industry responds to farmworkers’ plight

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The Sonoma County wine industry has ramped up its efforts to improve social and economic conditions for the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 farmworkers who permanently live here.

The Sonoma County Winegrowers, the trade group that represents more than 1,800 county grape growers, earlier this year revived its Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. In its first action, the foundation persuaded vintners to donate almost $100,000 to speed up construction of Ortiz Plaza, a 30-unit farmworker housing complex west of Larkfield.

And the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance this spring partnered with the La Luz Center, the nonprofit dedicated to helping Sonoma Valley immigrants, to help it better provide social services for local farmworkers and their families, almost all of whom are Latino.

Growers said the outreach is a further example of the responsibility they feel toward their employees, some of whom have worked at the same vineyards for 20 to 30 years and play a vital role in the business that is a key driver in the local economy.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” said John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards and Winery in Santa Rosa, who noted that he has about a dozen farmworker families who pay a subsidized rate to live on his properties.

But such efforts also reflect the new normal in the wine industry. The industry faces a very tight labor market as immigration restrictions have tightened and younger workers increasingly opt to work in other sectors. Skilled workers are in demand, especially with an increasingly aging workforce.

Time to compete

“Growers are realizing that labor is a commodity that they can’t take lightly,” said Armando Elenes, third vice president for the United Farm Workers, which represents from 600 to 1,000 workers in the North Coast, depending on the season. “Growers are realizing that they have to compete. It’s something new for them.”

The activity comes after an unsparing report last year by the county’s Department of Health Services and California Human Development, a nonprofit that works with farmworkers, which brought additional scrutiny to the multibillion-dollar industry. The survey found that “farmworker families are not earning enough to meet their family’s basic needs.” Their wages ranged from about $19,000 to $24,000 annually.

The survey found that farmworkers lacked access to affordable housing in Sonoma County and their housing conditions were overcrowded. Approximately 30 percent received housing support from their employer, with 14 percent living on the worksite. About one-third lived in overcrowded residences, defined as those in which residents share a bedroom with two or more roommates. The national rate for overcrowding is less than 3 percent.

The survey found only 30 percent of the county’s farmworkers reported having health insurance coverage, compared to 86 percent of all county adults.

Some farmworkers are able to get by without as much hardship as shown in the survey. Antonio Campa, for example, has been a farmworker for 38 years for Gallo of Sonoma and works under a UFW contract that pays $16 an hour. Campa, 62, has health insurance and gets holidays off as well as sick days. He works almost 65 hours a week and rents a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa for $1,300 a month.

“I rent a two-bedroom apartment with my wife, but I know about other farmworkers that have to live with two or three families in the same house. That happens at my house complex. People can’t afford to pay $1,300 monthly plus water, energy, phone,” Campa said.

A variety of services

Over at the La Luz Center, about 20 percent of the estimated 6,500 individuals it serves annually work in agriculture, so partnering with the Sonoma Valley vintners came naturally. The nonprofit center provides a range of classes on computing, financial literacy and English as well as offering health-related and employment services. It also hosts a family resources center at nearby El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma.

“It allows us to cast a bigger, wider net to go to the wineries locally,” said Juan Hernandez, executive director. “They (vintners) know that they want to support their workers, but their No. 1 focus is grapes.”

The outreach falls to Angie Sanchez, community engagement manager for La Luz, who grew up in the area. Sanchez said she has already talked to workers at Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards and Enterprise Vineyard Management, both in Sonoma, since starting on July 1. She has more places on her list.

Sanchez said she has already noticed a difference in her visits. Contract vineyard managers generally don’t know as much about their workers’ lives outside of work as opposed to winery management officials who have had workers that have been with the business for many years. That is especially important given that many vineyard owners have outsourced maintenance of their land to such management companies.

The human resources manager at Gloria Ferrer was aware of the work of La Luz, and allowed Sanchez to visit on company time instead of personal time. The concerns she has heard so far on the job are varied.

“Housing is a big one. The other ones are immigration services and Cal Fresh (the state food subsidy program),” Sanchez said. “They didn’t understand they could qualify for Cal Fresh and that it won’t hurt their immigration status.”

Affordable housing is scarce in the county, and it follows that housing ranks high among farmworker concerns. The Sonoma County efforts to help house them, however, trail Napa County, which launched an initiative 20 years ago through which growers have established three facilities that house up to 180 workers. The men pay $13 a night to stay at the dormitory-style complex, which also includes three meals, said Rex Stults, industry relations director for the Napa Valley Vintners. To pay for the effort, every vineyard owner pays $10 an acre annually.

“They are almost entirely full,” Stults said of the complexes.

The Napa effort came during a time when workers were sleeping in their cars or at the local Catholic church and the vintners realized that they needed to act, Stults said.

“It’s not who we are as a community,” Stults said of the situation two decades ago. “We knew we had to take on that big of a project.”

The Napa industry historically has been much more unified in its action on housing than Sonoma, which has operated more independently.

“They sing from the same hymnal,” said Bill McIver, former co-owner of the Matanzas Creek Winery, of the Napa Valley Vintners.

Balletto noted other family vineyards in Sonoma County have workers who live on their property.

“I don’t think any of us in the industry are trying to look for publicity,” he said. He was one of the vintners who pledged money for the Ortiz project along with Rodney Strong Wine Estates in Healdsburg, the Rubin Family of Wines in Sebastopol, Sangiacomo Vineyards in Sonoma, Vino Farms in Healdsburg and Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa. There are future plans to build an extra 20 units for the Ortiz project, said Chris Paige, chief executive officer of California Human Development.

Balletto’s vineyard is one of the few in the North Bay whose members belong to the UFW and offers benefits such as an affordable health plan. Thirty-five are full-time workers.

Pay and benefits now make a crucial difference in this tight labor market.

“Our challenge is to keep those skilled employees,” said Michael Muscardini, owner of Muscardini Cellars in Kenwood and a member of the La Luz board. Construction jobs have emerged as a big competitor, as the work can pay more and provide more hospitable working conditions, some of which is inside, Muscardini said. The La Luz program can be a benefit that helps retain vineyard workers.

“That’s something above and beyond the compensation,” he said.

The revived Sonoma grower foundation effort doesn’t seek to create new programs, but rather explore where it can partner with agencies that are already out in the community, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

The board already has held two sessions with workers to learn about their concerns and will likely hold another one after harvest, Kruse said.

Issues like immigration were raised as well as others such as preventative health care and child care options, she said.

“We want to improve their lives,” Kruse said. “We have a lot more learning to do.”

Tensions remain

Even with the recent collaborations, there is still some tension between labor and management on the political level, specifically in a battle at the state Legislature. The UFW is backing legislation that would give farmworkers the right to overtime pay after 40 hours a week or more than eight hours a day.

Farmworkers now do not earn overtime pay until after they’ve worked 60 hours a week or more than 10 hours per day, a standard that goes back to the New Deal era. To pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, President Roosevelt was forced to exempt farmworkers because of opposition from Southern lawmakers, who did not want to bestow such rights to the largely African-American agricultural labor force, said Kathy Olmsted, professor of history at UC Davis and author of “Right out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism.”

“It’s just a fairness issue,” Elenes said of the legislation.

The wine industry has opposed the measure, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, which would phase in the change from 2019 to 2022. It contends that agriculture producers need flexibility in deploying their workforce, given the unpredictable nature of the weather and the growing season.

The Assembly defeated the bill last month, with all three local representatives — Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) and Bill Dodd (D-Napa) — voting against it.

Ultimately, the debate will come down to what type of a future people like Juan Villa will have in the county. Villa, who has been a farmworker for 17 years, typically works for nine months a year in the vineyards as his contractor moves him from ranch to ranch. He makes $12 an hour. He said he doesn’t get overtime, even if he works more than 10 hours a day, nor does he get paid leave, vacation or sick time, He rents a studio apartment in Santa Rosa for $850 where he lives with wife and two kids, ages 5 and 3.

“I hope people notice our responsibilities,” Villa said. “We have families, kids. We work so others can win in the wine industry.”

La Prensa Sonoma Editor Ricardo Ibarra contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.