Desired for their labor, rejected as neighbors
Foreign guest workers in California often face hostile communities as growers and cities struggle to house them
The “urban farm homes” nestled along a cul-desac off an old farm road in Nipomo, Calif., had lofted floor plans with more than 2,500 square feet of living space — “perfect … for multi-generational living,” the advertisements boasted.
Strawberry grower Greg France and his wife, Donna, had other ideas for the planned seven-home development. They would use it to host more than 100 workers coming up from Mexico to pick strawberries on their farms under an agricultural guest worker program.
When neighbors in the southern San Luis Obispo County town of 17,000 saw bunks being moved into one of the newly constructed houses, anger erupted. Meetings were held, fingers were pointed and death threats were hurled at the Frances.
On April 6, 2016, flames devoured one of the unfinished homes, not yet wired for electricity. Investigators almost immediately concluded it was arson.
The case remains unsolved. So does the housing problem for temporary guest workers
in towns and cities along California’s coastal agricultural belt.
Increasingly fond of locally grown produce, Californians are far less enthusiastic about locally housed farmworkers. They have deployed lawsuits, hastily written regulations — and, apparently, the torch — to segregate thousands of seasonal workers to seedy roadside hotels and crowded housing in cities where affordable shelter is already limited.
“They love the strawberries, but they don’t like the farmworkers,” said Lucas Zucker, policy and communication director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, a labor advocacy group in Ventura.
That age-old “not in my backyard” reaction threatens growers’ ability to fill the current labor shortage and exacerbates the long-term housing crisis for local farmworkers.
Last year, California recruited more than 11,000 guest workers, largely to pick strawberries or cut lettuce, according to a Times analysis of Department of Labor data. Recruitment in the first four months of this year is up 25% over a similar period last year.
All of those guest workers have to be housed by their employers, at no charge to the worker, under the visa program known as H-2A.
More than 1,400 of those guest workers have squeezed into the Central Coast city of Santa Maria, where 1 in 5 residents already lives below the poverty level. An additional 2,500 are staying in the impoverished cities of the Salinas Valley, according to federal records.
Only 12 are living in the residential center of Nipomo, where France is selling the last of his houses. This season, his contracted guest workers will bunk in Santa Maria.
“We’ve learned our lesson,” France said. “We need to be sure they’re in a suitable area, both for them and their neighbors.”
An old sugar mill site in the Salinas Valley seemed like a suitable place to house as many as 800 guest workers for Tanimura & Antle Produce.
The company’s workers traditionally harvested lettuce and vegetables in the Imperial Valley in winter, moved to the Central Valley in early spring, then to the Salinas Valley. But that migration has waned as housing in Salinas became more expensive — the 156,000 residents of the city pay a greater share of their income for shelter than most people in California, making it one of the state’s least affordable places to live.
Tanimura & Antle struggled to find enough laborers to harvest its Salinas Valley crops — $2 million in lettuce was left to rot in 2015.
The company drew up plans to house Mexican guest workers at Spreckels Crossing, a 4.5-acre campus of eight buildings set amid athletic fields, a barbecue area and recreation hall. Workers would get to and from fields by company bus and take public transit to Salinas, three miles north.
Affordable housing advocates and county planners loved it. The town of Spreckels did not.
Spreckels’ 760 residents — nearly all white, native born and earning well above the state’s median income — feared that migrant workers would bring crime and traffic and destroy property values. Several filed suit to slow the project. The school district insisted on a $330,000 fee to build new schools — later reduced — even though the guest workers, predominantly male, would be leaving their children in Mexico.
Some residents suggested that a labor camp didn’t fit with the town’s historic character — even though historians consider it to be one of the best-preserved “company towns” in America, built by sugar baron Claus Spreckels for a succession of immigrant mill workers from Germany, Japan and Mexico.
No foreign guest workers moved in when Spreckels Crossing opened last summer. Tanimura & Antle had advertised the guest worker jobs — as required by the U.S. Department of Labor — and the company’s U.S.based workers leaped at the chance to pay about $125 a month to share a brand-new two-bedroom suite with as many as seven other workers.
Rick Antle, the company’s chief executive, says he hopes that Spreckels Crossing “never fills up” with guest workers — he’d rather win the competition for local laborers by offering better housing, higher wages and an employee stock ownership plan.
“The H-2A [program] is not the answer, guys,” Antle said. “As much as you hear people saying that’s the solution, it’s not. That worker is taking his earnings and he’s exporting them to Mexico. He’s not spending them locally.”
But Tanimura & Antle still relies on hundreds of guest workers for its winter fields near the Mexican border — 750 were approved this year, according to federal data.
“Hopefully we will be able to eliminate that,” Antle said.
Affordable housing advocates and planning officials say if more growers imitate the Spreckels Crossing project, they could put to rest fears of reviving the postWorld War II “bracero” era, when Mexican workers lived in squalid barracks.
“It’s beautiful — I would put family in there,” said Alfred Diaz-Infante, presi-
‘You really had to fight, just to keep a room in a house with a family.’ —DORA JAN, a lettuce packer, on the housing crisis
DORA JAN, left, Margarita Padilla, Maricela Williams, Irma Ramos and Lucia Jaques, all of Yuma, Ariz., at the Spreckels Crossing farmworker housing complex built by Tanimura & Antle Produce.
GREG FRANCE, right, owner of Mar Vista Berry, inspects the quality of strawberries picked by local workers. France recruited foreign guest workers under the federal H-2A visa program last year.
JOSÉ GONZALEZ of Oaxaca, Mexico, a local farmworker, scurries down furrows, filling carton after carton with lush strawberries for Mar Vista Berry near Guadalupe, Calif. To supplement the agricultural labor pool, California recruited more than 11,000 guest workers last year, largely to pick strawberries or cut lettuce.
JOHN RAMIREZ, left, and Henry Murrieta return to their apartment after working in the lettuce fields near Spreckels, Calif. Tanimura & Antle Produce built the Spreckels Crossing housing complex for workers.