Guest workers come and go
dent and CEO of CHISPA, a private, nonprofit affordable housing developer in Salinas. “That’s something we’re advocating for. We know what happened in the bracero era, where they built bunkhouses and over the years they became worker housing.”
Before she started sharing a two-bedroom suite with five other women, Dora Jan, a lettuce packer, followed the crop from Yuma, Ariz., shelling out more than $300 a month for a tiny room in a house in one of Salinas’ worst neighborhoods. She often had no hot water, no access to a kitchen and no contract. After one eviction, she spent several weeks sleeping in a car.
“You really had to fight, just to keep a room in a house with a family,” Jan said.
Now she and her five suitemates often wake two hours before their 7 a.m. shift, just to sit around the kitchen table, drink coffee and talk. “We’re in our glory,” roommate Lucia Jaquez said.
The problem is that no one has been able to duplicate the Spreckels Crossing model in the areas that need it the most. Two years ago, Bonipak Produce drew up a similar proposal to house 600 workers in a bunkhouse complex outside Santa Maria. They took it to the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, hoping for approval in time to start construction by August. It still has not been built. Glenn Russell, the county’s director of planning and development, says the county quickly endorsed the construction project. But federal officials have held it up over potential harm to the tiger salamander.
“They asked if we could move heaven and Earth, and we moved heaven and Earth,” Russell said. “Then they ran smack dab into an endangered species issue.”
Instead, Bonipak’s workers are living in a renovated former Budget Inn on Santa Maria’s north end, which the company purchased with partners for $1.5 million in 2015.
Displaced residents of those hotels, however, still have to find other places to live. And increasingly, those places are also being used for guest workers — including at least two dozen singlefamily homes and apartment complexes in Santa Maria. One six-bedroom home will house 30 workers, while 20 other laborers will share a three-bedroom house, according to Labor Department records.
Although employers appear to be complying with federal rules that require 50 square feet of sleeping space and 100 square feet of living space per worker, that’s not what most cities have in mind for adequate housing.
“It’s not just H-2A,” Santa Maria Deputy City Manager Jason Stilwell said. “It’s like that in every city. A lot of houses are overcrowded.”
Each city is taking a slightly different approach. In Salinas, officials worry less about hotels and more about the conditions of the homes of permanent residents — H-2A housing at least is inspected annually by the state, they say.
“We really have not dug into it, because we can’t keep up with our own issues,” said Megan Hunter, director of community development for Salinas. “We’re not turning a blind eye, but we’re not going after people who are otherwise safely housed.”
In King City, where at least 235 guest workers are staying in four hotels, city officials allowed labor contractors to convert a former tomato cannery into temporary housing. One grower is eyeing the site of a former labor camp, City Manager Steven Adams said.
Not all small cities have been as accommodating.
Guadalupe, in Santa Barbara County, hastily passed an ordinance regulating worker housing after word got around that a labor contractor was looking to buy an apartment building there. The deal fell through.
On a 150-acre strawberry farm a few miles northwest of that town, grower France recently watched local workers scurry down furrows, filling carton after carton with lush, red berries. If they kept up the pace, their per-carton salary would soar to twice the guaranteed state minimum of $10.50 per hour — one worker set a record at $36, France said.
That kind of hustle is getting rarer as the local workforce gets older and slower, France said.
Younger, more energetic guest workers can pick up the slack, but hiring them through contractors is not cheap, France said. The federal hourly rate for H-2A workers in California is $12.57, and contractors add a premium to that to cover overhead, including housing and meals, he said.
France said next season he might try to hire workers directly and find housing for them — just not in Nipomo.
“We’re just going to hope we can do it right and not get into trouble,” he said. “We would try to secure housing in Santa Maria.”
That won’t be easy. Santa Maria has plans for about 1,818 affordable housing units. And besides Bonipak, no other grower has proposed to build farmworker housing in the valley.
California’s seasonal guests will once again come and go, unnoticed but for the muddy boots they leave outside hotel doors.
That anonymity has marked them for decades. In 1936, a photographer stopped at a pea picker camp along U.S. 101 north of Santa Maria, where she found dozens of starving migrant workers.
Dorothea Lange took a picture of a mother, her thin hand worrying her lips, an infant on her lap, a child leaning on each shoulder. The haunting image sparked a federal effort to ease the suffering of California’s seasonal farmworkers.
She was less than a mile from where France’s urban farm home would be burned to the ground 80 years later.
IN 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange took a picture of a migrant mother, one of California’s seasonal farmworkers, at a pea picker camp in Nipomo.