Guest work­ers come and go

Los Angeles Times - - THE NA­TION - Ge­of­frey.mo­han @la­times.com Times staff writer Ben Welsh con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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.

Dorothea Lange SSPL via Getty Im­ages

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.

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