Despite threat of fines, jail time, price gouging still rampant in California farmworker communities

People in some of California’s poorest towns still face exorbitant prices for staple foods more than a month after the governor declared a state of emergency that made price gouging illegal. 

Charging outrageous prices for basic necessities is prohibited during a crisis in most states. Yet as consumers scramble to find supplies, there’s no shortage of merchants trying to cash in on desperation.

Price gouging has proven particularly insidious in farmworker towns like El Centro, in the Imperial Valley in the southeast corner of the state, and Delano, in the San Joaquin Valley. In both towns, as in so many of the state’s farmworker communities, more than a quarter of residents live in poverty and most are Latino. El Centro locals reported on their police department’s Facebook page a store that was selling a case of Crystal Geyser bottled water for $9, more than double the normal $4. And in Delano, one store doubled its price for milk to $6.99 a gallon. 

Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer of the United Farm Workers, says he’s heard from members throughout the state who’ve seen unusually high prices on kitchen staples. One worker told him that 50-pound bags of masa, used to make tortillas, more than doubled in price, from $22 to $50.

It’s adding to the stress farmworkers feel about how they’re going to pay rent and feed their families if they get the coronavirus, Elenes says. “These are already low-wage workers who can’t make ends meet, and now they have to deal with these people gouging them on the prices.”

California is one of 35 states that forbid raising prices during a crisis. (A bill banning price gouging during disasters is pending in Washington State.) 

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency March 4, after the state’s first Covid-19 death, and 11 counties had already issued their own emergency notices. Violators who charge more than 10 percent above normal prices for basic goods and services face up to a year in jail, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. Last month, the city of Fresno fined a liquor store $10,000 for selling a 24-pack of bottled water for $16, four times the normal price. 

Not all complaints turn out to be violations of the law. Eric Grant, assistant chief investigator for the Tulare County District Attorney, says some are just misunderstandings or increases on nonessential items. Customers reported markups of spices, for example, which aren’t covered by the law, or didn’t realize that higher-priced organic brands had replaced sold-out items. Grant said he couldn’t discuss details of investigations of likely violations conducted so far, but he did say his office is reviewing charges in one case.

Still, price-gouging complaints skyrocketed nationwide after states declared emergencies, as The Associated Press reported last month, sending panicked shoppers in search of basic necessities. Facebook groups dedicated to stopping the practice proliferated, with outraged shoppers posting accounts of the most egregious examples. 

Shannon Hancock reported a store charging nearly twice as much as normal for eggs in Pocahontas, Arkansas, which also bars price gouging. Five dozen eggs usually sell for $12, but the store was charging $20. More than one in five Pocahontas residents lives in poverty. “This is a low-income, rural area,” says Hancock, who lives in nearby Jonesboro, in the state’s northeast corner. “If this continues, it will really affect the poorest people in a huge way. First it’s eggs. People like us can’t help but wonder, what’s next?” 

Making matters worse, Jonesboro, an agricultural hub for commodity crops like rice and soybeans, was hit by a tornado last month. “So this kind of increase in a staple is taken pretty hard,” Hancock says.

Complaints of price gouging have not let up in California, prompting Newsom to issue an executive order last week expanding consumer protections against the practice. It’s unclear just how big a spike the state has seen. Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment by the time this article went to press. And the California District Attorney’s office refused to discuss the complaints or say how many it had received, stating only, “We have received a large volume of consumer complaints regarding price gouging.”

Gene Martinez, an investigator for the Ventura County District Attorney’s office, started getting complaints about mom-and-pop stores jacking up prices for toilet paper and bottled water in February as fears of the virus spread. 

Ventura County includes many pockets of poverty inhabited by workers who support its $2 billion agricultural industry and live near areas with the highest applications of toxic pesticides in the state. 

Complaints in the county exploded after the state of emergency was announced in early March, then chains got in on the action, Martinez says, charging twice as much for everything from pinto beans and rice to vegetables and cilantro. 

So far, every one of the complaints has checked out. “To see this happening during a time of crisis is heartbreaking,” Martinez says.