Farmworkers at Driscoll’s supplier demand fair pay, safe conditions amid pandemic

When Rosa showed up as usual to pick strawberries at 6:30 a.m. one day earlier this month, she hadn’t planned to join a strike. But when her co-workers put down their tools and encouraged the other squads to join their request for a 10-cent-a-box raise, she knew it was the right thing to do. Her supervisors had been pushing them to pick only the best fruit for the same pay even though quality was spotty, making it hard to earn more than minimum wage at their piecework rate of $1.90 a box.

“It just made sense to unite as workers because it gave us more power to influence the company,” said Rosa, who spoke through an interpreter and asked that we not use her real name because of her undocumented status.

Piece-rate workers rely on speed to make a day’s work worthwhile, and growers usually pay more for special requests that slow workers down — such as picking only the best berries. But that’s not what was happening at Rancho Laguna Farms, an operation on California’s Central Coast that supplies Driscoll’s, the largest berry producer in the world. So in a rare organized action to protest their wages, more than 100 nonunion workers, representing most of the crew that day, joined the work stoppage at Rancho Laguna, some three hours north of Los Angeles in Santa Maria.

About an hour after the workers asked to speak with the chief supervisor, he arrived — with deputies from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

“They just want what’s right for them,” a translator for the group explained to the deputies, in a conversation captured on video. “They just want to talk with the [boss].”

“Rancho Laguna Farms,” a deputy told the translator, “is telling them they need to either start working or leave.”

Rosa, a Mixteco mother of three from Oaxaca, decided to go home. When she returned the next day, she said in an interview, she was sent with her squad to a “really bad spot,” with poor-quality berries and so many holes in the ground she worried about twisting an ankle. The following day, Rosa said, she and her coworkers were given bigger boxes than they’d ever used before. She said her supervisor told them to pick only the biggest, reddest strawberries. And if they didn’t like the conditions, they were told, the company had plenty of people who would take their place.

Rosa and her co-workers, believing they were being retaliated against for seeking better pay, sought help from Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), a regional farmworker advocacy group. Within days, CAUSE filed a complaint with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) against Rancho Laguna Farms for violating fair labor practices. The complaint said the company, through its agents, had “threatened and retaliated against agricultural workers … called law enforcement out to the fields and changed their work assignments.” The state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act prohibits companies from firing, discriminating, or retaliating against union or nonunion employees who act together to ask for changes in working conditions or wages. The state is investigating the charge.

Most strawberry workers, like Rosa, are undocumented immigrants from indigenous communities in southern Mexico. Few speak either Spanish or English. CAUSE filed the complaint on their behalf, so the workers didn’t have to worry about alerting immigration authorities.

In addition to their concerns about a fair wage, Rosa said she recently heard that a couple who work in her field have Covid-19, and that the foremen were told to “keep it quiet.” She heard that a foreman tested positive as well. Rosa said she and her co-workers have received no information from the company confirming or denying the rumors. She said the company followed social distancing rules in the beginning of the coronavirus crisis but that “it’s not like that at all anymore.” Now, she said, squads are often working close together.

U.S. farmworkers have high rates of diabetes and respiratory disease, making them especially vulnerable to the virus. They also face barriers to accessing healthcare, and most lack sick pay. Last month, California mandated sick pay for essential food-sector workers, but the measure doesn’t cover undocumented workers, leaving out most strawberry pickers. As of May 26, the Santa Barbara Public Health Department had reported 285 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Santa Maria and three deaths, and said there were 13 new cases a day.

When asked about the ALRB complaint and possible Covid-19 cases, an attorney for Rancho Laguna Farms replied, “No comment.” A Driscoll’s representative declined to answer questions, noting that the company partners with “nearly 800 independent growers to supply berries ultimately sold under the Driscoll’s brand.”

As piece-rate workers, strawberry pickers are already under pressure to work fast, which increases the risk of injuries. Seventeen farmworkers died in U.S. fields last year, including two strawberry pickers, according to reports filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When employers ramped up production standards without a pay increase, workers reached the breaking point, says Lucas Zucker, CAUSE’s policy and communications director.

The fastest, most skilled pickers can make as much as $150 a day, but most workers average around $70 or $80, says Zulema Aleman, a community organizer for CAUSE. With the new push to pick higher-quality berries, she says, they have to slow down or risk having the ponchadora­­ — the person who inspects and records each box — reject their work. So now they average just $50 to $55 a day. And with schools closed to comply with California’s shelter-in-place order, many workers are also paying for babysitters.

Rosa was never told why she had to meet higher production standards. Advocates believe growers shifted standards for retail outlets in response to reduced demand from restaurants, schools, and other food service businesses shuttered during the coronavirus crisis.

Over the weekend, Rosa and her colleagues drafted a petition to send to Driscoll’s demanding fair pay, no retaliation against requests for better conditions, and that the company notify workers of Covid-19 cases among staff and workers. “I hope this creates change and the company starts to treat us and pay us like they should,” she said.