Back Forty: For small farmers, hazard pay for workers is a heavy lift — even if they believe in it

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our main content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

Gabriel Castañeda looks over his field, where some crops are covered in plastic to prevent water evaporation, on his family’s farm outside Santa Rosa, California, Thursday, May 27, 2021. The Castañedas typically grow on about 180 acres, but that year, because of the drought, they only planted 17 acres. Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images.

By Teresa Cotsirilos

Extreme weather is rattling California’s agriculture sector as climate change intensifies, and farmworkers are especially vulnerable. Historic flooding has destroyed workers’ homes, cars and other possessions. A growing number of farm laborers have lost work to droughts, fires and storms, which has exacerbated food insecurity in their communities. Most workers are paid hourly or at a piece rate, so when their work hours drop, their income shrinks, too. Those who do keep their jobs are sometimes pressured to work through hazardous conditions, some of which can be life-threatening.

Increasingly, farmworkers, labor organizers and progressive political leaders are pushing for new policies to support and compensate farmworkers subjected to climate disasters. FERN is exploring these policies through periodic interviews with various stakeholders. This week, we talked to Evan Wiig, the director of membership and communications for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). With a focus on small-scale farmers, CAFF has worked with labor advocacy groups and declared its support for several farmworker safety net programs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do your constituents fit into California’s larger conversation about farmworker rights? As small-scale producers, do they have a different relationship with their workers than the state’s agricultural giants?

Our members have a very different relationship with their employees. None of our farmers use H-2A workers. Very few use labor contractors. These aren’t farms that are bringing in 50 guys to do a harvest for two weeks. These are people who maybe employ two, three people—year-round in a lot of cases. It’s like comparing the relationship between a local restaurant—run by someone who lives in that community and who’s hiring their neighbors—and a McDonald’s franchise. No one even knows who runs their local McDonald’s, right? It’s just a machine.

On top of that, to be totally honest, most of the farmers we work with are struggling financially. They can barely pay themselves a living wage. Many rely on off-farm income to make ends meet, or they’re living on poverty wages. There are farmers I know who literally pay their employees more than they pay themselves, especially during those first few years of getting up and running. Some of the farmers we work with are undocumented. Most of the farmers we work with do not have insurance. The margins are thinner. And most of the farmers we work with are usually a few missed sales from going out of business. That is what entrepreneurship is about—it’s about risk.

Evan Wiig

That’s not to say that a business with only two employees can’t also be a dick to their workers, right? As entrepreneurs, they should be taking on the risk—employees never should be. But it’s a different relationship.

The idea of hazard pay for farmworkers has gained some traction in California. In Sonoma County, where you’re based, the E&J Gallo Winery and the farm Eco Terreno have agreed to give workers hazard pay if they work through unhealthy smoke conditions during wildfires. But many agricultural employers are resistant to this idea. Where do you come down on this?

We have been in conversations with the labor advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice for several years. We’ve endorsed several of their campaigns, we’ve worked with them and we’ve advocated alongside them. But one thing we’ve struggled with is getting clarity on hazard pay.

I think everyone would love to provide hazard pay, right? But who does it cover? Would it apply to all agricultural operators? And when are conditions considered hazardous?

If North Bay Jobs with Justice came to us and said, ‘Workers should be paid hazard pay when they’re working in an evacuation zone during a wildfire, working in a flood or working in 110 degrees or higher,’ I would feel very confident that the Sonoma chapter of our organization would endorse that. But if we’re talking about working through a smoky day with an AQI [air quality index] above a hundred, or a rainy day or a day that’s hotter than 80 degrees? Requiring hazard pay [in those conditions] would put our farmers out of business.

So I think we need clarification on where the threshold is, so that we can find the balance between small-farm viability and justice for farmworkers, and protecting their health and safety.

The California legislature is considering several bills that would extend social benefits to farmworkers affected by climate change. SB 227 would create an unemployment insurance program for undocumented workers, who are excluded from federal unemployment. And SB 262 would compensate farmworkers who’ve lost work to the ongoing drought. What’s your organization’s take on these programs?

We haven’t taken a position on SB 262 yet. But CAFF’s policy committee has enthusiastically endorsed SB 227, and everyone on the committee felt like it was long overdue. You know, it’s a tough year for the state budget. 

Right. California’s contending with a budget deficit of over $30 billion.

It’s kind of a blood bath in Sacramento right now. Last year, [Gov. Gavin] Newsom vetoed a farmworker bill that was similar to SB 227 on the grounds that it was too expensive. And now, given that we’re tightening belts even further, it’s hard to imagine that the state is going to go for it. I mean, SB 227 is a necessary investment, but it’s gonna be a huge cost. There are so many farmworkers who’ve been underserved for so long, and it will take money to make up for it. We’ll see if there’s the budgetary appetite to do that in the coming months.

The sad truth of all of this is that officials at the state level, and even the county level, are stepping up to address this because the federal government is failing to act. A lot of it comes down to our broken immigration system. Our entire food system—the sustenance of America—is resting on the backs of people we don’t recognize. It’s absurd. These people are paying taxes. They are a huge, necessary part of the economy. They’re not going away; they’re members of our communities, and they’re our neighbors.

So would we prefer that the federal government just provide a pathway to citizenship for the most essential of America’s essential workers? Yeah. But since that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon, the state needs to step in where the federal government can’t or won’t.