M.C. NOW - Sara Rubin

Good afternoon. 

Pandemic aside, there’s a legislative deadline that does not change. State lawmakers in Sacramento have until Aug. 31 to move hundreds of bills through the process if they’re going to be approved by both the Assembly and Senate in time to make it to the governor’s desk. It’s tighter than normal because of the pandemic slowdown. 

To make the volume manageable, the Legislature will only hear priority bills that are related to Covid-19—but that means a lot of bills related to a lot of things, because as we’ve learned, a pandemic affects our lives and society in broad ways and requires broad leadership. 

Consider Senate Bill 1102, which concerns guest workers in the agriculture industry who come to the United States on short-term H-2A visas. It’s an attempt by State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, to make sure the 23,000 H-2A workers in California in a given year are notified of their rights under state law. The bill would require that workers’ contracts include descriptions of basic rights like meal breaks and overtime. It would also require that H-2A workers are notified of emergencies that could potentially affect their health—like a wildfire or, say, a pandemic, while working in California. 

The most contentious element of the bill has to do with transportation to and from work sites. SB 1102 would make the time workers spend on the bus to and from fields count as paid hours. 

“The bill seeks to clarify that for H-2A workers, almost by definition, a personal car is not really an option,” Monning says. “They’re brought here from Mexico on a bus, they live in camps provided by employers. They put signs on a bus saying, ‘boarding this bus is optional, you may take other transportation.’” But what other transportation? 

On its face, SB 1102 bill barely touches on Covid-19, save for the emergency notification requirement. But as we’ve seen in stark relief, the virus has taken a disproportionate toll on Monterey County’s farmworker community. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have consistently been the number-one demographic affected by occupation, now accounting for roughly one-quarter of confirmed patients. 

They are essential workers, and it’s because of them—and the countless others like them, elsewhere in the food industry—that the rest of us are still eating while sheltering in place. 

In my reporting, I’ve observed an industry generally eager to innovate and find ways to protect workers in the fields while keeping them at work. Some have installed vinyl dividers on harvesting equipment to create physical barriers; bus drivers make extra trips and give assigned seats to make them less crowded. Growers have paid to rent hotel rooms in case they need to quarantine workers who can’t otherwise quarantine from others. 

But all of these solutions reveal even bigger underlying problems. That workers would be unable to quarantine where they live reveals the issue of overcrowded housing. In April, I reported on an impressive partnership between Monterey County’s hospitals and the Grower-Shipper Association to send medical residents and nurses to fields and neighborhoods to talk directly to farmworkers about Covid-19 safety. But after the training was over, I watched as groups of men, newly arrived in Salinas from Mexico on H-2A visas, returned to their motel rooms, each one shared among four roommates. No amount of handwashing or agreed-upon bathroom cleaning procedures can change that reality. 

There are some prospective long-term housing solutions on the horizon. Assemblymember Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, has authored a whole suite of farmworker protection bills, including housing. A new Regional Housing Trust Fund, as Pam Marino reported on July 23, will support low-income housing. 

“As we move through Covid, it shows more and more the need for housing in our community,” said Supervisor Chris Lopez, who represents South County, before voting in support of the fund. “It’s those overcrowded housing situations that are fueling the spread in our community.”

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors is also on the list of supporters of Monning’s SB 1102. Opponents include the California Farm Bureau Federation and Western Growers Association—the same groups that have been working hard to keep their workers healthy. 

-Sara Rubin, editor, sara@mcweekly.com

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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