A caravan led by an LED billboard truck brings information directly to area farm workers as part of a statewide initiative to pair community organizations with state agencies. State to promote workplace protections, including COVID-19 safety measures.
More than 150 people gathered Thursday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 402 S. Lincoln St., to kick off the caravan’s tour of the Santa Maria and Lompoc Valleys. The caravan stopped Thursday at local farms and markets along a route from Garey to Guadalupe, with similar stops scheduled in Lompoc on Friday.
During the rally, church volunteers handed out free food, while others handed out information packets, masks and other supplies. Among the organizations represented were the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project and the California Labor Commission.
“Our farm workers were essential long before the pandemic,” said MICOP community organizer Fernando Martinez. “They’ve never taken a day off since the pandemic started to keep putting food on people’s tables.”
This is the second year that the Department of Industrial Relations, Cal/OSHA, ALRB and other state agencies have partnered with groups in Santa Maria to help local people become more aware of their rights and protections under California labor law.
“In California, we have good protections for workers; undocumented workers also have protections, and we want to give them a chance to come forward and speak out,” said Lilia Garcia-Brower, labor commissioner of California. “There are myths that evolve through the phone game or through predatory employers, and we need to bust those lies.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural workers have been disproportionately affected by the disease, according to reports from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.
Meanwhile, the state has strengthened worker protections to fight the pandemic, including increasing the number of mandatory paid sick days for workers. These additional 80 hours can be used for isolation or quarantine, for example.
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“I implemented an early engagement program during the pandemic because some employers just couldn’t keep up with all the changes,” Garcia-Brower said. “When a worker calls us and says, ‘I was sent home for asking for extra sick days or for telling a client to wear a mask,’ we may contact the employer to let them know. which changed so that he did not have to face a lengthy legal process.”
This is the second year the caravan has toured the county and state, stopping in Ventura, Merced and Fresno counties, among others. This is part of the state’s COVID-19 Workplace Awareness Project.
Farm workers are often an at-risk population when it comes to labor laws, according to US Department of Labor officials, the majority of whom come to the United States under the H-2A temporary farm worker visa program.
“H-2A workers can be particularly vulnerable because they often don’t know their rights when working in the United States, or are hesitant to report violations for fear of retaliation,” said Michael Petersen, regional director of public affairs for the West. US Department of Labor.
Garcia-Brower noted that they were not just trying to reach workers, but also employers.
“Wherever there’s an exploited worker, there’s a good employer being undermined,” she said. “We meet with agricultural labor contractors when we come to an area because we want to know what works.”
Photos: Caravan brings labor rights resources directly to farm workers in Santa Maria