California bill would pay farmworkers amid drought, climate crisis

As worsening drought conditions in California and the West take a heavy economic toll on agriculture, state legislators are considering a plan to pay farmworkers $1,000 a month to help them cover the cost of necessities.

The bill is meant to assist farmworkers who have fewer crops to tend as climate change limits the window for each growing season and cuts the Golden State’s water supply.

Introduced this month by state Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger), Senate Bill 1066 would establish the California Farmworkers Drought Resilience Pilot Project. Under the $20-million program, eligible workers would receive a $1,000 stipend for three years. It’s unclear how many farmworkers would qualify.

California’s agriculture industry produced $50 billion in revenue in 2019, according to the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. Hurtado’s office estimates that over 8,500 agriculture jobs were lost last year due to the drought and that the agriculture industry took a $1.2-billion hit.

“We frequently talk about climate change and the impacts of climate change. But one of the things that we don’t talk about is the role that our food system plays in climate change and how it’s been impacted,” Hurtado told The Times. “Farmworkers are part of our system. They’re just absolutely basic to our food system and our own survival.”

During the office shutdowns and stay-at-home orders of the COVID-19 pandemic’s early weeks, farmworkers continued to pick produce for the rest of the nation.

With their contributions and the climate crisis in mind, Hurtado last summer joined a group of legislators to ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to prioritize farmworkers in a guaranteed basic income pilot program, but they were not included in the $35-million plan that focuses on foster youth who are pregnant or parents, former foster youth and other low-income Californians.

“Last year, I called for that [aid] knowing that the drought was in place,” Hurtado said. “We failed to protect [farmworkers] in my opinion.”

A home destroyed in the 2020 North complicate fire sits above a low Lake Oroville in May 2021.

(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

California’s drought conditions show no signs of abating anytime soon, and the hardest-hit regions include the Central Valley, the state’s agricultural heart.

More than 95% of California is under harsh or extreme drought, with an estimated 37.2 million people living in drought-affected areas, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor report.

“With our hots getting hotter and our drys getting drier, and periods of uncertainty in between getting longer, we must find ways to respond effectively and equitably, and recognize the work farmworkers have already put in to keeping us safe and healthy,” Hurtado said in a budget letter requesting $20 million from the state’s general fund for the pilot program.

Farmworkers would need to meet requirements to qualify for the program:

  • Have at the minimum one member of the household who is a California resident
  • Have worked as a farmworker between March 11, 2020, and Jan. 1, 2022
  • Will be working as a farmworker during the time they apply for the program and throughout the duration of the pilot project
  • Have received benefits under CalFresh, the California Food Assistance Program or would have been eligible “but for the immigration position of one or more members of the household.”

If signed into law, the program would go into effect Jan. 1, 2023.

Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit California Farmworker Foundation, said the program could be a stepping stone to more opportunities to help farmworkers. His group aims to help farmworkers change into other parts of the agriculture industry or into other lines of work, as he sees the need to prepare the workforce for an unavoidable world with shorter seasons and less land to harvest.

“My hope for this program is to bring awareness to climate change and drought, but also to the need for workforce development,” Hernandez said.

Edward Flores, faculty director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, agreed that drought is one of many issues facing farmworkers.

“Communities are impacted by drought, not just people who work in the farmworking industry,” Flores said. “And farmworkers as an occupational group are exposed to much more than just drought.”

Farmworkers, who are often Central or South Americans without legal immigration position, also confront consistent and harsh housing and food insecurity, Flores said. His focus is on Assembly Bill 2847, introduced by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), which would allow undocumented immigrants to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

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