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Farmworker summit sows ideas for improvement

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

By Peter Tokofsky

May 24, 2023

Updated May 24, 2023

Politicians, advocates and community members gathered on Saturday at the Cabrillo Event Center in Half Moon Bay to discuss issues affecting farmworkers on the Coastside. The forum organized by the Farmworker Affairs Committee of the San Mateo County Democratic Party and emceed by TV news reporter Gloria Rodriguez focused on issues of affordable housing, access to clean water and health care.

The program comes in the aftermath of the January shooting on two farms around Half Moon Bay that killed seven farmworkers and increased awareness of housing and working conditions at many local farms.

During the first portion of the meeting elected officials made brief statements describing legislative initiatives that if signed into law would support farmworkers. State Sen. Josh Becker and Assemblymembers Marc Berman and Diane Papan talked about legislation pending in Sacramento to expand access to Medi-Cal. Under current guidelines farmworkers often do not qualify for the health benefits because their income is too high even though they might earn less than $35,000 per year working full time. Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente de la Costa Sur in Pescadero, said that workers often have to “play the qualifying game” by applying for benefits during the off-season when their income is lower.

Another bill being considered by the Legislature would extend unemployment benefits to workers regardless of immigration status. The speakers reminded the audience that undocumented workers pay the taxes that support these benefits but are not eligible themselves.

Berman and Papan also mentioned proposals for new laws ensuring that farmers respect minimum wage rules and a bill to allow local law enforcement to pursue allegations of wage theft.

Victoria Sanchez De Alba, chair of the farmworker affairs committee, said her group will follow up with the elected representatives regarding next steps on the legislation discussed at the summit.

The speakers also addressed the need to build new housing on the coast for low-income workers. Berman, San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller and a representative for U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo noted efforts to secure funding for affordable housing projects on the coast. They could secure as much as $9 million to support housing plans if the requests at the state and federal levels are successful and add to the recent county allocation of $1 million.

Half Moon Bay Mayor Deborah Penrose reminded the audience that “it’s very, very difficult” to build affordable housing. She asked the city’s community development director, Jill Ekas, to give an update on efforts to build 40 units of affordable housing for senior farmworkers at 555 Kelly Ave. The city purchased the property there in 2017 and expects to receive preliminary plans for the development from Mercy Housing soon.

Representatives from nonprofit organizations also joined the conversation. Kique Bazán, assistant director of ALAS, talked about the disbelief he encounters when he tells people in other countries that there is a town in California, Pescadero, where many residents do not have water that is safe to drink or use for cooking. Mancera expressed her fear that people will become inured to the steady stream of horror stories we hear about conditions farmworkers endure.

The summit also exposed the challenges for building coalitions supporting efforts to help farmworkers. During the audience discussion one speaker pointed out that farmworkers have access to housing on the farms and that the community really needs to develop more housing for other essential workers.

This version corrects the spelling of Victoria Sanchez De Alba and Kique Bazán. It also changes Gloria Rodriguez's role to that of emcee.

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