Freeze displaces thousands of California farmworkers

California’s citrus and other crops have been devastated by five consecutive nights of sub-freezing temperatures that struck Jan. 12, dealing a sharp blow to growers and putting thousands of farmworkers out of work, especially in the Central Valley. Though the citrus industry — which supplies most fresh oranges eaten in the U.S. — was hardest hit, other crops were also severely damaged, including strawberries, greens and other vegetables, and nursery plants.

Despite heroic efforts to save the crop, the damage to citrus alone is estimated at nearly $1 billion. The United Farm Workers union estimates the livelihoods of as many as 20,000 farmworkers and their families, who depend on citrus for several months of work each year, have been wiped out.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger moved quickly to proclaim a state of emergency covering 16 counties. He said the state would help workers affected by the freeze with food, shelter, energy aid and other services, and would open aid centers in many locations. The governor also called on the federal government for aid. State legislators were drafting measures to help growers and workers, and the entire California congressional delegation urged special federal assistance.

The United Farm Workers union says aid to farmworkers needs to include unemployment insurance, help with the costs of housing and utilities, and organized food distributions.

“The most essential aid to the farmworkers is unemployment insurance — that’s what puts money in people’s pockets for food, rent and other necessities,” said Marc Grossman, communications director for the UFW. “But this poses a dilemma for the majority of farmworkers, who are undocumented,” he added. “Federal restrictions bar them from receiving unemployment insurance.”

The UFW applauds the governor for thinking of the farmworkers and acting quickly, Grossman said, adding that the union “is looking to the governor and our federal representatives to help with this situation as well.”

Grossman said the special problems faced by undocumented workers show the need for immigration reform, and in particular, passage of the “AgJOBS bill,” to let farmworkers earn the right to legal status and to guarantee their labor rights. Under its provisions, he said, most farmworkers could qualify for unemployment insurance.

The measure, backed last year by over 500 organizations, including the AFL-CIO, was just reintroduced into Congress.

In the meantime, Grossman said, it is important to urge the state and federal governments to make an accommodation on unemployment insurance — an issue the union is already discussing with California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Workers in related industries such as packing and trucking are also affected by the freeze.

Some growers are also expressing concerns that under the economic pressure, farmworkers may leave areas hard hit by the freeze, causing big problems in the future for their employers. One grower in the southern California community of Oxnard told the Ventura County Star that just as Hurricane Katrina exposed the plight of many African Americans in 2005, California’s freeze is revealing the serious problems faced by farmworkers, including major problems with federal immigration policy.

The UFW web site, www.ufw.org, features an Action Center with an appeal to Gov. Schwarzenegger and Sen. Feinstein, and regular updates on the farmworkers’ situation.

mbechtel @ pww.org