The San Mateo County coast is a case study in contradictions. Teslas pass tractors on Highway 1. Highly paid executives buy up 6,000-square-foot homes overlooking the Pacific, while minimum-wage workers struggle to pay rent.
As the cost of living in the region skyrockets, farmworkers tilling the fields south of Pacifica are increasingly priced out of housing. The result is a dwindling number of workers in an industry that was once the economic engine of the community but has become difficult to sustain.
“Farmworkers are not able to afford to stay on the coast,” said Half Moon Bay City Councilman and ALAS Farmworker Program and Outreach Director Joaquin Jimenez.
Within San Mateo County, an annual income of $146,350 is considered low-income. Those making $54,800 or less are considered extremely low income, and within the bottom 30 percent of wage earners within the county. According to Jimenez, farmworkers in the area earn $25,000 a year on average.
Half Moon Bay has a cost of living almost two and a half times that of the United States average. The median home cost is $1,199,600 while in the country as a whole it is $231,200.
“We need farmworkers. If things keep going the way they are going, in 10 years, you're going to see more empty fields,” said Jimenez.
The availability of farm labor has become a major concern along the Coastside, in California, and across the country. In a survey by the California Farm Bureau, 56 percent of participating farmers reported that they had been unable to hire the employees necessary to harvest their crops.
For years, farmers on the Coastside have struggled to find what they consider to be an adequate number of workers. The amount of crops planted by farmers has decreased with fewer workers to harvest them.
“You try to match whatever labor you have with the amount of crops you have,” David Lea, owner of Cabrillo Farms, explained. “Once you plant the acres and realize you don't have enough guys, there's nowhere to go and get that extra guy that we need anymore.”
Farms like Cabrillo have expanded opportunities for housing in recent years which has saved them from feeling the full effects of industry-wide shortages. In 2016, Cabrillo Farms built two modular three-bedroom homes for laborers in Half Moon Bay as part of a pilot program by the county to assess workers' needs.
“If we didn't have houses here on the ranch, you know, it'd be almost impossible to keep up the workforce, because it's just so expensive to live here in the Bay Area,” said Lea.
Farmworkers like Yesenia Garcia, who has worked at Cabrillo for 12 years, rely on housing provided by their employers. However, there are more workers than there is housing available to them.
“My coworkers sometimes need to get another job so they are able to make enough money to pay rent because rent is getting too high,” she said. “I noticed some of them are moving out of town because they're not making enough money to live here because prices are so expensive.”
Federal and state housing standards for temporary farm labor require employer-owned housing to meet standards that include running water, adequate heat, sufficient kitchen and bathroom facilities, and beds spaced a certain distance apart to prevent overcrowding.
Though Lea spent about $60,000 to upgrade water, sewage and electrical systems to meet building and fire codes in his housing units, advocates attest that most owners do not go to these lengths.
Enforcement of housing standards is often lenient, according to Ilene Jacobs, director of litigation and advocacy for California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. Federal housing standards often conflict. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration maintains that at least 100 square feet of living space be provided to each worker in temporary labor housing, while anything less than 165 square feet per person is considered overcrowding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It’s impossible not to observe,” said Jacobs. “The way farmworkers are treated, it is somehow seen as OK for them to sleep in bunks, to not have their own bathroom, their own shower, or a huge amount of privacy.”
Still, many workers are grateful for these housing options. Jacobs explained that farmworkers are afraid to complain about the conditions of their housing for fear of the alternative.
“They're afraid they’re going to be fired,” she said. “If they complain, they fear their employers will say, ‘OK, you don't like this housing, so we won't give you anything.’”
Most U.S. farmworkers are migrants, many of them undocumented. As the domestic labor force diminishes, requests for H-2A visas have increased. According to the USDA, the number of H-2A visas requested and approved has increased from 48,000 in 2005 to nearly 258,000 in 2019.
Migrant farmworkers’ legal and political security is precarious without institutional political representation. Farmworkers often rely on collective organizing to advocate for better working conditions, wages, and vocational security.
Organizing has become more difficult with the recent Supreme Court ruling in Cedar Point Nursery v Hassid, which invalidated a decades-old California rule that allowed union organizers to meet with farmworkers at their place of work. The California statute requiring farms to provide unions access to their property for up to three hours a day, 120 days a year was deemed unconstitutional.
Without advocacy efforts, circumstances can quickly become dire for farmworkers. According to Jacobs, farmworkers are often discriminated against within the housing market because of race, national origin and language barriers. When housing isn’t provided to them, they are left with few alternatives.
“Many farmworkers work without having any shelter or housing associated with their work,” said Jacobs. “We've certainly had farmworkers who are clients who live in their cars, who live in fields, who live in homeless encampments.”
Jacobs attests that food prices have remained relatively inexpensive because farm labor is so inexpensive. Farmworkers’ wages make up a small fraction of the price paid by consumers. Large wage increases for farmworkers would have little effect on consumers’ wallets. A National Geographic study reported that farmworkers’ share of each U.S. household’s annual grocery bill is only $45. If farmworker wages were raised by 47 percent, grocery bills would go up just $21.15 a year, or $1.76 a month per household.
“People could afford a few cents more in order to make sure that the people who are providing the food have a living wage and a place and a place to live that is decent,” said Jacobs.
The economic needs of farms and the rights of farmworkers are consistently at odds. As farmworkers struggle to make a living wage, it has become more difficult for those in the agriculture industry to compete with jobs in restaurants and warehouses that offer things that farmers can’t afford — like salary bonuses, less physically demanding tasks and air conditioning.
Like the fields of produce that they care for, farmers and farmworkers cannot survive if they are forgotten.
“I think I've been looking for four extra guys for 10 years now,” said Lea. “I still haven’t found them.”