Placeholder Image photo credit: Tony Webster/Nipomo Farmworkers
Farmworkers photographed in Nipomo in San
Luis Obispo County.

As state labor regulators announced this week in a case at a Healdsburg winery, exploitation and retaliation in California’s fields and vineyards continues.

Now there's a new state effort offering free legal assistance to farmworkers confronting workplace disputes.

The program is aimed at helping California’s agricultural workers stand up for their rights.

That's by offering free legal assistance to California’s farm and agricultural workers who are involved in "labor investigations", regardless of immigration status, said Sebastian Sanchez.

"A large amount of farm workers who did not report violations, did so because of their concern about, uh, retaliation related to their immigration status," Sanchez said.

Sanchez is with the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

In the past, California has helped connect farm workers with nonprofit legal assistance, but Sanchez said a role was identified for the state to fill directly.

"Over half of California's farm worker population is undocumented and, and that creates a very large problem," Sanchez said. "There was a clear need for this kind of support to be provided to farm workers."

California’s program is not an isolated effort either - federal directives call for “deferred action for undocumented individuals who are victims of, or witnesses to, violations of labor rights,” according to a January announcement by the Department of Homeland Security.

Sanchez said any number of issues could lead a worker to seek legal assistance from the new program.

"Violations related to, to wages, to the hours worked, to rest periods, meal periods, or it's related to whether workers are getting the required training or protective equipment," Sanchez said. "If they're getting shade, if they're getting enough water. Any of those situations can, can lead to threats of retaliation."

Sanchez said one instance where workers could use the free legal assistance took place at Healdsburg’s Mauritson Farms.

"These workers were not brought back," Sanchez said. "They were retaliated against for filing complaints."

Mauritson Farms recently agreed to pay over 300,000 dollars to settle a complaint before California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, with 21 H2A visa workers.

A board investigation found the winery retaliated against the workers by not rehiring those individuals during the 2022 vineyard harvest season.

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