Amid renewed state and federal efforts to protect agricultural workers regardless of immigration status, a Healdsburg vineyard management company has agreed to pay out a few hundred thousand dollars for unlawful retaliation.
Shaded by a towering palm in the Healdsburg Plaza, a collection of community members, workers, organizers and lawyers from a California’s state labor agency spoke about the recent settlement between Mauritson Farms, a vineyard management company, and 21 seasonal H2A visa vineyard workers. Davin Cardenas addressed the assembled crowd first.
"This is something that could’ve been taken care of in private," Cardenas said. "Dialoguing, using human decency as our guide, and we tried."
Cardenas is an organizer with North Bay Jobs with Justice.
The nonprofit worker advocacy group helped several of Mauritson’s former H2A workers raise complaints about bad working conditions to Mauritson management in 2021.
During the 2022 harvest, the company didn't rehire the 21 H2A workers whom they had employed for the 2019, '20, and 2021 harvest seasons.
That's a move which prompted an official complaint to the state labor board - filed on the workers' behalf by Jobs with Justice.
An official investigation found Mauritson had retaliated against the workers, and the company ultimately agreed to settle and pay out $328,077 in lost wages.
Mauritson Farms said the company believes it did not violate labor laws but decided to settle as a business decision.
Worker-organizer Ana Salgado said the victory sets an important example.
"I think we are sending the message to all the workers that they can trust in their community members they can trust, and people like these organizations that they gonna help them to fight for their rights," Salgado said.
So too said Julia Montgomery, general counsel for the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, referred to as ALRB.
"It shows what can be achieved when local nonprofit leaders come together with the state," Montgomery said.
Salgado said importantly, the case demonstrates support from the state.
"To be honest, some days you feel like you are weak against them, but when people like them, like the Labor Commission, they are supporting you, it's because they really care," Salgado said. "They really care about those rights."
Healdsburg council member Chris Herrod, who spoke during the press conference, said the community is no longer looking the other way when worker rights are violated.
"There's been a taboo about talking about workers' rights, about worker safety, about equal pay," Herrod said. "Those topics are, they're wide open now. We're in the paper, we're in the plaza, and we're not gonna stop here. I mean, these are all values that everybody, I think can get behind: communication, collaboration, respect for each other."
Montgomery said state labor regulators stand in support of the rights of all farm workers, but wants one vulnerable group especially, to know they’re protected by state law.
"H2A workers in particular that, that they do have rights and there are people out there who will support them, namely the ALRB and other local leaders," Montgomery said.
An emailed statement sent to KRCB News Wednesday quotes Mauritson Farms general manager Cam Mauritson as saying the company "strongly believes that we were not in any violation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. This settlement is strictly a business decision that allows us to resolve this issue without the need for further litigation. We look forward to focusing on the needs of our business, its employees, and the growing season."