The H-2A problem: Santa Maria growers struggle to house foreign farmworkers

It’s 4 p.m., and sunshine floods the parking lot at the motel on the corner of North Broadway and East Bunny streets in Santa Maria. Two men lie on their backs on the motel’s small lawn, unwinding after a long day of work in the fields. Behind them, a few guys lean against the second-floor balcony fencing, talking on cell phones, puffing cigarettes, and fiddling with a soccer ball. Below, a food cart makes its way through the lot, drawing a few customers from their rooms to buy snacks.

The motel used to be the Budget Inn. It housed dozens of Santa Maria residents and witnessed its share of stabbings and a shooting before its former owners shut the place down in 2013.

Now, it’s called Broadway Eleven, and it’s a temporary home for 130 men—all from Mexicali, and all employed as farmworkers for Bonita Packing Company (Bonipak) under H-2A, a federal program for foreign farm laborers.

Antonio Cervantes works as the supervisor for the motel, which was converted to H-2A housing last year.

“There are hardly any problems,” Cervantes said of the workers, who live four to a room. “Once in a while they get a little bit rough, but not major. Not seriously. They know each other from back home. The four people that live in the same room, they already know each other very, very well. Some of these guys even grew up together.”

House rules

click to enlarge The H-2A problem: Santa Maria growers struggle to house foreign farmworkers
WAGES: The hourly H-2A wage in California is $11.89. For similar work in Mexico, laborers might receive about a third of that, according to Crispin Bermudez of Elkhorn Packing Company.

Four people per room sounds like a tight fit, but it’s in line with the stringent H-2A housing regulations set by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). According to Ruben Lugo, law enforcement coordinator for the DOL’s western region, the agency sets meticulous standards for space allotment, amenities, and housing conditions for H-2A lodging—which must be provided by employers at no cost to their workers.

“The employer has to maintain that safety standard, that housing standard, throughout the duration of the contract,” Lugo told the Sun. And if employers fail to do so, there are consequences: “When there’s absolute resistance to compliance, as a last resort, there’s revocation. We can end their certification and debar them from using the program in the future.”

Even with the DOL’s regulations, the high-density housing remains concerning for some. Cervantes said neighbors complained when Bonipak’s H-2A workers first moved into Broadway Eleven, but the objections have since subsided.

“This place used to be a drug-addict house,” he said. “A lot of prostitution. So they changed the neighborhood. When they remodeled the whole thing, they changed the neighborhood. It’s a good thing.”

While the domestic farmworker supply has dwindled in recent years, H-2A has boomed—creating a host of complications for employers, who must find suitable housing and provide free transportation for their guest laborers. As a result, agriculture companies are converting motels, retirement homes, and houses all around the Santa Maria Valley into H-2A housing, angering some community members who dislike the idea of living near high-density housing situations.

Public pushback

In 2014, Conejo Capital Partners agreed to purchase La Plaza Apartments in Guadalupe to use for H-2A housing. Less than two weeks later, Guadalupe’s City Council passed an ordinance placing new regulations on boarding houses.

Conejo Capital then canceled escrow, prompting a lawsuit by the apartments against the city alleging the boarding house ordinance “was enacted for a targeted, singular purpose—to thwart the sale of La Plaza Apartments and prevent its use for boarding houses, including H-2A housing.”

Steve Scaroni, attorney for the city of Guadalupe, said the city denies the lawsuit’s allegations. Had Conejo Capital submitted a project and applied for a conditional use permit, as the new ordinance required, the city may have worked with them on converting the apartments into H-2A housing.

In April of this year, an arsonist destroyed an unfinished housing structure in Nipomo. The structure was one of seven homes in a development purchased by Greg and Donna France of Mar Vista Berry, who intended to house up to 112 H-2A workers in the development. The plan drew concerns from neighbors and ultimately spurred violent action on the part of an arsonist. 

Following the fire, the Frances withdrew their H-2A housing plans and backed out of the development purchase.

Despite such backlash against H-2A housing, farmers say their need for the program is only increasing with time. According to an email to the Sun from U.S. Employment Development Department (EDD) officials, the farm labor shortage stems from an aging domestic labor force and a decrease in immigration from Mexico to the U.S.

The result: Growers are using H-2A workers more than ever. Where California hosted only 3,000 guest farmworkers in 2012, that number nearly tripled by 2015, during which California agriculture employers used 8,591 workers, according to the EDD’s email. Santa Barbara and Monterey counties have seen the largest increase of guest workers, mostly for harvesting strawberries and lettuce.

A new approach

Bonipak is among local agricultural employers who have struggled to fill their workforce and turned to H-2A for help. Following a June 1 approval by the county Planning Commission, Bonipak is moving forward with plans to build a 600-capacity farmworker housing unit along Highway 1 outside of Santa Maria.

click to enlarge The H-2A problem: Santa Maria growers struggle to house foreign farmworkers
OLD FRIENDS: According to Antonio Cervantes, manager of Broadway Eleven, most of the men living there have known each other for years, and issues between them rarely arise.

When Bonipak began using H-2A workers five years ago, the company hired about 70 people, according to CEO Joe Leonard. This year, it’s employing more than 200 through H-2A, and its workforce is still short by 20 to 25 percent.

“We’re bringing in the supplemental support from H-2A, but none of us feel like we have an adequate supply of labor at this point,” Leonard told the Sun. “And it’s been like this for the past couple of years. We’re adding and adding, but we’re not quite there.”

The new housing project, called Curletti Ranch, should help. Leonard said he hopes to break ground on it by September and have up to 400 laborers living there next season. Though the facility is somewhat isolated from other communities, Leonard said it’s more efficient because it’s close to the worksites.

“This would be better than having multiple people in residential areas where the bus has to drive down the street, pick up the labor, bring it to the fields early in the morning, and then bring them back mid-day,” he said.

An isolated housing facility also alleviates pressures from rental rates and traffic issues in residential areas, he said.

“I think it’s good for the community and it seems to make sense to us for all practical purposes, and we’re not doing this lightly,” Leonard said.

Farmworker exploitation

Bonipak is the only local H-2A employer taking this particular approach to the housing issue. According to the DOL’s public job registry, more than 20 employers in the Santa Maria area are currently using guest workers—and not all of them have gone about it the right way.

click to enlarge The H-2A problem: Santa Maria growers struggle to house foreign farmworkers
KICKING BACK: Two H-2A workers lie on a patch of grass in Broadway Eleven’s parking lot following a day of work in the fields.

On March 10, 2015, Cresencio Martinez-Mendez put in a work order for six H-2A workers for his company, Mixtepec Farming. On May 20 of this year, two of those employees filed a lawsuit against Mixtepec, alleging 12 violations of employment law.

While traveling from their hometown of Via Guerrero, Mexico, to Santa Maria, plaintiffs Fernando Nava and Emmanuel Rogel Flores claim they paid their own travel and meal expenses, which violates H-2A requirements. While living in Santa Maria, Nava and Flores were charged $250 per month for rent and $20 per week for transportation costs, also in violation of H-2A, according to court documents.

The workers were also allegedly denied rest and meal breaks, overtime pay, and compensation for travel time—and then they were “terminated without cause” and not paid their owed wages.

Cynthia Rice, director of litigation, advocacy, and training at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), represents Nava and Flores in their case against Mixtepec. She said this type of mistreatment “is symptomatic of the H-2A program” because farmers think foreign workers won’t understand their legal rights and are too fearful of losing their jobs to take action.

“It’s really easy to exploit them and kind of shave their wages off,” Rice told the Sun.

Rice predicted such exploitation will only continue as H-2A grows. She also said she disapproves of Bonipak’s Curletti Ranch plan, because by building housing specifically for temporary foreign workers, the company is simply perpetuating the domestic labor shortage.

“If you’re going to invest in housing, why wouldn’t you invest in housing that benefits year-round workers?” she said. “That’s not what they’re doing. They’re building barracks.”

Ideally, laborer housing would support “settled” workers who are raising families and contributing to the local community, Rice said.

Santa Maria resident and farmworker rights activist Pedro Reyes said the shortage of domestic laborers stems from poor working conditions.

“No one in their right mind is going to go and stick themselves in those fields because there’s complete exploitation,” Reyes said. “And that’s one of the reasons why I’m against the idea of guest workers.”

He said growers should focus on improving those conditions rather than turning to H-2A, which he claims “only benefits them and justifies their need.”

“If these growers actually provided people with decent-paying jobs, medical care, and all the rights that you deserve as a worker, people, legal U.S. residents, would go out there and apply for those jobs,” Reyes said. “They are good, decent jobs. I don’t see no shame. I don’t see nothing bad about working in the field.”

The growers’ side

But farmers and labor contractors say they’re backed into a corner with the labor shortage, and H-2A is their only option. Carlos Castaneda of Castaneda and Sons, a labor contractor that provides workers to farmers in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, said his company works with about a dozen growers, many of whom have been with them for more than 20 years.

click to enlarge The H-2A problem: Santa Maria growers struggle to house foreign farmworkers
BROADWAY ELEVEN: Formerly the Budget Inn, this motel on North Broadway in Santa Maria currently houses 130 H-2A workers for Bonita Packing Company. Farmers, community members, and municipal governments have butted heads in recent years over how and where to house guest workers.

Castaneda and Sons is bringing in more than 150 H-2A workers this year, Castaneda said.

“Since ’91, we’ve never had a local [person] apply to a help wanted ad,” he said. “It’s all immigrant work.”

But when farmers go the extra mile to pay for workers to legally enter the U.S. and live here, they’re often met with backlash from the community.

Castaneda said the Nipomo arson in particular made him “livid,” since H-2A housing is hard enough to establish as it is.

“Ag is the backbone to this community, and to see it survive would mean the world to me. And for it to survive, you need a labor force, and the only way to bring in that labor force is through the H-2A program,” he said. “And the biggest hurdle to the H-2A program is housing.”

Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for the Western Growers Association, said farmers wouldn’t turn to H-2A if they didn’t have to, as the program is complicated and the application process is cumbersome.

“It is the only temporary worker program we have,” Resnick said. “We’re seeing more employers use it or contemplating using it in the near future, and that’s going to require that those employers provide free housing, and that’s how we get into the situation where agricultural and suburban areas clash.”

His solution: “The more housing that’s built, the better. They’re woefully short in the number of farmworker housing units that are available in the state.”

Meeting halfway

Bonipak’s housing plan seems to strike a compromise between the need to house large numbers of workers and the tension that comes with housing them in town. But opponents to the plan say it’s more of a “labor camp” than anything, and that it’s wrong to isolate the workers from the rest of the community.

Indeed, plans for Curletti Ranch consist of 30 1,443-square-foot bunkhouses, each housing 20 workers, and the project will sit several miles from the nearest residential community. At the June 1 Planning Commission meeting, Hazel Davalos, organizing director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, spoke out against the project.

“This is not housing,” Davalos said. “This is a labor camp. This labor camp is being placed far away from residential areas, the way we would put a sewage plant, a landfill, or a jail, but these are hundreds of human beings. The workers are incredibly isolated.”

click to enlarge The H-2A problem: Santa Maria growers struggle to house foreign farmworkers
A GROWING PROGRAM: Santa Barbara and Monterey counties have experienced the most significant increase of H-2A workers in California, primarily for harvesting lettuce and strawberries.

Davalos and Reyes take different stances in that Davalos thinks H-2A workers should integrate into the existing community, and Reyes disagrees. But both activists trace the tension surrounding H-2A to agriculture companies’ alleged mistreatment of farmworkers.

“If growers want more workers and expect the children of farmworkers to want to work in the fields, they should pay and treat people better,” Davalos said at the Planning Commission meeting.

Pushback against H-2A comes from all angles: Activists who inherently oppose the program because it allegedly keeps conditions low for domestic workers, those who just want to keep H-2A workers out of residential areas, and those who think the laborers should be more integrated into the community.

Resnick’s proposed solution: People should lay down their prejudices, because H-2A workers are here, their population is growing, and they need somewhere to live.

“[People] need to understand that if they live near ag areas, farmworkers need a place to live, too,” he said. “It’s not valid to oppose housing just because it’s going to be occupied by farmworkers. Farmworkers are hard-working people, and they live in our community.”

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at [email protected]. Executive Editor Camillia Lanham contributed.

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