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Sonoma County farmworkers say they’re shut out of evacuation zone policy revamp

Sonoma County farmworkers say their voices are missing in the redevelopment of a local policy that would determine when vineyard owners and other employers can bring workers into evacuated areas threatened by wildfire or other natural disasters.

Some of those farmworkers and community supporters, a group of about 80 people, picketed the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management office on Thursday afternoon to voice their concerns about working under such conditions.

They also shared language they would like to see incorporated into the revamped protocols.

Sonoma County winegrowers, along with the newly formed Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees advocacy group, however, say local vineyard owners already follow safety protocols. They contend no extra worker protections are needed.

Nevertheless, Thursday’s demonstrators chose to picket the county’s emergency management agency because it is the lead agency responsible for developing an update to the policy, said Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, the local labor advocacy nonprofit that organized the gathering.

The county has proposed three dates for community stakeholder meetings to discuss the policy but each, including one that was supposed to happen earlier this month, have been canceled, Bell Alper said.

Prior attempts to meet with emergency management department officials also have been fruitless, he added.

But, at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, when the group tried to enter the county building where the agency’s offices are housed, members found the doors locked. The department lists its business hours online as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.

“Workers are feeling frustrated that they are on the front lines and are the most impacted by any potential policy but have not been included this entire year in developing this policy,” Bell Alper said.

Thursday’s picket effort represents a ramping up of earlier efforts by North Bay Jobs with Justice and local farmworkers to ensure that their three worker demands are added into the county’s evacuation zone access policy.

The demands are:

  • Language justice, which means workers would receive important emergency information in their native language;
  • Hazard pay, which would compensate them for the risk they incur while working in an evacuated area;
  • Disaster insurance, which would guarantee them wages even when emergency conditions, such as the presence of wildfire smoke, make it too dangerous to work.

Last summer, North Bay Jobs with Justice introduced these provisions, along with a couple others, as part of an initial push to convince local vineyard owners to address worker safety concerns. The effort gained little traction.

For many of the farmworkers who spoke at Thursday’s event, they see those demands as basic human rights.

“Workers have given a lot. Their bodies, their spirit,” said Margarita García, who worked the local grape harvest from 2017 to 2021, during which several large fires impacted the North Bay region. “I think they deserve the dignity to rest … and not risk their health.”

The county created an ad hoc committee in February to help with the development of the policy. Committee members include Sonoma County Supervisors Chris Coursey and Lynda Hopkins; the county’s equity director Alegría de la Cruz; Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith; and Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff James Naugle.

Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director, also sits on the committee. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment by Friday afternoon. A county spokesperson said the ad hoc committee was directing media inquiries to the county’s communications office.

Hopkins said the group’s primary goal was to gather community input, but it ran into challenges in securing a venue large enough to accommodate the hundreds of people anticipated to attend the event amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

An earlier community meeting the ad hoc hoped to hold on Zoom was scrapped because of concerns that the video conference platform was not accessible to the farmworker community, Hopkins said.

In place of the community stakeholder meeting, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will hold a workshop during its July 19 public board meeting to discuss the policy, a county spokesperson said via email.

While the ad hoc won’t recommend a specific policy to the board ahead of the meeting, county staff has been asked to bring forth a “spectrum of policy options” for supervisors’ consideration, Hopkins said. Staff has also created a matrix that shows how different counties are approaching access to evacuation zones in emergencies, she said.

Though the ad hoc had hoped to convene a community meeting, Hopkins said a benefit of the July 19 workshop is that each county supervisor will have the opportunity to listen directly from stakeholders before deciding which components they want to see in the local policy.

Coursey, the other board member on the ad hoc, said the change will expedite the process of creating an evacuation zone access policy because the board, not the ad hoc committee, will make the final decision.

He added that it was not likely the board, during its July 19 meeting, would have enough time to discuss the “social and labor issues” raised in connection with the evacuation zone access debate. He saw that as a larger issue that needed to include other types of workers that enter evacuation zones.

“Honestly, we have not put the time or work on those issues that we need to make the decision that we need to,” Coursey said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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