I think I am turning into a grumpy old lady. There are several signs – my frustration with people who use foul language in public settings around kids, terror when someone refers to me as “ma’am” and what seems to be new definitions or overuse of many words in the English language. The Pandemic has spawned the excessive use of the words pivot, transition, and the phrase “new normal”. In the last few years, words like an influencer, social distancing, and poser have taken off and expanded their reach. Samuel Johnson, the first person to author the English Dictionary in 1775, would probably be awestruck with how some of the most self-explanatory, pragmatic words have morphed into ambiguity. A great example of one of these words that have become complexed and vague is “farmworker”.
Do people in farming and ranching understand who a farmworker is? Absolutely. It’s the activist groups, local do-gooders, and even our elected officials that have taken it upon themselves to overuse and misconstrue the real-world definition of a farmworker or ag laborer. It is evident in many newspaper articles you read, comments made at public hearings, and propaganda shared by labor advocacy organizations that the urban definition of a farmworker is someone who may be employed in the agriculture industry, a person who is seeking work – possibly in farming, or a migrant worker who is at a day labor center looking to work at least for today in any line of work. The person seeking work may have been employed in farming in another country or county, but it doesn’t mean that they are a farmworker in our community.
Several industries in our county employ migrant workers, but our industry seems to be the one that is the most criticized and lambasted for what people believe to be the poor treatment of the workforce. I find it mindboggling. Not only do ag employers outpace all the other industries in providing workforce housing, but the level of government oversight of agriculture labor practices is extensive. Many of our commercial farmers, growers, and ranchers spend thousands of dollars per employee in recruitment, onboarding, safety training, and regulatory compliance. In the last decade, the months of employment for seasonal workers in the ag industry have expanded to nearly a year as more effort is put into vegetation management and fire protection. Our members are not going to the day labor centers and picking up employees to work a day or even a week – more likely the folks that do get hired for a day’s work are being employed by a homeowner seeking assistance for a small home repair, brush clearing or a landscaping project.
Last year when we were paving the way in workforce vaccination efforts we were criticized because interviewees who identified themselves as farmworkers at day labor centers had indicated they were not included in the vaccination program ongoing for essential workers. Isn’t this an oxymoron? If a person is unemployed seeking to work at any job (after all, they are at a day labor center) would they qualify as an essential worker, and more importantly, are they truly a farmworker?
There are local labor organizations that suggest that if a person works one day in farming, then they are considered a farmworker. Interesting. So, if I am extra in one day of a movie production, will I then be considered an actor? Often the soundbites being provided about wages and work conditions are being provided by spokespeople who are not our true ag labor force and are misrepresenting agriculture’s employment practices.
In September, the Board of Supervisors had a study session on the County’s Living Wage Ordinance (LWO). Originally adopted in 2015, the LWO had set a minimum wage requirement of $15 for all county employees and employees working for any company that contracted with the county. There are other requirements in the LWO, but you get the drift. The recent conversation around the LWO discussed bringing the minimum wage up to $17.08 and building in annual COLAs. I often ask myself why I listen to public comment on some of these agenda items because it does nothing but frustrate me. Several commentators rallied for the LWO to expand beyond county government and specifically, that this LWO needed to be applied to farmworkers. I got a chuckle from that since most of our ag laborers are making more than the $15 hourly wage currently in effect, and likely are earning well beyond the proposed minimum wage amount. And this doesn’t account for the housing benefit that some of our workforces realize. Yet, the misinformation that is strewed via social media and the biased polls conducted by labor organizations has become the mantra of many.
It’s time to right the wrong and “true-up” the definition of a farmworker, at least when it comes to the local urban dictionary. It needs to recognize the valuable men and women whose primary employment is in agriculture. Further, if our commercial farmers, ranchers, growers, and ag processors are going to be the accused in the court of public opinion when it comes to the employment practices surrounding farmworkers, then a person should only be recognized as a farmworker if they truly are working for a legit agriculture enterprise. And, finally, if the Press Democrat, a labor activist organization, a teller of tales, or creator of polls wants to discuss the working conditions of our labor force, they should interview folks who are true farmworkers, not posers.