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By Martin J. Bennett

Last year the trade publication Wine Enthusiast recognized Sonoma County as the ‘Wine Region of the Year,’ and the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association announced that 99 percent of the county vineyards achieved their ‘sustainability’ certification. But the county’s farmworkers­­­­­–who produce the wealth of the wine country–are mostly invisible to the public. Winegrowers and the media rarely recognize the actual value of their labor, and their contribution to the local economy is seldom acknowledged.

Most county farmworkers do not earn a living wage or receive employer-provided health insurance, lack access to affordable housing, and confront dangerous health and safety conditions on the job. A just, equitable and, sustainable recovery from the 2017 and 2019 wildfires must include new public policy and grower initiatives to improve the economic security and general health of farmworkers.

Nine out of 10 Sonoma County farmworkers are employed in the wine industry. Farm labor analyst Don Villarejo examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 Census and calculated the average hourly wage for a county farmworker employed directly by a farm operator for at least 150 days was $15.43 an hour; the weighted annual average income of all farmworkers who were used by growers and farm labor contractors was $21,920–these figures are likely slightly higher today due to recent increases in the minimum wage and new overtime requirements for farmworkers.

The Department of Labor National Agricultural Survey reports that few California farmworkers are employed full-time in agriculture: on average, they work just 36 weeks annually. UC Davis economist Phillip Martin calculated that in 2015 the average California farmworker, employed primarily in agriculture, earned only $20,500 annually. Three out of four California farmworkers had only one employer, and just 15 percent crossed the border or migrated between California agricultural regions.

Farmworkers and their families are working poor, belonging to one-third of the county workforce that cannot make ends meet. According to the California Budget and Policy Project, in 2017, two Sonoma County parents working full-time had to each earn $23.00 an hour or approximately $81,000 a year to support two children and pay for necessities—food, transportation, childcare, rental housing, and medical care. This very conservative estimate came before the dramatic 35 percent spike of median rents in the county following the 2017 Tubbs Fire.

Precarious Farmworker Working and Living Conditions

In 2018, Sonoma County growers and farm labor contractors employed approximately 11,060 vineyard workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An overlooked 2015 Sonoma County Department of Health Services report, ‘Sonoma County Farmworker Health Survey,’ based upon interviews with nearly 300 county farmworkers, provides insights into the working conditions and health of county farmworkers:

  • Nine in ten vineyard workers surveyed were male, under the age of 40, born in Mexico and year-round county residents; 29 percent single; 24 percent married and living with a partner; 43 percent married and living with a partner and children.
  • Just 30 percent of the farmworkers had health insurance provided by their employer, the state, or spouse’s plan; less than 10 percent of farmworkers received employer-provided medical benefits.
  • Ten percent of the county’s farmworkers reported an injury or illness on the job, due to repetitive motion tasks, constant lifting, and bending, pesticide poisoning, or prolonged exposure to heat and sunlight; 13 percent lacked consistent access to shelter and shade from the heat.
  • Most Sonoma County vineyard workers lived in unsubsidized rental housing or apartments; 30 percent received some housing financial assistance from their employer, including 14 percent who lived in grower-provided worksite housing.
  • Housing is unaffordable for the vast majority of farmworkers; they pay 30-60 percent of gross monthly income in rent; and two-thirds of farmworkers lived in overcrowded housing due to the high cost of rental housing. Overcrowding directly impacts the physical and mental health of family members and the educational achievement of farmworker children.

A 2015 study by the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy found that 60 percent of the 300 Ventura County farmworkers interviewed had experienced one form of wage theft in the previous year, and 23 percent had two or more thefts. Various types of wage theft include: paying for fewer hours than worked; paying less than time and a half pay for overtime; cutting back two legally mandated 10-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch break; assigning work tasks before clocking-in or after clocking out.

The Wine Industry and Farmworker Health and Safety

In addition to low wages, high rates of wage theft, and lack of access to affordable housing, farm labor is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 2017 farmworker fatality rate was far higher than police officers and construction workers, and nearly twice the rate of firefighters. Farmworker disability rates were three times greater than in the general population. According to the county Department of Health, 44 percent of local farmworkers self-reported their health as poor or fair – three times that of the whole population.

Of the numerous health and safety risks facing Sonoma County vineyard field workers, the most common are muscle-and-skeletal conditions—such as chronic back and neck strains and biomechanical injuries from bending, repetitive motion, the prolonged holding of awkward postures and heavy lifting. The county Health Department study points out that “cost or lack of health insurance were the main barriers to receiving needed medical care and medications.” If a worker lacks health insurance and cannot seek immediate medical attention, muscular-skeletal injuries may be aggravated and recovery delayed.

Accidents involving heavy equipment and transportation to and from work also are quite common. Exposures to heat, pesticides, and wildfire smoke—all now intensified by the climate crisis—are significant health hazards for vineyard workers.

Farmworkers and Pesticide Exposure

California and Sonoma County farmworkers—and often their families—are routinely exposed to a toxic pesticidal soup. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) estimates that Sonoma County farmers applied 2.5 million pounds of pesticides in 2017 and 93 percent of that total was applied to wine grapes.

In the early 1990s, the EPA estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 U.S. farmworkers were annually injured or became ill from on-the-job exposure to pesticides; the number of unreported cases is likely much higher given misdiagnosed and unreported incidents. Farmworkers suffer more chemical-related illnesses than any other workforce sector. Both the airborne drift from sprayed pesticides and residues on vines and soil directly affect farmworkers. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that many growers often do not post an adequate notice when fields are sprayed, neglect to enforce ‘no entry’ periods after pesticide applications, and fail to provide protective gear and pesticide safety training.

Also, the National Center for Farmworker Health estimates that the lack of bathroom and cleanup facilities at work put entire families at risk because farmworkers bring pesticides into their homes on contaminated clothes, shoes, tools, and skin. Aerial pesticide drift from the fields also can impact adjacent farmworker residential communities.

A 2012 study by the Council on Environmental Health documents high rates of asthma, childhood cancer, and abnormal neural development among rural farmworkers’ children. Sonoma County has the third-highest child cancer rates in California.

The herbicide Roundup, one of the most controversial synthetic pesticides, is a weed killer containing glyphosate—a chemical that the World Health Organization classified as a probable carcinogen in 2015. Scientific research has linked Roundup to such chronic health problems as infertility and birth-defects; attention deficit, autism, and other developmental disorders; neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s); respiratory conditions (asthma, chronic bronchitis); and cancers (non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate, and skin).

The CDPR reported that 62,543 pounds of glyphosate was applied to Sonoma County vineyards in 2017. That same year glyphosate was added to the California Proposition 65 list of known cancer-causing chemicals.

Roundup is also harmful to consumers’ health: in 2015, the nonprofit advocacy organization Moms Across America reported finding low levels of glyphosate in all ten of the well-known Sonoma, Mendocino, and Napa wines tested (based upon testing by the commercial laboratory Microbe Inotech).

Sonoma County Conservation Action has initiated a grassroots Toxic-Free Future campaign to ban Roundup. The County of Sonoma and the cities of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Windsor, Healdsburg, and Sonoma now prohibit Roundup application on public property such as parks, roads, schools, open space, and marinas. Dozens of other California counties, cities, school districts, and the UC system have approved full or partial bans of glyphosate. But the governor and legislature have yet to enact a complete ban in agriculture.

Farmworkers and Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke has now become a challenging health hazard for county farmworkers. Seven of the ten most destructive wildfires in California have occurred in the last five years—three in Sonoma County. Wildfire smoke contains high levels of microscopic particulate matter that can affect cardiovascular health, reduce lung function, and increase the risks of respiratory disorders.

The legislature failed to act in 2019 to establish labor and health and safety standards for outdoor workers during wildfires. However, Cal/OSHA did implement a new rule in 2018 that requires employers to continuously monitor air quality during wildfires and take action when smoke reaches an ‘unhealthy’ level (150) on the Air Quality Index. Employers must attempt to reduce worker exposure to smoke by altering work hours or location; relocating employees to buildings with filtered air, if possible; or providing workers with N-95 respirators (that reduce smoke exposure tenfold) and training proper respirator use.

But respirator masks are uncomfortable and can impair breathing when used for hours at a time. Respirators also must be individually fitted and tested for maximum effectiveness, and may not fit over facial hair or broad facial features. Sonoma County health officer, Dr. Celeste Phillips, told Kaiser Health News that the best way for workers to stay safe is to limit time outdoors.

Most farmworkers are paid by the shift and cannot afford time off–particularly during peak harvest, which now extends into the dry, hot, and windy fall conditions most conducive to wildfires. Most farmworkers have no paid sick leave and are ineligible for unemployment benefits. Undocufund was established in 2017 by county labor, faith, and immigrant rights organizations to assist unauthorized immigrants harmed by the fires. According to North Bay Jobs with Justice Executive Director Mara Ventura, “one of the most common hardships for undocumented residents who need assistance is sudden income loss due to evacuation, lost workdays and/or job loss.”

In addition, the Sonoma County Department of Health reports that a majority of county farmworkers lack work authorization and more than 40 percent work for farm labor contractors, who determine their housing, transportation, and cash flow. Many farmworkers fear retaliation, deportation, and job loss; they are unlikely to change work conditions unless directed by the employer or to have N95 masks if not employer-provided.

Towards an Equitable and Sustainable Wine Industry

A sustainable wine industry is impossible in the North Bay without a living wage, comprehensive benefits, and dramatically improved working and living conditions for farmworkers.

To address runaway inequality and working poverty, 33 California cities and one county have implemented local citywide minimum wage laws higher than the state’s of $13/hr. for large employers and $12/hr. for small on January 1, 2020 (phasing-in to $15/hr. for all employers on January 1, 2023). Last year Petaluma approved a $15/hr. citywide minimum wage for large employers and $14/hr. for small employers on January 1, 2020. The Petaluma minimum wage will increase to $15 for all employers (plus a COLA) on January 1, 2021. Subsequently, Santa Rosa approved a citywide $15/hr. minimum wage on July 1, 2020, for large employers and $14/hr. for small. On January 1st, 2021, the Santa Rosa minimum wage will increase to $15/hr. for all employers (plus a COLA).
The Alliance for A Just Recovery—a broad coalition comprised of every major labor, environmental, immigrant rights and faith organizations in Sonoma County—proposes that the Board of Supervisors start by enacting a countywide minimum wage mandating $15/hr. for all employers on January 1, 2021 (plus an annual COLA), that will align a county $15 minimum wage floor with the two largest cities.

To also improve farmworker health and give farmworkers time off from work during hazardous wildfire conditions, the Board of Supervisors should approve a paid sick leave ordinance for unincorporated county areas, similar to 2006 legislation passed by San Francisco supervisors, which enables all workers to accrue up to nine paid sick days a year for preventive health or existing health conditions—or to care for ill family members. Sonoma County’s paid sick leave law should enable all outdoor workers to take paid time off when air quality reaches hazardous levels during wildfires.

In addition, during the region’s next air quality-impacting wildfire, vintners should strictly comply with the new California OSHA rule and prepare now to protect farmworkers from wildfire smoke—including training all workers to use N95 masks.

Lastly, winegrowers should immediately halt Roundup applications and join with local government, environmental organizations, and consumers to eliminate synthetic pesticides throughout Sonoma County. The entire industry should plan for the transition to organic and biodynamic wine production to protect the health of growers, workers, and consumers, and promote regenerative land management. Benzinger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, Preston Winery in Healdsburg, Hopland’s Fetzer Winery–and seventeen small Sonoma County wineries managed by Phil and Sam Coturri and Enterprise Vineyards–have already charted that course for others to follow.

The Sonoma County Winegrowers’ sustainability certification should include the Agricultural Justice Project’s social justice screen, to ensure “adherence to workplace standards that protect worker rights…and address fair wages and benefits for workers, housing, workplace health and safety, as well as children on farms.”

In 2018, the Press Democrat estimated the value of the North Coast grape harvest–including Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties–at a record $2 billion–and the farmworkers harvest at 588,864 tons of grapes, nearly one-third more than 2017. Sonoma and Napa counties produce most of California’s premium wines that yield the highest profits. Premium wine production is dominated by three global corporations including Constellation Brands, E and J Gallo, and The Wine Group. These companies have the resources to create an equitable and genuinely sustainable wine industry that can become a model for the entire world.

Martin J. Bennett is Instructor Emeritus of History at Santa Rosa Junior College and a member of North Bay Jobs with Justice. He served on the Sonoma County Conservation Action board from 2005 to 2015. Contact him at