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'I'm Afraid': Half Moon Bay Shootings Likely an Extreme Case of Workplace Violence

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A crime scene tape cordons off hot houses and RVs and a road in the background.
Police cordon off the crime scene of a mass shooting that left seven people dead and one injured on Monday, in Half Moon Bay, on Jan. 24, 2023. The shooting happened at two locations, with four people killed at one farm and three at another. A 66-year-old man named Chunli Zhao was identified as the suspect and taken into custody, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office said. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Updated 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29: Chunli Zhao, the man accused of killing seven people at two farms, said he was angered after his boss attempted to charge him $100 for damaged construction equipment, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told the Mercury News.

Wagstaffe also confirmed previous reporting by NBC Bay Area that Zhao confronted his boss and a co-worker, whom he blamed for a workplace accident, just before the shooting. The co-worker and boss whom Zhao confronted were reportedly among those shot.

Original story, Thursday, Jan. 26: Authorities are currently investigating whether the mass shooting in which seven agricultural workers were killed in Half Moon Bay on Monday was an instance of “workplace violence.”

Workplace violence, defined by the U.S. government as any act or threat of violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening behavior on a work site, is one of the leading causes of occupational deaths in the United States.

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But mass shooting events like the one in Half Moon Bay are still relatively rare for work sites, according to occupational health and safety experts, even though shootings have accounted for the majority of workplace homicides in recent years.

“I’m afraid. The truth is, you’re afraid because you never know what’s going to happen,” said Lorena Villalobos, who works at a flower nursery near one of the farms that was attacked.

On Monday, seven farmworkers were killed in back-to-back shootings at two mushroom farms, Concord Farms and California Terra Garden (formerly known as Mountain Mushroom Farm), in the coastal agricultural town of Half Moon Bay.

The suspect, 66-year-old Chunli Zhao, had worked at both sites and was a current employee at the first site he allegedly attacked, county law enforcement officials said.

“All of the evidence we have points to this being the instance of workplace violence,” San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus told reporters on Tuesday.

The farmworkers killed were Asian and Latino immigrants who lived at their work sites, as did children and other relatives.

Those killed include Zhishen Liu, 73; Aixiang Zhang, 74; Qizhong Cheng, 66; Jingzhi Lu, 64; Marciano Martínez Jiménez, 50; Yetao Bing, 43; and José Romero Pérez. Romero Pérez’s brother, Pedro, survived the attack and is now hospitalized. The ages of the Romero Pérez brothers have not yet been released. A family member told The Mercury News that Jose was in his late 30s and Pedro is in his 20s.

The attack is the deadliest mass shooting in San Mateo County’s history, according to District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe.

While workplace homicides ticked up from 2014 to 2019, the most recent year that data is available, mass shootings like the one in Half Moon Bay this week make up only a small fraction of incidents.

Generally, workplace homicides tend to follow crime rates around the country, said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration.

“Fatal workplace violence is a major issue,” Barab told KQED. But, “in terms of mass workplace shootings, those make major headlines and for good reason, but they don’t really account for any kind of significant proportion of homicides in the workplace.”

Workplace homicides peaked in 1994 at 1,080 and dropped significantly over the next two decades to 409 homicides in 2014. However, workplace homicides crept up between 2014 and 2019, from 409 to 454, or about 11%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About 21% of workplace homicides between 2015 and 2019 occurred in sales and related occupations. Security guards and police officers accounted for 19% of workplace homicides during the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And 79% of workplace homicides were shootings.

Villalobos, the flower nursery worker, said that her sister heard the gunshots from Monday’s attack while working next to one of the farms.

She acknowledged the difficult scenario, that the suspect was an employee at the farm, but said she would feel safer if more security measures were in place at work sites like hers.

“I think more security is needed, so it’s safer. Like guards, or just close the doors so only workers can come in,” said Villalobos.

Zhao is charged with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, plus enhancements on those counts for using a firearm.

Many people in the quiet coastal Half Moon Bay community remain on edge.

“We have calls from community members that would like to receive mental health support, who would like to speak with a clinician about what just happened in their lives,” said Vice Mayor Joaquín Jimenez Ureña. “Some of the workers are coming forward with comments like, ‘What can we do if it happens again?’ All these questions are going through their minds.”

KQED's Madi Bolaños contributed to this story.

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