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'Deplorable, Heartbreaking': Officials Pledge to Investigate Labor Conditions at Mushroom Farms Targeted in Half Moon Bay Shootings

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An aerial view of a number of trailers on a farm site.
An aerial view of some trailers that house farmworkers and their families at California Terra Garden in Half Moon Bay, as seen on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. The suspect in the mass killing is believed to have lived with his wife in one of the trailers.  (Paul Kuroda/Washington Post, via Getty Images)

California and local officials say they plan to investigate potential wage theft and safety violations at the two Half Moon Bay farms where a gunman murdered seven of his co-workers on Monday.

“The workers were living in very, very poor conditions. Some were in very old trailers and others were living in shacks without running water or electricity,” San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told KQED, after his staff this week toured workers’ living quarters at California Terra Garden, the site of the first shooting, and where the suspect lived. “Really a type of living circumstance that I don’t think any of us think should exist in this country.”

Wagstaffe noted that he was familiar only with living conditions at that farm, and not at Concord Farms, the site of the second shooting.

But, he said, San Mateo County officials would look into potential labor violations at both farm sites.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom called out the appalling living conditions of the mostly Latino and Asian immigrant agricultural workers on the two farms, some of whom, he said, live in on-site shipping containers and make as little as $9 an hour.

“Some of you should see where these folks are living, the conditions they are living in, in shipping containers. Folks getting $9 an hour with no health care, no support, no services,” Newsom said. “But they’re taking care of our health and providing a service to us each and every day.”

Following his visit to California Terra Garden this week, San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller tweeted photos of worker housing, describing the conditions as “deplorable” and “heartbreaking.”

Despite Half Moon Bay’s location less than 30 miles south of San Francisco, agriculture remains a major part of the local economy, where lush flower farms dot the rolling hills above the ocean, and Brussels sprouts, artichokes and pumpkins are among the area’s highest-yielding crops.

Some 60% of California’s agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Fears of deportation or workplace retaliation, farmworker advocates say, often keep workers from speaking out about unfair and sometimes illegal labor practices.

In 2021, the average agricultural worker in California was paid just $15.28 an hour, and earned a yearly wage of $31,770, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Farmworkers earning such low wages often have few housing options, particularly in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive regions in the state, said Cynthia Rice, director of litigation, advocacy and training at California Rural Legal Assistance. And if they choose to live where they work to save money on housing, they are often more vulnerable to wage theft and other abuses, she said.

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“Once an employer provides a worker housing, the worker becomes dependent on them not only for their wages but for their housing security and the security of their families,” Rice said.

A spokesperson for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health — also known as Cal/OSHA — and the state Labor Commissioner’s office, which investigates wage theft complaints, said the state’s inspection will “ensure that employees are being afforded all the protections of California labor laws.”

The spokesperson also emphasized that most workers in California, including agricultural workers, are “protected by the state’s labor laws and workplace safety and health regulations, regardless of their immigration status.”

District Attorney Wagstaffe also said that his office could potentially prosecute the owners of the farms, if evidence of serious violations was uncovered.

It would be familiar territory for Wagstaffe, who in 2021 prosecuted a Texas-based owner of a hemp farm in Half Moon Bay for withholding workers’ wages for six weeks.

Local labor advocates and city officials are hopeful the current focus on working conditions at farm sites in the area will spur positive changes.

“We have exposed how our farmworker community is living, let’s not ignore that. The mental health support they need, let’s not ignore that,” Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquin Jiménez Ureña told reporters. “Many come to this community for the pumpkin [festival] and ignore the farmworkers. Not today.”

Rice, of California Rural Legal Assistance, stressed that it shouldn’t take a mass shooting to bring light to the inequality that many farmworkers endure on a regular basis.

“It’s horrifying to think that it takes the death of so many people who are grouped together by virtue of the fact that they work to put food on our tables,” Rice said. “It will be another tragedy if there is no follow-up by enforcement agencies or others who can help these workers out.”

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