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How Workers Took on a Sonoma County Vineyard Company Over Abuses — and Won

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A person with long hair and a plaid shirt stands in front of others holding signs reading "Farmworkers Deserve Disaster Pay" in an outdoor setting.
Farmworker Sandra de Leon attends a press conference at Healdsburg Plaza in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, on Monday, July 24, 2023. Farmworkers and advocates with the labor rights group North Bay Jobs With Justice gathered in the plaza to celebrate settling a lawsuit with Mauritson Farms Inc. after filing an unfair labor practices claim with California regulators. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

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This story contains a correction.

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auritson Farms Inc. in Sonoma County will pay $328,077 to 21 of its former workers as part of a settlement with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) — the largest monetary settlement the agency has reached at its Santa Rosa office. ALRB officials, along with dozens of labor advocates and farmworkers, announced the settlement at a press conference Monday evening in Healdsburg.

Mauritson Farms Inc., which manages vineyards, is a separate and distinct business from Mauritson Wines. Both businesses are owned by the Mauritson family.

Following an investigation spurred by the farmworkers’ complaints, ALRB officials determined that Mauritson Farms retaliated against an entire crew of former employees because some of them organized at the end of the 2021 growing season to speak out against unsafe working conditions in Mauritson’s vineyards.

“We must recognize that this is a victory started by workers to defend not just their rights, but their dignity as well,” said organizer Davin Cárdenas at Monday’s conference. Cárdenas is the director of organizing at North Bay Jobs With Justice (NBJWJ), a labor rights group that supported the former Mauritson employees through the ALRB investigation.

“This is a case that sets a precedent for other workers in the region,” he said.

The workers involved were immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, and were in the country on an H-2A visa, which lets agricultural workers stay in the U.S. for limited periods of time. KQED first reported last year that despite promises from company leadership, none of the workers who spoke out were called back from Oaxaca for the 2022 season. In its complaint filed against Mauritson this past March, the ALRB determined that Mauritson not rehiring these laborers constituted an illegal labor practice.

“When I got the news, I thanked God it went this way, because this was not at all easy. We were very afraid to speak up. It was a complicated process but you have to let go of that fear,” said Martín Sandoval Rivera, one of the workers who spoke up against the conditions at Mauritson Farms. He’s currently in Oaxaca, working several jobs to support his wife who is expecting their first child.

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Sandoval Rivera and his colleagues said they experienced verbal harassment from their supervisor, were denied shade while working in the fields on days hotter than 90 degrees and did not receive their break and lunch periods on a few occasions — all of which violates California labor regulations. Six of the workers, including Sandoval Rivera, sought the support of labor rights group North Bay Jobs With Justice (NBJWJ) to mediate the situation. NBJWJ arranged a meeting with the workers and company higher-ups in October 2021.

At that meeting, vineyard manager Cameron Mauritson promised that conditions would improve and assured the workers that he would hire them again in 2022 — relieving the workers’ biggest worry: being denied future employment for speaking up. Then the company — which workers said had previously handled the recruitment process directly using social media — chose to contract with a third-party recruiter, CIERTO Global, to handle hiring for the 2022 season.

The group from Oaxaca never had a real chance to come back. According to the ALRB complaint, CIERTO Global recruits exclusively from a completely different state in Mexico for grape-growing companies. On top of that, screengrabs from a Facebook group the Oaxacan workers shared with KQED showed that Mauritson management shared incorrect information on how workers should contact CIERTO for future employment. CIERTO representatives confirmed to KQED that Mauritson’s instructions to either submit a form at a specific location on CIERTO’s website or to email a given email address were false.

“These instructions do not reflect our practices involving any of the workers we serve,” a CIERTO representative said in an emailed response. “Mauritson’s instructions were not cleared or disseminated by CIERTO.”

When the workers realized what was happening, they alerted NBJWJ. In February 2022, organizers filed a claim with the ALRB on behalf of the six workers who attended the meeting with Mauritson. Six initially spoke up — but in its investigation, the ALRB found that Mauritson retaliated against the entire 21-person team the six workers belonged to.

The $328,077 settlement, which will benefit all 21 laborers, represents what the workers lost by missing the 2022 growing season, according to calculations from the ALRB. A hearing with an administrative law judge had been scheduled for later this summer, but the settlement concludes this process.

In a statement emailed to KQED, Mauritson Farms declared that it “strongly believes that [it was] not in any violation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). This settlement is strictly a business decision that allows us to resolve this issue without the need for further litigation.”

A group of people sit together holding signs reading "La Unión Hace La Fuerza" in an outdoor setting.
Farmworkers Antonio Flores (left) and his son Mateo, Rosalba Gutierrez (center) and Valentina Sosa (right) sit at the NBJWJ press conference announcing the settlement with Mauritson at Healdsburg Plaza on Monday. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

“After so much abuse, I think it’s fair that our rights are respected and we are respected for who we are,” said Miguel Ángel Bravo Silva, one of the six laborers who met with Mauritson. During the past year and a half, he’s hustled to work any job he can find in his rural Oaxacan community to support his wife and two children, and at the same time, kept in touch with ALRB officials who were investigating the situation.

For months, the ALRB worked to track down the 21 workers who were not rehired. After the 2021 season ended, many returned to remote villages in Oaxaca, where access to the internet and cell phone reception is extremely limited and for some, non-existent. Tracking folks down was one challenge, said ALRB regional director Jessica Arciniega. The other was establishing trust.

“With many of our cases, there’s challenges in maintaining communication with workers,” she said. “They [could be] unfamiliar with our process, they [could be] unfamiliar with us, as a government agency. and what we actually do. So they may not always feel 100% ready or comfortable to share all of this information.”

Workers are not just afraid of experiencing further retaliation from the same employer, but as KQED reported last year, many H-2A employers use a network of recruiters to block workers who speak up from finding a job in other agricultural industries. In that same story, KQED shared the story of Kevin and Samuel, two former Mauritson employees who were among the six that initially spoke up.

Kevin and Samuel were actually aliases for Sandoval Rivera and Bravo Silva, respectively.

At the time, both men were very afraid of what the repercussions would be if they shared their identities publicly during the ALRB investigation. As weeks turned into months, Sandoval Rivera felt less and less confident that there would be an answer from officials, especially as his family’s economic situation worsened. “Necessity makes you think many things,” he said.

Nevertheless, he and Bravo Silva are glad they waited for the results of the investigation and the settlement. This won’t just benefit them, Bravo Silva says, “but also the immigrant workers who are now working at that company, so that they are respected more and they don’t feel alone. There are laws that protect agricultural workers.”

Celebrating a hard-won victory

With banners and signs — many of them emblazoned with Emiliano Zapata’s quote “La tierra es de quien la trabaja,” or “The land belongs to those who work it with their hands” — farmworkers and NBJWJ organizers filled up part of Healdsburg’s main plaza for Monday’s press conference.

“You represent the farmworkers who are not able to be here today but whose courage has left us this legacy: that by fighting and finding allies, we, as workers, can achieve many things,” said Ana Salgado former farmworker, community organizer and member of the NBJWJ board.

A person wearing earrings speaks in front of others holding signs reading "La Unión Hace la Fuerza" and "Farmworkers Deserve Disaster Pay" in an outdoor setting.
NBJWJ board member and former farmworker Ana Salgado (center) speaks at Monday’s press conference at Healdsburg Plaza. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Only a few blocks away from that plaza is the community center where Salgado originally met several of the men then working for Mauritson. She remembers the first conversations she had with the laborers.

“I looked at one of them and saw the worry in his face,” she said in Spanish, “I reached out to hold his hands and told him, ‘you can open up now, you’re in a safe space.’”

“So many [H-2A laborers] are afraid of losing the opportunity they have because employers tell them that it is a privilege to be brought from Mexico with a visa,” she explained. “They may be experiencing many abuses but they do not want to say anything because they are afraid of losing what they consider to be a privilege.”

‘Just law on paper’

The H-2A visa program is the successor of the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican workers to American farms during the 1940s. The current H-2A system now brings laborers from all over the world to work in the U.S. and as part of the program, employers must provide housing, transportation and meals — giving businesses an incredible amount of power over the personal lives of their workers.

And just like the Bracero Program, the H-2A system is rife with wage theft, physical and mental abuse of employees and retaliation from employers for workers who speak up, according to an 18-month investigation by Prism, Futuro Investigates, and Latino USA published in April.

A person with a shaved head speaks in front of others holding signs reading "Farmworkers Deserve Disaster Pay" in an outdoor setting.
NBJWJ Director Davin Cárdenas speaks at Monday’s press conference at Healdsburg Plaza. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Both the federal government and California have beefed up their labor laws since the 1940s, so why does abuse of H-2A laborers persist?

One reason is that regulatory agencies need more personnel and resources to enforce labor standards, says Josephine Weinberg, attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a nonprofit law firm that represents farmworkers who have experienced retaliation and workplace abuse.

“We have agencies in place. We have a lot of the rules in place. But the mechanisms to really enforce those rules and monitor are really lacking. So it really is just law on paper,” she said.

About 1 in 3 positions remain vacant at the California Labor Commissioner’s Office, one of the agencies tasked with investigating wage theft and retaliation across all industries in the state. Such understaffing leaves current staff overburdened with cases, which means workers who file a complaint often have to wait years for a result. Dozens of agency employees implored lawmakers to take action in a letter obtained by KQED earlier this month, arguing that “we are failing in our mission if we cannot hire and retain the necessary staff.”

Over at the ALRB, regional director Arciniega points out that her agency has five offices spread over several agricultural regions, “but California is a humongous state and there’s a lot of farmworkers throughout the state.”

“We don’t have offices in all of the agricultural regions,” she said, “so we do our best in this large state to cover wherever workers are.” She adds that the department works closely with community and labor organizations, like NBJWJ, to connect with laborers.

But labor advocates insist that more must be done to better enforce labor standards and improve the H-2A program as a whole. Weinberg with the CRLA adds that regulators need to monitor farms more closely, with randomized visits during the growing season. And on the flip side, employers must make it easier for agencies and labor groups to speak to farmworkers in an unrestricted manner.

The way the H-2A program was designed, where businesses have direct control over their employees’ housing, transportation, immigration status and even food, makes it incredibly difficult for laborers to speak freely.

“They don’t have access to a place where they feel that they can speak confidentially or anonymously about what’s going on,” Weinberg said.

On July 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $4.5 million pilot program to provide free immigration legal services to farmworkers who are involved in state labor investigations. This would include case review services, legal advice and representation by an attorney to laborers in California who have a pending case with either the ALRB, the Labor Commissioner’s Office or Cal/OSHA.

The goal of this program, officials say, is to address one of the fears that prevents employees from speaking up — the fear of losing their visa or not being rehired — by connecting them to immigration experts who could help them find ways to stay in this country. And earlier this year, the Biden administration unveiled a new, streamlined “deferred action” initiative that allows workers to apply for a work permit and two years of protection from deportation, if they are cooperating with a labor rights investigation.

But above all, what really helps folks feel safe enough to speak up, Salgado from NBJWJ says, is knowing that there are cases when the system works in favor of workers. “Without a doubt, the outcome from the Mauritson case, reaffirms the faith amongst ourselves, but also the credibility of the work we do when we go out to talk to the workers.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this story mischaracterized Mauritson Farms, Inc. as a winery. The story has been updated to clarify the relationship between Mauritson Farms, Inc. and Mauritson Wines.

This story includes reporting from KQED’s Farida Jhabvala Romero and Tyche Hendricks.

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