Santa Maria advocacy groups and state labor representatives kicked off a three-day farmworker labor rights caravan July 28 to bring multilingual messages about workers' rights to the very fields where they work.
The caravan's first route brought participants to produce fields near Garey along Foxen Canyon Road and toward Orcutt, with additional routes planned to fields, drop-off sites and markets in Guadalupe and throughout San Luis Obispo County in the coming days.
Along with cars decorated with encouraging messages, the caravan is led by an LED billboard truck with screens displaying contact information for state labor agencies and information about workers' rights. The truck also broadcasts information about worker rights in Spanish, English and Mixteco.
Officials from the Department of Industrial Relations, Cal/OSHA, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and the Employment Development Department partnered with local groups in hopes of providing information and decreasing mistrust in governmental entities that exist to help workers.
"We found that connecting with them directly breaks down those barriers of concern that they may have as a government agency," said Brandon Hart, Cal/OSHA communications program manager. "There's a misunderstanding amongst workers that oftentimes the government may be there to harm them or be on the side of the employer, but in fact there's regulations in the workplace to protect workers."
Speaking prior to the caravan at the Santa Maria office of Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project, or MICOP, California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower highlighted the need for focused outreach to farmworkers about their rights to paid sick leave, a safe work environment and freedom from retaliation.
Any California company with 26 or more employees is required to provide supplemental paid sick leave totaling 80 hours, or two weeks, for full-time employees who are unable to work from home, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations.
The supplemental time, provided in addition to existing sick leave, can be used for an isolation or quarantine period due to COVID-19 exposure, to take care of an isolated or quarantined family member or a child whose school has closed due to COVID-19, or to attend a vaccine appointment and recover from vaccine side effects.
While some workers may know about these and other rights, such as the right to protest without retaliation and to have shaded areas, breaks, water and sanitation stations at worksites, García-Brower said they are not always informed about how to utilize them.
"So many of our communities of color have been excluded from protections. It’s not enough to say, ‘you have a right, now go exercise it," she said. "We’re also here to remind employers that we are here because it is not optional for you to respect workers’ rights. It is, in fact, an obligation and there are consequences if you do not respect an individual's rights."
Employers are required to inform workers of their right to supplemental paid sick leave either through virtual means or by displaying a notice prominently at the worksite, according to state law. The leave can be used between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2021.
The main message shared by organizers July 28 was that despite the importance of agricultural laborers' work in providing fresh food to local residents, they remain a highly vulnerable workforce.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural workers bore the brunt of infection, causing the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and other agencies to step up outreach to agricultural employers about worker safety requirements.
While case rates among the workforce have dropped since then, concerns remain due to widespread vaccine hesitancy among some Indigenous and Latino populations, with lack of information about sick time also making things difficult, said MICOP organizer Fernando Martinez.
"We all need to work together to ensure our farmworkers are being prioritized, because without their labor … we wouldn’t have food on our tables," Martinez said.
The caravan effort is part of a statewide COVID-19 Workplace Outreach Project initiative led by the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency focused on educating workers about their rights and employers about their obligations.
Similar caravans traveled throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in May, as well as through Fresno, Kings, Merced, Stanislaus and Tulare counties in June.