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Wines & Vines

Home away from home—housing seasonal vineyard workers

Home away from home—housing seasonal vineyard workers

Jane Firstenfeld

“Here we will live like a family. Here we will live like people, with dignity.”

Antonio de la Cruz

on-site manager

La Posada, Sonoma

Days before the arrival of its first residents, Antonio de la Cruz proudly showed off the facilities at La Posada, a sparkling new lodging for temporary vineyard workers in the Sonoma Valley. It’s a novel concept in the years-long struggle to provide decent housing for some of the thousands of temporary, mostly Latino migrant workers who flood the North Coast for the annual harvest.

Fittingly, La Posada is literally a community on wheels–nine custom-built mobile dormitory units and two bathhouses designed to house up to 36 workers in Spartan but secure comfort in the off-hours of their grueling days in the vineyards.

De la Cruz serves as “housefather” for the guests, seeing to their comfort and ensuring that the new operation runs smoothly. He, better than most, can understand the needs of migrant farmworkers. A native of the Mexican state of Jalisco, he spent 25 years working in the agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley and six years in the vineyards of Madera.

For two months, de la Cruz will live and work in his office/bedroom. Each applicant at La Posada must show proof of employment, pose for a Polaroid and fill out a form listing family members and contacts in Mexico. “This is for their safety and ours,” de la Cruz explains. “If something should happen to them, we can contact their family. It’s also for the law, in case there is a problem. We will do everything legally.”

To that end, there will be no drinking allowed at La Posada, though the spacious grounds, 40 acres lent to the project by vineyard owners Jan and Tito Sasaki, have ample space for a soccer field. “We want to provide the workers with recreation, so they don’t need to spend their time in the cantinas,” de la Cruz explains.

Residents can bring TVs and radios, but, de la Cruz says, “At 9 o’clock, they’ll have to turn off the noise. Most of them will be getting up for work around 5 a.m.”

When they arise, they won’t go hungry. Their $10 daily fee includes not only lodging but a hot meal delivered nightly by Sonoma’s Los Primos Restaurant. Los Primos will also bring enough food for workers to assemble their own breakfast burritos in the tented dining area, which is equipped with refrigeratots and a microwave.

An Ambitious Project

La Posada has been in the works for years, and has required the vision and persistence of dedicated local officials and volunteers. It is the first officially sanctioned seasonal labor camp in the Sonoma Valley, spearheaded by Vineyard Workers Services (VWS) a 12-year-old nonprofit dedicated to providing housing for vineyard workers. This is the first time VWS has actually built housing and, for this harvest at least, the housing will be in use only for the approximate two months of harvest.

In the off-season, “We hope to use them for other things,” says VWS executive director Jim Ferris of the 10 by 24 foot trailer houses. If not, they’ll be stored by the builder, PSI, a Napa corporation that employs physically and mentally handicapped workers. VWS’ grant, considered a model for migrant housing, provides for four more trailers in the coming year.

The grant also provides medical and technical services. Grant partner St. Joseph Health System will bring mobile medical and dental offices to La Posada every Thursday. Nonresidents are also welcome to use these sliding-scale clinics. Medical Management Resources will provide computer training for patients, showing them how to use and access the Internet with a program called “Follow me, allowing transient workers to create and access their medical records wherever they may be.

Why Is This Necessary?

According to a study by UC Davis economist Phil Martin in 2000, Sonoma County’s workforce swells by almost 10,000 during the fall harvest. The average monthly apartment rental in the county is more than $1,000. Even though many wineries provide some housing, it is far from adequate to shelter this temporary workforce. Many still sleep in their cars, or crowd into tiny converted garages. The lucky ones find shelter in local churches.

“Only about 20% to 25% of the workers are housed in the vineyards,” estimates Peter Haywood, proprietor of Sonoma’s Haywood Estate Winery and an active force in VWS.

Most of these temporary workers come from the interior of Mexico, where the current minimum wage is around $4 per day. In the North Coast, hourly wages for vineyard workers begin around $9 per hour, and go up to $12 or more with experience, according to Haywood.

“There’s good money to be made here,” he notes, adding that many workers are paid on a piecework basis, and can earn $80 to $140 per ton. A good worker, Haywood says, can harvest between three-quarters and one and three-quarters ton in a given day. Small wonder, then, that men are willing to sacrifice, sleep rough for a couple of months and send their earnings home.

Still, in the tourist-laden and image-conscious North Coast, few employers want their wineries to be the scene of “Grapes of Wrath”-style squalor.

Other Areas, Other Solutions

Take Napa, for instance, where the problems, costs and demographics are similar; where, in 2001, a peak of 6,000 workers serviced the harvest season. Last year, The Napa Valley Housing Authority (NVHA) offered 174 beds in four camps managed by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (CHDC) and wineries provided an additional 85 beds in six to eight other camps.

The St. Helena Catholic Church opens its doors to 60 more workers, and in 2001 and 2002, the NVHC also erected a camp consisting of 10 four-bed yurts–tent-like structures where workers pay $10/day for room and board.

This year, a special assessment district was established, and Napa Valley vineyard owners voted by an 85% majority to tax themselves $7.66 per acre to help operate a $3.4 million, 60-bed camp on five acres of land donated by Joseph Phelps Vineyards. This camp, owned by NVHA and operated by CHDC, is not scheduled to open until harvest, 2003. It received a $1.6 million state grant, an $800,000, no-interest loan from the Napa County Housing Trust Fund, and $650,000 from the Napa County Vintners Association’s annual wine auction.

Designed by the San Francisco architectural firm Brandenburger, Taylor, Lombardo LLP, the camp will feature environmentally friendly forced-earth construction; two-man, dormitory-style rooms; communal bathrooms; a kitchen and dining hall where workers will receive two meals a day; offices for county staff, who will administer safety training and education courses, a soccer field and a basketball court.

Not all vintners were pleased with the new tax. Initially, Beringer Wine Estates, one of the valley’s largest employers and vineyard owners, requested an exemption, on the basis that its workers were sufficiently well paid to afford housing; that Beringer already leased the county a 24-bed public housing facility in Carneros for $1 per year; and additionally, that the county’s assessment was based on an exaggerated number of vineyard acres.

Beringer later withdrew the request, apologizing for “an honest mistake,” and admitting that they had sent the wrong message to farmworkers. Two other vineyard owners, Eagle and Rose Estate, Pope Valley and Frank Wood and Sons, St. Helena, also applied for exemptions on similar grounds. The Napa County Board of Supervisors was expected to rule on these requests Sept. 10.

Happy Families

Mendocino County has fewer wineries than Napa or Sonoma, and even less housing. After three years of wrangling with the planning department and eight months of construction, Roederer Estate winery, in the isolated Anderson Valley, inaugurated new worker housing in July.

While all the camps described above are limited to single male farmworkers, Roederer took a different approach for housing its staff. The new housing consists of four duplexes, scenically situated in the estate’s vineyards. Each features two, two-bedroom individual apartments, equipped with kitchens and baths, available to families of no more than four.

“Now, we have eight happy families living there,” says Bob Gibson, vineyard manager for Roederer. Each family pays about $300 a month for these desirable dwellings, contrasted with the “$500 to $700 a month in not very nice” housing available locally, according to Gibson.

“We house 32 other single employees in dormitory-style housing and four units with separate bedrooms,” Gibson says. “We actually house 80% of our employees. Many have been working for me from eight to 17 years.”

How were the lucky families selected? “It was a matter of seniority, and need,” Gibson says. He explained that, at 600 square feet, the units are too small for more than four occupants each.

Diminutive they may be, but these duplexes can boast that most important attribute of real estate: location, location, location. “To the west, you see redwoods, to the east you see redwoods and vineyards. Real serene,” Gibson says. “It would be a choice spot for a house.”

For decades, California has struggled to house the essential thousands of migrant workers who harvest its payload of cash crops. The growing urbanization of former agricultural lands, the explosive growth of the wine industry, and the eternal escalation of housing costs have only exacerbated the problem in recent years. Solutions haven’t come easily, but they are coming. Little by little, the wine industry is giving these invaluable employees the dignified living conditions they deserve every harvest.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Hiaring Company

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