The number of farmworkers who came to California last year hit an all-time high with the Central Coast taking in most of them.
Cities like Santa Maria are being forced to quickly find a place to house these workers, but there are discrepancies over where.
Marketed as a solution to the agriculture community’s labor shortages, H-2a farmworkers, also known as guest or temporary workers, are getting hired on the Central Coast with Salinas and Santa Maria seeing the biggest influx in the state.
“Just this past year alone we’ve seen 1,700 guest workers come to the City of Santa Maria and because growers are required to provide housing for these workers, that’s created a real pressure for the industry to build housing or find housing for as many of these workers as possible,” explained Hazel Davalos, Community Organizing Director for C.A.U.S.E.
Some full-time farmworkers say they would not mind having them as neighbors.
“I don’t think we should isolate those workers, they should be able to live alongside us. In fact, I live across the street from those workers and they’ve been nothing but friendly and respectful,” said full-time farmworker Reina Mendoza.
Many Santa Maria farmworkers stay in hotels or apartments off of South and North Broadway, but the rent isn’t as low as you’d think.
A full-time farmworker who lives in a studio in the Park Vista apartment complex tells us she pays $1,000 a month.
The non-profit organization C.A.U.S.E. says farmers are in a bind due to sky-high housing costs and the types of food grown here.
“In our region, we have crops like strawberries which are difficult to mechanize so we need actual people picking. We have very high housing costs being in coastal California so the labor shortage is even worse for us, specifically in our region, and so we think that explains the need for supplementing our labor force with H-2a workers,” Davalos said.
Numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor show some Santa Maria-based businesses are the largest employers of H-2a workers in the country.
Rancho Nuevo Harvesting off Blosser Road is one of them. We reached out to the company for a comment on this story but they declined.
Now comes the question of where to put the housing for those workers. Some argue it should be on county property, away from residential housing.
Many of those sentiments were exacerbated after farmworker housing that was under construction was set on fire in a Nipomo neighborhood in 2016.
“The H-2a program sort of reveals folks who want to use immigrant labor but don’t want immigrants living amongst them,” Davalos said.
In January, the Santa Maria City Planning Commission drafted an ordinance that would determine the zoning for H-2a housing of seven people or more in a residence.
City leaders say those who do move in will be thoroughly checked out.
“We’ve proven that these workers are extensively background checked, so there are no criminals coming over and there’s no risky persons coming over here and being housed,” explained Santa Maria City Attorney Phillip Sinco.
One option included in this plan would require those applying for a permit to give notice to neighbors in order to allow them to share their concerns.
But some advocates for farmworkers say that could be dangerous.
“We really fear that when everyone in the city is notified that farmworkers are going to be housed, that leads to something like Nipomo happening here,” Davalos said.
But the City Attorney says he doesn’t think something like that will happen again. Sinco believes residents have a better understanding now of what farmworkers bring to the table.
“We learned they are very motivated to comply with our laws and not break any rules because this is a very good economic opportunity compared to where they come from, so they don’t want to blow that opportunity,” he said.
California ranks fifth in the nation for hiring H-2a workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Georgia now comes in at number one.
The Santa Maria City Attorney’s Office says a tentative date for the Santa Maria City Council to vote on this issue is April 16. They still have several options to weigh before deciding on a permitting process.
KSBY reached out to several employers of H-2a farmworkers to be included in this story, but they all declined.