Calif. To Aid Frozen Out Farmworkers

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, center, looks at citrus fruit damaged by cold weather at the Fresno, Calif., farm of Keith Nilmeier (left), Jan. 16, 2007. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
The deep freeze that has destroyed some $1 billion worth of California citrus could also mean months of unemployment for thousands of farmworkers, packers and truck drivers during what is already a lean season for those who work in agriculture, industry officials say.

The bad news was already trickling in Wednesday at Harris Farms, a 7,000-acre operation about 25 miles east of Fresno.

"All of my sisters-in-law, my mother-in-law and my brother-in-law just got laid off from the packing sheds," said Valentino Mexicano, a ranch hand whose family of five lives in nearby Sanger. He and other members of the farm's night crew were just getting off a 15-hour shift monitoring miles of orange and lemon trees.

"It's bad," he said. "People are just going to be looking for little jobs to survive because the bills won't wait."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the state would offer assistance to all affected laborers, regardless of their immigration status.

"Everyone will get help," he said Tuesday. "We are not here collecting immigration statuses."

The governor's press secretary, Aaron McLear, elaborated on the governor's comment Wednesday, saying the promised assistance included food programs, temporary housing, low-income energy assistance and other social services - but not unemployment insurance.

Applicants must prove they can work legally in the United States to qualify for state unemployment insurance or federal disaster unemployment assistance, said Jehan Flagg, a spokeswoman for the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency.

Some 12,500 workers are directly employed in the citrus industry in California's San Joaquin Valley. Hundreds more truckers carry the fruit to docks to be shipped around the world.

In winter months, the citrus industry provides thousands of jobs in Fresno County, which employs more farmworkers than any other California county, according to federal statistics. But even during a normal year, about 40 percent of farmworkers in the county risk going hungry during the winter, according to the California Institute for Rural Studies.

"For many farmworkers, working in citrus provides the money needed to pay rent and buy food," said Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farmworkers of America. "You could find a job at a packing shed, but if you're not harvesting, you're not packing either, there are really very few options."

Schwarzenegger has asked the federal government for disaster aid following a string of subfreezing nights in the Central Valley's orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit groves.

Workers displaced by the freeze can apply for state unemployment insurance, which pays up to $450 per week for 26 weeks over a one-year period, Flagg said.

If President Bush approves Schwarzenegger's request and declares a state of emergency, those affected by the freeze could qualify for additional federal unemployment aid.

Mexicano's job is safe because Harris Farms employs its 20 full-time workers year-round to prune grape and olive trees, repair machinery and round up cattle that escape from grazing grounds in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Manager Rod Radtke said. But in nearby Woodlake, the freeze has already forced Sun Pacific Shippers Inc. to lay off its entire staff of 70 citrus packers, graders and shippers.

"It's not like a hurricane that damages material things, but the freeze damages people's livelihood," said manager Frank Martinez. "With this going on there's no hope. Unemployment just isn't enough for people to keep up with their utilities and their mortgage payments."

Joel Nelsen, who heads the 2,000-member trade organization California Citrus Mutual, said he expects many citrus workers will look for odd jobs to make it through the winter. But under current law, workers can only earn up to $25 a week before their unemployment benefits are reduced.

Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado said he plans to introduce a bill that would give California's farmworkers the chance to earn up to $200 a week without having their unemployment benefits cut.

At Harris Farms, where ice crystals hung from rows of navel orange trees, this year's harvest will last only through April, instead of September, Radtke said.

About 70 percent of the citrus crop was damaged since the freeze began Friday, and the company will likely contract for fewer pickers to harvest the undamaged fruit, Radtke said.

Shippers in the San Joaquin Valley said Wednesday it is too soon to tell how the losses would impact their business, but said the outlook wasn't good.

The trucking industry won't be able to gauge the hit from the freeze for another week, when truckers will start to get a sense of the demand for their loads, said Julie Sauls, a spokeswoman for the California Trucking Association.

"We do expect products to become short [more scarce] and more expensive," said Chuck Aiello, a buyer with FreshKo Produce Service, a Fresno-based wholesale citrus distributor. "It'll be inevitable that our company to feel it. Everyone will."