Half Moon Bay mass shooting illuminates ‘deplorable’ conditions for farmworkers
Leaking roofs, rain-soaked bedding, ankle-deep flood waters. Camp stoves for cooking and mattresses in shacks jacked up off the ground by wooden pallets.
Such were the tiny, meager dwellings some of Half Moon Bay’s mushroom farmworkers called home.
Long before mass shootings killed their friends and co-workers this week and tore their lives apart, workers at two farms in this coastal California city endured living conditions that a county official, referring to one of the farms, decried as “deplorable.” It took a tragic episode of mass violence to shine a national spotlight on the issue this week, but experts say such conditions are hardly an isolated case. Those we depend on to grow our food are living in overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe situations all over the state.
“We visit the farms every week. We see the conditions the farmworkers live in,” said Joaquin Jimenez, the city’s vice mayor, who also serves as farmworker program director for nonprofit ALAS, which assists farmworkers with basic needs like food and clothing. “The conditions overall, they’re pretty bad.”
A disgruntled employee shot and killed four workers and injured a fifth at California Terra Garden, a mushroom farm off Highway 92 in Half Moon Bay, on Monday before driving about three miles south to Concord Farms and killing another three farmworkers, according to officials and witnesses. Chunli Zhao, who lived in a rudimentary shack covered by a blue tarp on the Terra Gardens property, has been charged in the shooting spree.
Almost immediately after the tragedy, Gov. Gavin Newsom caused jaws to drop when he said people at the farms were sleeping in shipping containers and getting paid $9 an hour without access to health care. As the investigation has unfolded, it’s become clear there was evidence of many problems at both farms dating back years — including multiple lawsuits over working conditions and a code violation for unpermitted farmworker housing. Yet poor living conditions were allowed to persist, and local officials seem unclear about who is to blame.
San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller, when asked if the owner of Terra Garden would be penalized for the farm’s poor living conditions, said: “I really don’t know what would happen with respect to that, or who investigates that.”
Mueller and County Executive Mike Callagy surveyed both farms after the shooting. At Terra Garden, they saw trailers held up by cinder blocks that looked like they would collapse in an earthquake, Mueller said. There were also shed-like shacks.
“I couldn’t see any plumbing, or certainly no shower facilities or kitchen,” he said, describing the conditions as “deplorable.”
Across the state, the number of employees living at their worksites has more than doubled in recent years — going from nearly 17,000 in 2016 to more than 35,000 in 2020, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. At the same time, the number of inspections of employee housing, as well as citations for violations, have dropped since 2017.
In San Mateo County, they are now working “really hard” to improve conditions at Terra Garden, and the owner is cooperating, Mueller said. They may replace the existing dwellings with new modular units — potentially using a loan from the county. Mueller said the county also is looking into expediting permits for the new units.
David Oates, a spokesperson for Terra Garden, disputed the notion that conditions at the farm were subpar and said the living quarters sustained damage during the investigations after the shooting. Photos Mueller posted on Twitter of his visit to the site didn’t properly reflect the earlier situation, he said.
“To characterize those photos as the state of what those homes were prior to Monday is not accurate,” he said.
The conditions at Concord Farms, where people lived in private rooms within an enclosed building, were “moderately better,” Mueller said, though he didn’t look inside the rooms. The county may assess the living conditions there as well, he said.
A spokesperson for Concord Farms could not be reached.
More county officials visited both farms Friday, and Cal/OSHA and the Labor Commissioner’s Office also are looking into potential violations of labor, workplace safety and health rules at the two farms.
Long before the shooting, there were indications of problems at the farms. Terra Garden was the subject of a class action lawsuit in 2014 that alleged workers weren’t being paid overtime or given meal breaks, among other complaints. That lawsuit was settled in 2017, although the details could not be learned last week. In 2005, two Concord Farms employees sued the company, claiming the company failed to pay them overtime or give them breaks. That case was also settled.
Concord Farms received a building code violation from the county in 2015, after the owners sought permits to convert an office into farmworker housing but never completed the permitting process. In 2012, the owners said the space wasn’t being used as housing, and they weren’t even farming at the site.
A married couple who have worked at Concord Farms for seven years described sleeping on the property in a tiny room just big enough for a bed and dealing with ankle-deep flooding inside the room when it rained. The couple, who declined to give their names because they feared retaliation from their boss, came to the United States 16 years ago from China. They had hoped to find better work but ended up at Concord Farms because it offered on-site housing, however meager.
“How could we find anywhere else to live?” the wife asked in Mandarin, through an interpreter. “We are just glad we had a place to live.”
On-site farmworker housing can be anything from trailers, to make-shift shacks, to warehouses or barns converted into dormitories, said United Farm Workers Antonio De Loera-Brust. In Half Moon Bay, workers generally pay between $300 and $500 a month to live there, said Jimenez, the first Mexican immigrant to serve on the City Council.
For a farmworker making $30,000 a year, free or cheap on-site housing can seem like a godsend.
“It kind of sounds too good to be true. And it usually is,” said Lexi Hamilton, a program manager at Abundant Grace Coastside Worker, a nonprofit that serves homeless and low-income residents.
That’s because too often, employers cut corners to save money, said De Loera-Brust, director of communications for United Farm Workers. They’ll cram far too many people into shoddy trailers or old motels with kitchens and plumbing that don’t work.
Many workers are hesitant to complain about their living and working conditions ??” either because they are undocumented or because they don’t want to risk losing their housing and livelihood in one fell swoop ??” which can make it difficult for authorities to enforce violations, De Loera-Brust said.
Ilario Lopez, 22, lives in a trailer at Terra Garden with his partner and child, and works at a farm in Pescadero. Lopez, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico, says his situation is “fine,” though he wishes his boss would fix up the trailers, bathrooms and kitchens. The situation is different for single men ??” they sleep with four or five to a one-room trailer, he said.
For his trailer, Lopez pays between $500 and $600 a month.
The morning of the shooting, before anyone knew what was about to unfold, two ALAS workers visited Terra Garden with tarps to cover the leaking roofs of farmworkers living on the property, Jimenez said. The recent storms had ruined some people’s mattresses and clothing, he said.
Despite those poor conditions, Jimenez sees no immediate solutions.
“It’s either living like this,” he said, “or living by the creek or living in their cars.”
Eliyahu Kamisher, Jakob Rodgers and Lauren Koong contributed to this report.