After Freeze, California Offers a Hand to Workers Thousands of California's field hands and packing-house workers face unemployment in the wake of a devastating freeze. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened 19 emergency aid stations to provide unemployment assistance and food support, promising that everyone will get help from the state.
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After Freeze, California Offers a Hand to Workers

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After Freeze, California Offers a Hand to Workers

After Freeze, California Offers a Hand to Workers

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I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In this part of the program we're going to hear about the fallout from the pair of crises that hit California agriculture over the last few months. In just a few minutes, we'll hear about the impact of the E. coli outbreak on lettuce farmers over the border in Arizona.

First, what's happened to farm workers in California as a result of this winter's sudden freeze, which devastated citrus and avocado crops. Thousands of field and packing house workers have been laid off. The state has set up 19 emergency aid stations to provide food and help with job training.

But as Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports, the majority of the workers who need help may not be eligible.

SASHA KHOKHA: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said the state will do whatever it can to help agricultural workers affected by the freeze. Last week he met with farmers and farm workers at one of the emergency aid centers in Tulare County.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (California): Whatever the valley needs, whatever the agriculture industry needs, whatever the workers need and the business leaders here need and the farmers need, we are here to help. That is the key thing.

KHOKHA: Farmers have already started to see some relief. The state has dispatched extra crop insurance adjusters to help tally up their losses. But for an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 farm workers who pick and pack oranges, strawberries and avocadoes, help may be a little harder to find despite Schwarzenegger's promises.

(Soundbite of crowd)

KHOKHA: At this relief center in Tulare County, counselor Sylvia Basillas(ph) warns citrus workers that help with their heating bills may take awhile.

Ms. SYLVIA BASILLAS (Counselor, Tulare County): Ladies and gentleman, remember this money takes two months before you actually see the credit. You're not going to be able to see this credit until about maybe March or April on your bills. Meanwhile, you're going to have more bills coming in and piling up. It is your responsibility to continue to make these payments. Okay?

KHOKHA: Packing house worker Anna Orropaca(ph) was laid off because of the freeze. She's disappointed to hear about the delay.

Ms. ANNA ORROPACA: (Through translator) Where am I going to get the money to pay the $72 bill? From where? If I wait three months they're going to shut off my gas. The bill is already overdue. I have to pay something so they don't turn off the heat. I have children I need to keep warm.

KHOKHA: Still, Orropaca is a legal resident, so she can at least expect an unemployment check soon. The problem is the majority of field workers are presumed to be undocumented. Under federal regulations they aren't eligible for unemployment insurance or help with heating bills.

Undocumented worker Maria De Los Santos(ph) climbs a tall, metal ladder and nimbly plucks an orange and drops it in a bag slung across her shoulders. She says there's so little fruit to pick she's worried she won't be able to make ends meet. And she knows the state assistance centers can't do much for her.

Ms. MARIA DE LOS SANTOS: (Through translator) I get paid $17 a bin. If I only do two bins a week at $17, you do the math. If there's really help, then they should be helping us, the people in the field, the undocumented. If the governor says he's going to help the undocumented, then that's really the best because we're all brothers and sisters in this.

KHOKHA: While Governor Schwarzenegger has said he wants to help all farm workers, he's been vague about how exactly his support will translate into any assistance for undocumented workers. In the meantime, churches and nonprofits in some California towns have organized food giveaways and local TV stations are staging telethons to raise money for displaced workers.

State officials say they hope the USDA will declare a state of emergency soon. That would free up more federal dollars for assistance, though that money likely couldn't be earmarked for undocumented workers either.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.

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