SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — After a shooting that ended in the death of seven farmworkers and the attempted murder of an eighth in Half Moon Bay, local and federal leaders are taking a closer look at the needs of the farmworker community in California.

When information surfaced that the suspected shooter, 66 year-old Chunli Zhao, lived and worked on the farm, questions about the barrage of challenges facing farmworkers started to come to the surface.

Farmworker backgrounds

Though many researchers have studied the impacts of farm work on the mental health of Mexican and other Latino farmworkers, few studies have focused on the Chinese migrants within the community. However, many of the challenges that Latino immigrants face in farm work aren’t exclusively faced by Latinos.

Though California is home to many Chinese immigrants, they are in the minority for agriculture in the state. About half of the state’s 1 million farm workers are likely migrants, and as many as 98% of them are Mexican, according to a study from the American Journal of Public Health.

Challenges facing farm workers

Because many farmworkers are immigrants, some are offered a specific visa status to work in the U.S., the H-2A temporary work program. This program permits agricultural employers to bring foreign workers to the U.S. for farm labor, but also requires that the company provide housing to the workers. This has been especially beneficial in states like California, where farm wages cannot keep up with housing costs.

Though 258,000 visas were issued for the H-2A program in 2021, there are also a large number of undocumented people who earn a living as farmworkers. The undocumented population may face the biggest challenges of all.

Farm work is also associated with a unique set of characteristics which are potentially hazardous to mental health. Difficult living and working conditions make this population vulnerable to stress and stress-related mental health conditions. The research team found that these stressors vary depending on legal status—particularly on whether individuals are documented or undocumented.

UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety

Though they often work long hours in tough conditions, many migrant workers are extremely poor, earning incomes under $5,000. Even though the incomes are so low, many don’t use public assistance out of fear of being deported.

It is also not uncommon for farm workers to face wage theft, even in California, which has some of the strictest labor laws in the country. After the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor conducted 31,000 investigations into agriculture between 2000 and 2019, $76 million in back wages was ordered to be paid to 154,000 farmworkers, according to a review by Economic Police institute.

Antonio De Loera, Director of Communications for United Farm Workers, the largest farmworker union in the U.S., said that because they have so little money, farmworkers often feel they have to accept these conditions. “They think, ‘Either I get the cash, or I get my hours cut and don’t get to work, and I need that money for family,'” De Loera told KRON4.  

We have a saying in the union about life as a farmworker: ‘There’s one law on the books, and another on the fields.’

Antonio De Loera, Director of Communications for United Farm Workers

Fear of deportation for undocumented workers also come into play when interacting with bosses, according to De Loera. Many farmworkers believe they will get fired, or deported if their employer is aware of their status.

Conditions on the farm at Half Moon Bay

De Loera said his office has heard of “terrible” living conditions on the farm where Zhao lived and worked, Mountain Mushroom Farm.

This is an image of a makeshift house.
This is where the suspect reportedly lived (Photo courtesy of Ray Mueller)

When California Governor Gavin Newsom traveled to Half Moon Bay on Tuesday, he was briefed on life at the farms. “By the way, you should see where these folks are living,” Newsom said to members of the media on Tuesday, after he had learned more.

By Thursday, more local officials had toured the facilities where the farmworkers lived and worked. San Mateo County District 3 Supervisor Ray Mueller tweeted photos of the living conditions.

KRON reached out to Mountain Mushroom’s owner, California Terra Garden, and received the following comment:

We have 8 families that reside on the property in County-inspected mobile homes and large recreational vehicles. They are all equipped with kitchens, bathrooms and shower facilities in addition to standard living amenities. Additional outside toilet and kitchen facilities exist to allow the families to host gatherings as most families like to do. No one lives in anything like shipping containers or tents as was erroneously reported. The families pay approximately $300 a month to rent these living spaces, well below market rate.

Secondly, the salary of all employees range from $16.50 to $24. They also receive paid vacation days, company-sponsored health insurance, life/disability insurance, workman’s compensation insurance, and access to a 401(k) plan.

Our team members are like family to us. That is why we remain shocked and grief-stricken over the senseless loss of four of our employees and pray for our team member who remains in critical condition.

Together, we are beginning the long healing process and offering grief counseling to our employees and their families. Their wellbeing is our top priority.

Local leaders were grateful to shine a light on this community with the governor’s visit. “Now he has learned about all of the issues going on with the community with housing, health care and other resources for the farmworkers,” Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquin Jimenez told KRON 4.

Along with his role in local government, Jimenez also serves as the Farmworker Program Director for ALAS (Ayudando Latinos A Soñar), a Half Moon Bay-based nonprofit.