Photo: Pictured above is Consuelo Mendez. (Credit: David Bacon.)
Part 2. Read Part 1 here.
Consuelo Mendez was 23 when she arrived in the United States 45 years ago, looking for work. In Ventura County she found it, harvesting strawberries,
Health Insurance Rare
Difficult times aside, Consuelo Mendez feels the family that owns Brokaw Nursery was better than most growers. It offered higher wages and benefits than most others. “I had health care for my children when they were young, because my employer provided medical insurance,” Mendez recalls.
She went on, “In the beginning we had to pay part of the cost, but then it became free when the United Farm Workers (UFW) union came in [in 1975]. After the union left, the employer continued to provide medical insurance. When my 13-year-old son died, this insurance covered 80-90 percent of the costs [of treating his illness]. It didn’t cover 100 percent because my son exceeded the $100,000 limit. But thanks to that insurance we were able to survive.”
Very few farm workers have health insurance, [http://tinyurl.com/jlduchj], but Mendez thinks it is essential.
“Medicine and doctor visits are so expensive,” she emphasizes. “I’m taking about eight pills a day for high blood pressure, cholesterol, arthritis, calcium for my bones, iron and vitamins. My children don’t need medication because they’re young, but I’m old.”
She adds, “That health plan was necessary just to continue working. Here they provide many things that we wouldn’t have if we just worked in the fields — like medical insurance, vision, dental, holidays and paid sick leave.”
Mendez thinks the UFW lost interest in representing Brokaw Nursery workers during the mid-1980s, when the business slowed and the number of employees dropped drastically.
“They left three months shy of the 10-year mark, and the owners didn’t want the union here either,” she remembers. But some conditions established under the union contract remained. “The union brought the policy of respect for seniority. The owners promised that even after it left, they would continue to honor seniority, which to this day they have done in most jobs.”
The company medical plan only covered the foremen before the union contract, and the Mendezes had to pay for family coverage. Under the contract the plan covered workers and their families. Later, even without the contract, “we still have it,” Mendez says, “although just for permanent employees. They provide us insurance, holidays, sick leave, dental and vision.”
She got those jobs by going from field to field, asking other workers to tell her who was hiring. Picking is hard work, and getting enough work to live on required her to move all the time from one farm to another.
Mendez continued, “When I emigrated from a small town in Michoacán I had never worked before,” she remembers. “I was young, raising my children. Then I went to work in the strawberry harvest. My husband was running an upholstery business, but that didn’t pay very well, so he worked alongside me in the fields to make extra money.”
She added, “I never thought I would be working like that, and that the work would be so hard. I did it for three years, but after that I couldn’t because I got so tired. I couldn’t drive and didn’t know how to speak English--to this day I struggle with it.”
Luck and Persistence
Mendez wanted something more stable, and she found it. A woman told her Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy, Calif., was hiring. She asked a foreman there again and again to hire her, and finally the owner took notice.
“We told him we were looking for work because we had a family to support,” she remembers. “He told us to come back the next day and gave us a job. I got a job indoors and my husband went to work in their fields. I’ve been here and never been unemployed since.”
That was 41 years ago.
Most farm workers can’t find steady employment for such a long time. About 2.5 million people are wage workers in U.S. agriculture. More work in California (about 750,000) than any other state. Like Mendez, over a third have been working in agriculture more than 15 years -- a majority, more than 10 years.
The number of older farm workers is growing. According to the U. S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, almost a third of all farm workers are over 45. About 12 percent are 55 and over, and another 17 percent between 45 and 55. That percentage is rising – in 2001 only 19 percent were over 45.
Over the course of a long work life, Mendez has become a very experienced worker, with skills that are crucial to the nursery’s operation. Brokaw Nursery supplies seedlings of avocado and citrus trees to orchard growers all over the world.
“I graft citrus and avocado trees, and then plant them outside,” she says. As a skilled grafter, she was deeply involved in finding new and better growing methods. “It used to be that most of the avocado trees were grafted and planted outside in June and July,” she says. “After experimentation, we found the avocado trees did better when planted indoors first.
“I have had many jobs here and I consider myself a skilled worker. I know how to graft citrus, plant citrus, tie citrus, graft avocado and tie it, fill cups, rubber band the plant and inject hormones. I know how to do almost every job,” she said.
Mendez’s expertise provided her with job security that is uncommon for farm workers.
A Sense of Respect
“It’s the reason I’m still here,” she explains. “This job is very different from picking strawberries. This is meticulous work. But I also believe that when a person is kept on that long it is not only because of experience and knowledge. There is a sense of respect. If there weren’t, they wouldn’t care that I do good work. They would simply let me go. I have had to learn a lot here – another reason why they have kept me on.”
Grafting requires knowledge gained from experience. “Some tasks cannot be done simply with a month or two months of work,” she asserts. “Most of the work takes a lot of experience and knowledge.”
Mendez adds, “One of the easiest tasks is washing and placing the seeds. Knowing how to graft and recognizing one plant from the other takes a lot more time. There are many varieties of avocados, like Haas and Pinkerton. One must become familiar with the different varieties and know one graft from another.”
There is no school for learning this kind of work. Everyone gets trained on the job. After learning, “then comes speed,” Mendez says. “There are many people here who work quickly — who can move their hands rapidly. To stay you have to be a skilled worker, but you also have to have manual dexterity.
When I make a graft I cut the plant and connect it with another so that it grabs the side of the cutting. Then I grab the rubber band and wrap the grafted plants tightly together, label the different plants with sticks, and brush on a kind of sealant that helps attach the plants and prevents them from drying.”
Working rapidly with extremely sharp knives is dangerous, and sometimes workers cut themselves. “Many people fear the knife,” she says. “I’ve cut myself three times in 40 years. But I don’t cut myself anymore. Now my problem is that my fingers hurt at the end of the day. I think I have arthritis, because I work in a place that’s so hot and humid. I wash my hands constantly because the plants are dirty and may carry bacteria.”
Mendez recalls an incident in which she did cut herself and ran to the foreman. “He laughed that he was going to have to bring another worker from Michoacán to replace me, instead of giving me a bandage,” she remembers.
It was a joke, but not really so funny, because it reminded everyone that there are lots of people looking for work. Behind the joke is the message that asking for higher wages can also lead to replacement by another worker hungry for a job.
Low Wages, Little Social Security
According to Philip Martin, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies the labor market in agriculture, the oversupply of farm workers helps keep agricultural wages down.
Such labor shortages are largely imaginary, he believes, because “they have not translated into significant statewide wage and earnings increases. There is also little evidence that growers are offering workers new benefits, such as housing in an effort to keep them from leaving for nonfarm jobs.”
Wages in all of California agriculture dropped in the decades after the peak of UFW strength in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the union contracts of that period, entry-level wages were twice the state minimum wage, and often even higher. If farm worker wages had kept pace with the minimum wage, they’d be double the current hourly minimum of $10, or over $20.
Instead, according to Martin, [http://tinyurl.com/hbtd3l5], in 2006 “workers employed by contractors earned an average $288 a week or $7.20 an hour, just over the state’s then-minimum wage of $6.75, while all workers employed on crop farms earned an average $466 a week, equivalent to $11.65 an hour.” Farm worker wages are still close to minimum wage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports [http://tinyurl.com/zuma7cw] that the average wage for “farm workers and laborers: crop, nursery, and greenhouse” in 2015 was $9.62 an hour.
That’s the story for Mendez too. “Today I make approximately $11.79 an hour, after 40 years. I don’t think it’s fair to earn this type of salary, because I’ve worked here a long time. But perhaps it’s because I have no other skill. Farm labor is not well paid.”
Mendez and her husband were among the hundreds of thousands of farm workers who gained legal status under the Special Agricultural Workers Program in 1986. They later became U. S. citizens. As legal residents and citizens, they got Social Security numbers, and eventually qualified for Social Security benefits based on their contributions.
Mendez tried retirement, and her husband, who became a foreman in a field crew, also retired. But then they couldn’t live on Social Security, so she went back to work.
“I’m still working,” she days, “because you know that Social Security doesn’t cover our expenses, especially the mortgage payment each month. It isn’t enough to allow me to stay at home, so I can’t afford to stop working. I’m also working for the health plan coverage. A health plan, even from the government, is expensive. Here I get it a little cheaper. We pay a share of the cost, and I pay for my husband’s coverage.”
A Better Life for Her Children
Nevertheless, Mendez feels that she succeeded in winning a better life for her children.
“My children did not work in the fields, only my husband and I,” she says. “I gave birth to eight children, but I only have four who are living. We always encouraged them to get a good education so that they wouldn’t have to do this type of labor. My youngest son went to college and is now a telecommunications engineer. My daughter works in accounting. Another son is an upholsterer and the last is a mechanic. They’ve all done well.
“This job has been a good way to support my family,” she concludes. “The owners of the nursery were very good to all of us. They lent us money when we needed it, and if they knew we couldn’t pay for our children’s medicine, they would offer us financial help. They were involved in our lives and knew what we were going through. I don’t regret anything.”
Writer and photographer David Bacon wrote this two-part series supported by a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, and sponsored by The SCAN Foundation.