‘We have nothing’: farm workers in Pajaro face the prospect of no income at the start of the harvest season

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about half of California’s farm workers are undocumented. That means they’re not eligible for unemployment benefits, but households with U.S. citizens or legal residents can apply (pdf) for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

After touring the disaster area earlier this week, Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters he recognized the vulnerability of Pajaro and other disaster-stricken communities in the region. During his tenure, Newsom expanded the public health insurance program — Medi-Cal — to cover hundreds of thousands of undocumented Californians. But the governor also vetoed a bill last year that would have introduced temporary unemployment benefits for undocumented workers.

“There is no state in America, not one state, that does more for farm workers than the state of California. And we’re not doing enough,” said Newsom, standing near flooded farmland outside Pajaro.

The governor praised a $42 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the nonprofit United Way to help flood-affected farm workers, regardless of their immigration status. People could easily start applying for the help, he added.

Shortly thereafter, United Ways of California representatives clarified that only $300,000 of those funds — which were actually awarded to the organization for COVID relief months ago — will be distributed in Monterey County, including to victims of the storm. Applications for the $600 one-time money cards are not yet open, said Katy Castagna, president of United Way Monterey County.

Sister Rosa Dolores Rodriguez examines the damage at her non-profit organization, Casa de la Cultura, in Pajaro on March 15, 2023. The floodwaters left a trail on the walls, more than two feet above the ground. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

For farm worker Juana Juarez, that cash won’t be nearly enough to cover the cost of replacing possessions she lost during the flood, which she says include her car, furniture, electronics and clothing. She did not know the total amount of her losses, as most of Pajaro’s residents are not yet allowed to enter the city to search their homes.

“It’s just not enough… the governor should try to help us with more money,” said Juarez, who was staying with her children in a relative’s overcrowded house in the neighboring town of Watsonville.

A spokesman for Newsom’s office said the government is pursuing “additional assistance” for storm-hit residents who are not eligible for FEMA assistance due to their immigration status.

Local foundations and nonprofits have raised an additional $300,000 in flood relief for affected residents of the Pajaro Valley, said MaríaElena De La Garza, who leads the Santa Cruz County Community Action Board, one of the organizations that responsible for distributing those funds.

“This is a critical situation,” De La Garza said. “We are working together to provide economic assistance to families, not just in the shelters, but to all who are displaced.”

Before residents can return to their homes, Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto said several agencies must first check the safety of buildings, running water and other infrastructure — a process that could take weeks. CalFire damage assessment teams have already begun work in Pajaro and other affected areas, a county spokesman said.

A truck drives through a partially flooded road with a flooded field to the side and power lines along the road, trees in the background, and a house.
A truck drives along a flooded road between farm fields near Pajaro on March 15, 2023. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Farm workers from Watsonville whose homes have not been flooded are also responding to the crisis. A group of volunteers this week collected donations through social media and delivered bags of clothing and food to displaced residents near one of Pajaro’s blocked street entrances.

Yessica Ortiz, a strawberry picker who fears she will also be out of work, said she paid out of pocket for chicken and rice, pizza boxes and biscuits that she offered on the street to families with young children.

“We should try to help people in any way we can,” Ortiz said.


Community Foundation for Monterey County: Storm Relief Fund

Santa Cruz County Community Foundation

ALL IN in Monterey County: Donation Distribution Center at Monterey Fairgrounds

Volunteer Opportunities:

Monterey County is looking for volunteers to sort donated items

The Red Cross accepts volunteer applications

Additional organizations:

United Way of Santa Cruz County

United Way of Monterey County

Santa Cruz County Community Action Council