Farm workers return to work at Half Moon Bay filming sites

Less than a week after seven people were killed in a mass shooting at two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay, farm workers have returned to work at the sites where their colleagues and neighbors were shot.

Workers began returning to Concord Farms last week, said Aaron Tung, whose family owns the farm. At the California Terra Garden, operations resumed Saturday and staff were at full strength Wednesday, said David Oates, a company representative.

“Employees wanted to get back to work,” Oates, a crisis public relations expert hired by California Terra Garden, told The Times. “We said whenever you’re ready to go back to work, if you’re comfortable, we’ll adapt.”

The reopening of farms comes as farmworker advocates raised concerns that workers were returning too quickly after the mass shooting, which took place on January 23 and which officials said they witnessed by the staff and some children.

“They don’t want to go back to work, but they have to go back to work,” said Darlene Tenes, founder of Farmworker Caravan, an organization that supports local farmworkers and has also provided meals and services to those affected. . “How would you feel? Their colleagues just got shot.

Some advocates have pointed out that simply asking workers if they want to return to the site is unfair. Many workers are immigrants and don’t know their rights, Tenes said. More than 40 adults and 19 children were moved immediately after the shooting, most of them from California Terra Garden, she said.

“They must [return] to survive,” she said, adding that returning could expose them to further trauma.

People attend a vigil in remembrance of the victims of the Half Moon Bay shooting at Mac Dutra Park on Friday.

(Ray Chavez/Mercury News via Getty Images)

Oates disputed claims that the workers feared returning and stressed that none of them had been coerced into returning.

“I haven’t had anyone say they were nervous about going back to work,” he said, adding that workers had no deadline to return. “It was their decision, and we returned to normal operations.”

Tung declined to say officially whether the staff had expressed any hesitation about returning, but said “people love working for us.” One employee who was killed, Marciano Martinez Jimenez, had been on the staff for more than 20 years.

The rapid return to work of farmworkers, a population that advocates say is already economically vulnerable, stands in stark contrast to other mass shootings across the United States, where stores and schools closed for months after similar events.

The Walmart in El Paso, where 23 people were shot and killed, remained closed for three weeks after the 2019 shooting. Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, NY, where 10 people were killed, remained closed for two months in 2022. The Walmart in Chesapeake, Va., where a gunman killed six people in November, is still closed.

Oates said workers will still have access to advisers.

Now local officials and advocacy groups are trying to give farmworkers options as they try to emerge from the tragedy, including the possibility of new homes or jobs for those interested.

“It’s not just any place for them, it’s their life. This is where they felt safe, until it happened.

—Joaquin Jimenez, Vice Mayor of Half Moon Bay

Whether they decide to return to the farms to work and live or seek new employment and housing will depend on the workers, organizers say.

Last weekend, church groups and farmworker advocacy groups appealed to residents of Half Moon Bay for short- and long-term housing for affected workers and their families — a monumental task in a community coastal San Mateo County where the median home price is $1.2 million and the median monthly rent is over $2,000, well above what farm workers can afford.

An aerial view of a farm

California Terra Garden at Half Moon Bay. Operations resumed at the mushroom farm on Saturday, five days after a man killed seven people in two shootings.

(Santiago Mejia / Chronicle of San Francisco)

At California Terra Farm, the site of the first attack, workers were paying about $300 in rent a month, Oates said.

The aim is to give workers options, which they often go without, said Judith Guerrero, executive director of Coastside Hope, which provides services to homeless people, the elderly and families living below the poverty line. poverty in agriculture, hotels, restaurants and domestic services. . She said workers told her they had been suffering from headaches, insomnia and anxiety since the shooting.

“[Farmworkers] expressed that they did not feel safe,” Guerrero said. “We really insisted that if you’re not ready to go back to work, don’t go back to work.”

The Times tried to reach the farmworkers affected by the shooting, but without success. Organizations that provide services to workers and their families said they could not be made available for interviews at this time.

Both farms were closed while police collected evidence and inspected the crime scene. The affected employees, the majority of California Terra Garden who lived on site, were staying at a local hotel during the investigation, and they received hot meals, new clothes and counseling services. County officials Coastside Hope and Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a local nonprofit group that advocates for farm workers, also provided financial assistance to the workers.

Authorities said an argument with a California Terra Garden supervisor and co-worker over a $100 repair bill prompted the suspect, whom authorities identified as 66-year-old Chunli Zhao, to grab a gun and kill them. County of San Mateo Dist. Atti. Steve Wagstaffe said the alleged gunman told investigators he then went out targeting other colleagues he had had disagreements with in the past.

California Terra Garden announced on January 26 that it would build new permanent housing for employees, which could take a year to complete.

The company’s plans to build new units come after it was discovered that the old RVs and mobile homes the farmworkers were living in lacked permits and county inspections. This also follows an announcement by state officials who said they open investigations in labor and workplace practices at both farms.

An aerial view of mobile homes on a farm

Mobile homes at California Terra Garden in Half Moon Bay.

(Santiago Mejia / Chronicle of San Francisco)

Some workers have asked about returning to work, demands that advocates say are because they fear for their pay or losing their jobs.

“They know what it might mean not to work, and as farm workers they feel a great sense of responsibility, but I’m not sure it’s easy to get back to work,” Guerrero said. “Many of them saw what happened, many heard the gunshots.”

Guerrero said a young mother told him she used to leave her youngest child with her oldest daughter at their California Terra Garden home while she worked or ran errands. Now she can’t imagine doing that again.

Others said they no longer wanted to live near where their colleagues were shot at California Terra Garden, which happened near where many workers and their families reside, said officials. Children who had just finished school witnessed the shooting.

“I overheard someone asking if there was any opportunity to get a new job,” Guerrero said.

The organization is currently looking for homes for about 18 households, she said, including families and single workers from the two farms.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, executive director and founder of Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, or ALAS, said workers were still visibly traumatized by the shooting and some were “not doing well physically.” Many are just beginning to understand what happened, she said.

Other advocates have also questioned the workers’ readiness to return.

“The people who witnessed the shooting, it’s a trauma that won’t be easy to get rid of,” said Joaquin Jimenez, vice mayor of Half Moon Bay and farmworker program director for ALAS. “A lot of them want to keep working, but others want to work somewhere else.”

United Farm Workers spokeswoman Elizabeth Strater said the union was working with local groups on employment options for workers seeking new opportunities, whether in Half Moon Bay or other communities. state agriculture.

But organizations face several challenges.

Many families and farm workers have resided in the community for years. Finding new jobs could mean uprooting entire families.

There is also the question of the immigration status of workers. Lawyers said witnesses and victims of the mass shooting would apply for U visas, which are issued to witnesses and victims of crimes, but the process could take some time.

“If we get them out of here, it might just add to their shock,” Guerrero said. “We are very ambitious, but hopefully we can give them better options.”

Although the Half Bay Moon shootings were described by authorities as workplace violence, the rampage also occurred in the heart of the farmworker community: near their homes where families retreat at the end of during the day, gather around outdoor stoves and grills, and children run around and play.

“It’s not just any place for them, it’s their life,” Jimenez said. “That’s where they felt safe, until it happened.”

Outside the hotel where the workers are staying, two young men sat quietly on a bench, looking at their phones last week. A woman sat crying and talking on the phone in a car parked nearby. A Times reporter asked how they felt about returning to work.

“It’s okay,” they said, their faces sullen and their eyes fixed on the sidewalk.

Los Angeles Times

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