Farmworkers hit hard by Calif. freeze

BY KAREN BOTHAM | Calif. | April 7, 1999


The freeze in California's central valley citrus region may end up displacing

thousands of farm workers, making it more disruptive to families than all of

the 1998 flooding disasters in the state combined.

Although thousands of people were forced from their homes during last year

when El Nino's severe flooding unleashed mudslides in many parts of

California,

most of those people shoveled out the dirt from their homes and returned to

their soggy surroundings within a few weeks. Only a few dozen lost

everything.

The eight-day long deep freeze at the end of December didn't produce dramatic

views of homes being swept down a mountain, but the end result may be the

same.

People are losing everything.

Cruz Phillips has spent the last two months trying to determine how

many of Fresno, Tulare and Kern county farm workers are in trouble.

Estimates range from 9,000 to 28,500. The use of undocumented workers, who

aren't eligible for any state or federal help, makes taking an accurate

count impossible.

Phillips is co-chairwoman of the Valley Interfaith Freeze Relief, one of the

church-sponsored groups working with the farm workers.

Unlike government sources, churches can and do help undocumented workers.

Of the 11,000 assessments finished so far, 50 percent of the people are a

month behind in their rent payment, and 35 percent are two or more months

behind.

Some are already beginning to receive eviction notices.

Phillips said she suspects most of those unemployed due to the failed crops

don't have enough in savings or have the ability to find employment outside

the

agriculture field to maintain their pre-freeze lifestyle.

Jaime Arteaga, public information officer for the California Office of

Emergency Services, said the freeze happened at a low point for the farmers.

Crop production, and thereby the need for laborers, slows down during

November and December. The freeze disrupted the economic cycle.

Phillips said those workers who had been able to save money to get them

through the lean months had already dipped into the savings when the freeze

hit.

Because of the severity of the freeze, President Clinton declared seven

counties disaster areas, opening the way for the Federal Emergency

Management Agency to earmark money for mortgage and rental assistance.

That comes in addition to the $7.2 million from the state Employment

Development Department for unemployment compensation available to farm

laborers and other farm industry workers, $500,000 in utility assistance

from the state Department of Community Services and Development and grants

from other federal and state agencies.

Lynette Bell, with EDD, said as of March 27, 7,392 claims for disaster-related

unemployment insurance had been filed and 1,860 claims had been filed for

disaster-related unemployment assistance.

Although the assistance is helpful, not everyone qualifies, Phillips said. Of

those 11,000 assessments, 40 percent to 50 percent of them won't qualify

for the government-disbursed funds.

Unlike natural disasters that destroy homes, businesses and automobiles, a

freeze leaves towns looking unscathed. But that couldn't be farther from

the truth.

"Most are not migrant workers; these folks live in the community," Phillips

said. "The real need is for money to help these people."

Church World Service has been asked to contribute $300,000 of the $715,800

VIFR is seeking for direct help the families.

"The people that don't qualify (for federal monies), we have to refer them to

the church for money. Every dollar we get keeps someone in their home,"

Phillips said.

Dick Eskes, a disaster response consultant with the Christian Reformed World

Relief Committee, said CSW has almost $75,000 to $100,000. "Whether we'll

get the $300,000 -- we've all got our fingers crossed," Eskes said.

Several denominations have responded strongly to the call, Eskes said. The

Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, American Baptists, Episcopalians and the

Salvation Army and United Church of Christ have all been major supporters

of the relief work.

The problems began during the last week of December when the San Joaquin

Valley was plunged into a severe freeze for eight days. Estimates put the

loss at 90 percent of the orange and grapefruit crop and 100 percent of the

lemon crop, Phillips said.

According to the state Department of Food and Agriculture, $675.3 million

worth of crops were lost.

"Within a week, everybody lost their jobs," she said.

When they'll get them back is still up for debate. The oranges that were

destroyed were navels; the Valencia orange season starts in June but no one

knows yet if those have been damaged too much to harvest, Phillips said.

"Farm workers have great need for assistance right now as they wait for new

crops so they can return to the fields to harvest the state's fruits and

vegetables," said Dallas Jones, director of the Governor's Office of

Emergency Services.

Some people could be out of a job until next November. If the Valencias can be

harvested, people could return to work in June.

"Basically we're in for a really tough year," Phillips said.


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