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California Fires Result In Job And Income Loss For Seasonal Workers


The wildfires in northern California have already done at least a billion dollars of damage according to the state insurance commissioner. About a third of the economy in Sonoma County is related to agriculture and tourism - wine. From member station KQED, Farida Jhabvala Romero reports on the losses seasonal workers in the region are facing.

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: For more than a week, Marisol Paniagua has been living at an evacuation center. She had been scheduled to pick grapes at a vineyard near the city of Santa Rosa, but the fire means that work got canceled.

MARISOL PANIAGUA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: She says it's very difficult because she doesn't have any savings. All she has left is a little bit of gas in her car. Paniagua has lived in the Santa Rosa area for more than 20 years, and all three of her children were born here.

PANIAGUA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: She wonders how long they can get by in this area without money or work. In California, Latinos make up 71 percent of agricultural workers, so the fires ravaging wine country are hitting this population hard. The lack of jobs and destruction of affordable homes due to the fires could force people to move elsewhere. That's a concern for grape growers in the region.

CHAD CLARK: We cannot afford to lose our labor force. Nobody can.

ROMERO: Chad Clark is with Allied Grape Growers, which represents more than a hundred wineries in fire-affected areas. He says dozens of vineyard owners have sustained damage, and that could displace seasonal agricultural workers. Still, most vineyards are standing, and Clark says the priority there is to pick the grapes left on the vines as quickly as possible.

CLARK: That's proving to be very difficult just because of all the road closures and, you know, what people have lost. They've lost their vehicles, their means of transportation.

ROMERO: Valley of the Moon is one of the oldest wineries in the region. It wasn't damaged, but many of its workers had to evacuate their homes. General manager Dave MacDonald says grape growers and winery owners are concerned about their workers and will try to help them.

DAVE MACDONALD: I know that, you know, every company in this industry will do their best to help, you know, absorb some of that workforce and help to find some work for others that need it.

ROMERO: MacDonald's winery was closed last week and is only slowly beginning to return to normal operations. Some grape growers have said they'll pay their seasonal agricultural workers anyway. Luis Guerrero has 25 years of experience in the wineries. He's working near Valley of the Moon's cellar, using a big metal hose to fill wooden barrels with crushed grapes.

LUIS GUERRERO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: He says he needed to start working again and making $16 an hour. The week of work he lost, that money was for his rent. Typically, seasonal hires around here don't get paid if they don't work.

GUERRERO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: Agricultural work is already somewhat precarious, and Guerrero says these fires make his life and the life of many others even more uncertain. For NPR News, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero in Sonoma, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "HEDRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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