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Regional Interests

Immigrant Workers Power Napa Valley’s Economy – But Fires and COVID Are Destroying Jobs

Carlos Arnulfo Vergara, an evacuee forced to flee from the Glass Fire burning in Napa and Sonoma counties, arrived at an emergency center at Napa Valley College earlier this week with a furrowed brow.

Vergara, a farmworker for more than two decades, had planned on working the entire harvest season. But the destruction wrought by recent wildfires in the form of scorched vineyards and smoke-damaged grapes has cut short many local vineyard and winery jobs, he said.

“It’s over. The fire came and finished everything,” said Vergara, 59, an immigrant from Mexico who lives at the Calistoga Farmworker Center. “I’m not going to work the rest of October or November. That’s money that won’t go into my pocket.”

The immediate danger to thousands of residents of Calistoga, St. Helena and other Napa Valley communities has subsided as firefighters continue to make progress against the Glass Fire, which has charred over 67,000 acres since igniting on Sept. 27 and is now nearly 75% contained.

But many of the region’s Latino immigrant workers – who are key to the local economy – say this year’s wildfires have intensified another danger: income and job losses.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many local families have struggled financially as shelter-in-place measures hampered tourism, restaurants and wine businesses, said Jenny Ocón, executive director for UpValley Family Centers.

“It’s just devastating for the community. It’s been one thing after another,” she said. “And in particular, the immigrant community is pretty hard-hit because often certain members are not eligible for federal benefits.”

Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for unemployment insurance, coronavirus aid or other government benefits – even when they pay taxes. And more than half of California’s farmworkers are undocumented, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Labor.

UpValley and other non-profits in the Napa Valley Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) network have channeled more than $150,000 in private donations to provide evacuees with emergency gift cards for gas, groceries and other basic needs, said Ocón.

But she foresees more long-term help will be needed, including rental assistance for vulnerable residents.

Susana Garcia at UpValley Family Centers holds gift cards for evacuees to purchase food, gas and other basic needs. The nonprofit is part of a network, Napa Valley Community Organizations Active in Disaster, that has distributed more than $150,000 in gift cards to local evacuees. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Before the Glass Fire destroyed more than 300 homes in Napa County, some low-income families were already struggling to afford rent. This new loss of housing stock could make it even more difficult for them to continue living in the area, said Ocón.

“I do think it will displace some families,” she said. “Housing is already really expensive here.”

The median rent in the city of Napa is more than $2,400 a month, according to city officials.

The displacement of workers could spell trouble for restaurants, hotels, wineries and vineyards that rely on low-wage immigrant workers to be competitive, said Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler.

“Once they want to hire workers back in earnest, they might find a labor market that doesn’t have as much supply as they used to,” he said.

Eyler estimates that more than 80% of Napa County’s economy is connected in some way to tourism or the wine industry.

“If people can’t find work here and other states are opening more quickly and have fewer COVID cases, have fewer fires affecting their agriculture and hospitality, people might move on,” said Eyler, who grew up in the area.

Low-wage workers facing food insecurity and the inability to pay rent will need more long-term support to hang on in the region, he said, but the pandemic and decreased tax revenues have shrunk local and state budgets.

Yalitza Garcia, another evacuee, said she lost her six-year job as a waitress at a restaurant in Yountville during the pandemic.

In June, she found another position as a server, but the restaurant – which can only seat up to 25% of its capacity indoors – lost customers as the smoky air meant patrons couldn’t sit outdoors either, she said.

“It’s really difficult,” said Garcia, the mother of two young children. “My wages have gone down a lot.”

She is one of nearly 2,000 evacuees the County of Napa has helped shelter in hotel rooms during the Glass Fire, according to county officials.

Garcia came to the evacuation center with Silvia Arroyo, her sister-in-law, to get boxed lunches for relatives staying at their hotel.

Arroyo, a house cleaner, said the fire burnt two houses in St. Helena where she worked. She had already lost clients and income during the pandemic.

Both women said they were grateful for the immediate aid of food and hotel rooms to shelter in. But they are also applying for rental assistance from the county, which could keep their families housed until they can make more money, said Garcia.

“But we have to wait,” she said. “Because a lot of other people have also applied.”

Resources for Immigrant Workers

These organizations offer cash assistance to undocumented immigrants in wine country:

UndocuFund for Disaster Relief in Sonoma County UpValley Relief Fund (includes Napa and Lake counties) Down Valley Relief Fund (Napa County)

Find a full list of organizations providing assistance in Northern California here via the California Immigrant Resilience Fund.

Find COVID-19-related resources from the state of California for immigrants in Spanish, Vietnamese and other languages here.

Copyright 2020 KQED