Half Moon Bay farm workers resume jobs amid labor conditions probe sparked by shootings
Workers at the pair of Half Moon Bay, California, mushroom farms that saw back-to-back mass shootings two weeks ago have returned to their jobs, according to reports.
The news comes as state officials have vowed to investigate labor and safety practices in both farms, which drew attention after the alleged mass shooter, 66-year-old Chunli Zhao, claimed years of mistreatment and grueling work hours.
Workers at Concord Farms — the site of the second shooting, where three people were killed — returned less than a week after the deadly incident.
One employee who spoke with AP News said they needed to earn a living and find solace with others going through the same trauma.
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“We all feel like we need each other; we feel like the people at the farm are the ones who really understand you right now,” said the worker, who referred to two of the victims — an elderly couple — in Spanish as “grandma” and “grandpa.”
Concord Farms, located on Cabrillo Highway South, employed about 15 people, the worker said. She described the farm as “a really joyous place,” with workers treating each other like family.
However, another employee who has worked in Half Moon Bay farms for the past decade told AP News that their heavy workload barely paid for their living expenses. The worker claimed to make $16 an hour and pay $1,300 for a room for his family of four in a four-bedroom home that they share with eight others.
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California Terra Garden, formerly known as Mountain Mushroom Farm — the site of the first shooting, where four people were killed — was fully staffed by Feb. 1.
David Oates, a company representative, told the Los Angeles Times that “the employees wanted to go back to work” and disputed claims that they were forced to return.
Zhao, the alleged gunman, most recently worked at said farm. Authorities believe he carried out the shooting after being asked to pay a $100 repair bill, but no motive has been officially confirmed.
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In the aftermath of the shootings, authorities who visited California Terra Garden described “poor conditions” for its workers.
San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told KQED after his staff visited the farm:
The workers were living in very, very poor conditions. Some were in very old trailers and others were living in shacks without running water or electricity. Really a type of living circumstance that I don’t think any of us think should exist in this country.
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San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller, who visited the farm himself, described the workers’ living conditions as “deplorable” and “heartbreaking.” He posted photos from the site on Twitter, including Zhao’s unit.
Viewed the crime scenes today in Half Moon Bay. Deplorable, heartbreaking living conditions. As I said on the campaign trail, we must raise the quality of life of farm workers, NOW. pic.twitter.com/mBIqisKurQ
— Ray Mueller (@Ray_Mueller_) January 26, 2023
Where the shooter lived. pic.twitter.com/LQZtdaswml
— Ray Mueller (@Ray_Mueller_) January 26, 2023
Between 60% and 75% of California’s more than 400,000 agricultural workers are believed to be undocumented immigrants.
Advocates say this keeps them from speaking out against unfair or even unlawful labor practices.
“Once an employer provides a worker housing, the worker becomes dependent on them not only for their wages but for their housing security and the security of their families,” Cynthia Rice, director of litigation, advocacy and training at California Rural Legal Assistance, told KQED.
Gov. Gavin Newsom condemned the situations at the farms after learning that some workers make as little as $9 an hour, which is well below California’s minimum wage of $15.50.
Some of you should see where these folks are living, the conditions they are living in, in shipping containers. Folks getting $9 an hour with no health care, no support, no services. But they’re taking care of our health and providing a service to us each and every day.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the Labor Commissioner’s office are reportedly investigating labor, safety and health violations at both farms.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said his office may prosecute the farms’ owners if serious violations are discovered.
On Jan. 26, California Terra Garden promised to construct permanent housing for its employees over the next year. It said the decision came “after collaborative discussions with local officials that uncovered a series of code and permitting requirements unknown before the tragic shootings that occurred last week.”
Zhao, for his part, is set to be arraigned on Feb. 16. He is being held without bail on seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder — both with firearm use enhancements — as well as a “special circumstance allegation of multiple murder.”