Cornelio Ramires arrived at Sakuma Farms ready for work on Monday, but found none. He drove all the way from California with his wife and four children, expecting to pick berries, as he has done for the past 8 years. Now, though, he has no work and nowhere to live.
“When I got here they didn’t assign me a cabin,” he said, through an interpreter. “I don’t understand. I need the cabin for my family.”
The same is true for dozens of families who are arriving for the annual berry season at Sakuma Farms. The farm has offered free housing as an incentive for workers for years, but restricted it to employees only this year, after strikes last season. The issue landed the two sides in court last week, where a judge ruled the farm must provide housing for both employees and their families, but that still hasn’t happened.
“I’m worried,” said Ramires. “I’m gretting desperate. I’m running out of money and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The farm has used free housing as a way to attract workers who will return year after year, and become a stable labor force. The workers like working at Sakuma because they are able to live rent-free and save money for the winter months when there isn't much work to be found.
As the workers continued arriving Monday, attorneys for unionized pickers went back to court and started planting the seeds of a possible contempt of court charge against Steve Sakuma, something that could land the farm owner in jail. Saying he simply doesn’t have enough qualified people to pick his crops, Sakuma has opened 30 acres of strawberry fields to the public to pick for free – as dozens of workers sit with nothing to do and nowhere to live.
"They might not be acting logically anymore," said attorney Andrea Schmitt, who represents the workers in court. "They might be cutting off their nose to spite their face."
With no place to stay, the pickers are turning to the Catholic Church, which is providing vouchers for cheap hotels. Some of the migrants have reportedly been told they can start working when the blueberry crop is ripe, but that won’t be for a couple of weeks and they are worried their housing vouchers will have run out by then.
Repeated calls for comment to Sakuma Farms have not been returned