top of page

Acting US Labor secretary lays out new farmworker protection rules at Santa Rosa vineyard


Apr 26, 2024

Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su, back right at podium, announces a new labor department rule to ensure fair labor standards for the U.S. agricultural industry, at a press conference at Balletto Vineyards in Santa Rosa, Friday, April 26, 2024.

Julie Su selected Balletto Vineyards as an example of protections done right

U.S. Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su returned to her home state Friday to lay out new federal labor standards designed to protect farmworkers, particularly those operating under the H-2A program.

The H-2A program allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers when it’s determined there’s a lack of able, willing and qualified workers.

In addressing a crowd of more than 100 people, including dignitaries such as U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, Su paid homage to the setting, choosing Balletto Vineyards in Santa Rosa as an example of a winery providing adequate protections.

“All workers deserve a fair shake. I’ve seen throughout my life what farmworkers can do,” she said, mentioning how their work puts food on people’s tables, even under adverse conditions related to weather and the pandemic. “We have your back.”

The rules add new protections for “worker self-advocacy,” meaning those that provide a voice to farmworkers. The rules also mandate that “contracts with pay requirements must be honored if workers are terminated,“ and terminations must be considered ”for cause."

The new regulations aim to address long-standing abuses of farmworkers and hold employers accountable for mistreatment. There’s now a seat belt requirement to enforce transportation safety.

The final rules will go into effect June 28.

“Part of the role of the Department of Labor is to breathe life into laws that Congress passes. These rules — finalized — went through a thoughtful, careful process,” Su said during a question-and-answer session after the news conference.

She indicated recent anti-immigrant rhetoric has heightened the need for the federal government to guard against abuses.

“Every worker, immigrant workers are incredibly valuable, and any time we can strengthen their protections is good,” she said.

Several speakers affirmed the need for the tougher standards.

Maria Casillas, who works in Delano (Central Valley), offered glimpses of dire conditions that involved pesticide poisoning and fear of retaliation for those workers who speak up.

She said fellow workers were told: “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

In contrast, Daysi Estrada told the crowd she’s pleased to be working at Balletto Vineyards, from which owner John Balletto operates its ag employer, Balletto Ranch Inc.

Estrada cited clean bathrooms and water as well as bonuses and paid holidays as a few sources of her contentment.

“We’re treated well by our boss,” she said.

“It’s valuable to have the same people come back,” Balletto said afterward. “Any time people are happy in their environment, it’s an economic issue too. If they’re treated well, they’re going to do a good job.”

Huffman, whose district encompasses part of Santa Rosa, agreed the kind and decent treatment of farmworkers also equates to a thriving ag economy in the North Bay.

“Many of (these workers) are vulnerable. There’s still too much abuse,” he said to the crowd, adding Balletto Vineyards “understands” how to treat them.

Advocacy groups have long pushed for legislation to help farmworker causes.

“It is time we recognize the dignity of farmworkers. This rule is a step in the right direction,” said Alexis Guild, vice president of Strategy and Programs at Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.

In some respects, the new federal rules follow state standards.

“We need community collaboration,” California Labor Commissioner Lilia Garcia Brower said, because abuses are still occurring, she added. But Garcia Brower insisted the state is vigilant about answering the calls of the highly vulnerable.

It’s a feeling echoed by the Sonoma County Vintners Association.

“Our multigenerational wine community honors and supports our vineyard and winery workers. We value their dedication, commitment and contributions that are demonstrated each day and help to create and maintain a vibrant Sonoma County,” Sonoma County Vintners Executive Director Mike Haney said in a statement.

bottom of page