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Boeschen Vineyards in Napa Valley becomes 1st to provide vineyard workers hazard pay and disaster insurance


Oct 27, 2023

To Boeschen, committing to this small safety net in times of emergency isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the way labor relations are headed in the wine business.

When vineyard crews showed up for this year’s harvest at Boeschen Vineyards, a small winery that operates largely out of a cave dug into a pretty hillside off Silverado Trail just north of St. Helena, they were asked to listen to a three-minute presentation.

Doug Boeschen, the business’ owner, informed these seasonal agricultural workers, among the most economically vulnerable in the North Bay, that the winery was now offering them a combination of hazard pay and disaster insurance.

“When we talked to them, they are speechless,” said Alejandro Baltazar, Boeschen Vineyards’ longtime estate manager. “They say they never hear something like that. That day they are speechless, but the second day, they say, ‘It’s amazing.’”

There was no natural disaster to trigger those payments this month, fortunately, and Boeschen wrapped up its harvest Wednesday.

In fact, harvest hasn’t been disrupted by a major wildfire around here since 2020. But in a warming age, everyone knows the flames and toxic air will come again.

When they do, Boeschen Vineyards will provide an option to its workers — including the seasonal labor that pours into the region’s renowned vineyards for just a few days or weeks at a time. If the Air Quality Index climbs above 150, Boeschen’s workers will be able to choose between receiving time-and-a-half to remain on the job, or to take paid time off.

“For many years, I have felt that Napa Valley does everything related to wine at a world-class level,” Doug Boeschen said. “We’re the best there is at everything related to wine – except sometimes for how we treat our people.”

The disaster guarantees are a rarity in the industry.

E&J Gallo, the largest winery in the U.S. by sales volume, provides similar benefits to its ag workers; those benefits were agreed upon in collective bargaining with the United Farm Workers union. Eco Terreno, which grows and bottles grapes in the Alexander Valley, has also committed to paying its workers a 150% rate when the AQI hits 150.

Boeschen Vineyards is believed to be the first Napa Valley winery to do it, according to the North Bay Jobs With Justice labor collective.

The idea crystallized for Boeschen, he said, during the Glass Fire.

His winery was halfway through its grape harvest when that fire blew up about three miles away on the night of Sept. 27, 2020. Boeschen’s workers had picked portions of four of the six grape varietals grown at the 11-acre estate.

A crew of three city of Napa firefighters wound up saving the winery and the 1890 house on the property that night, but it was touch and go. (Many trees on ridges overlooking the winery remain charred three years later.) Baltazar showed up at 5 a.m. the next morning, ready to oversee a 20-ton pick, and called Boeschen to say the air was so smoky, he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.

Boeschen told him to get out. No one returned to the property for 4½ days.

“Everything that was in the tank already made fantastic wines,” Boeschen said. “And then everything that was not yet picked was not possible to turn into wine.”

As he calculated his loss, Boeschen quickly realized many others had it worse.

“There were lots of owners that suffered greatly in the fires,” he said. “I don’t want to diminish that. But generally speaking, it’s always going to be the workers who suffer the most.”

The situation is particularly fragile for undocumented workers, whose immigration status often prevents them from accessing state, local and federal disaster assistance funds. Without papers, residents are ineligible for unemployment benefits, and for Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuilding assistance if a natural disaster damages their personal property.

Boeschen can count his full-time employees on one hand, and he has always paid them when they were unable to work. He has gotten to know a lot of his seasonal workers well, too, and knew he could do the same for them. But he wanted something in writing.

“We consider it a contract, because my signature’s on it and a document exists,” Boeschen said. “But there’s no requirement on it from the workers’ side.”

North Bay Jobs With Justice has made the two-sided coin of hazard pay and disaster insurance a major point of emphasis the past several years. The group worked with Boeschen to craft his guidelines, and to get the word out.

Sandra De Leon, a Jobs With Justice worker leader who lives in northern Santa Rosa, has performed a variety of agricultural jobs in the area. She knows how cruel the weather can be.

De Leon was working the grape harvest near Glen Ellen when the devastating North Bay fires started in 2017. She recalled picking fruit while “the skies were still red and thick with smoke.” In 2018 there was flooding, and months later airborne smoke blown in from wildfires far to the north. In 2020, she was up the mountain from Boeschen, harvesting grapes near Angwin.

“We were starting a new vineyard, and we were an hour into harvest when all of a sudden, we started hearing on the radio — the drivers play the radio on tractors — people calling in with information,” De Leon said through an interpreter. “The tractor driver got out, and told everyone, ‘Leave your stuff where it is, and everyone get out. It’s an emergency.’”

De Leon has no chronic respiratory issues, she said. But she has coughed badly enough while working in smoky air that she needed to hit an inhaler. She has seen co-workers struggle much more desperately than that.

“If you really had to give workers a choice, they would say to not work in dangerous conditions — to work putting your body at risk — but the reality is you have bills to pay and you can’t do that,” she said. “If we’re going to work in conditions like that, we deserve extra pay.”

Hazard pay and paid time off continue to be hot-button issues in the agricultural industry. In June 2022, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a disaster emergency fund of $3 million to help compensate affected workers. The county authorized distribution of the first $1 million from that fund in January and February, following a battery of storms that made ag work inaccessible.

But the county has been hesitant to require private companies to provide those benefits. The issue erupted again Oct. 3 when the board revisited the county’s Ag Pass system, which governs who gets to enter evacuation zones in agricultural areas, and under what conditions.

Jobs With Justice and other labor advocates pushed again for mandatory hazard pay and disaster insurance, and a diminished role by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in the Ag Pass program. They were rebuffed on all counts.

Doug Boeschen acknowledged Thursday that his promise to workers might not be popular with everyone in his industry. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we received some pushback,” he said, but added that he is unconcerned about it.

To Boeschen, committing to this small safety net in times of emergency isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the way labor relations are headed in the wine business.

“I think this is something that’s going to exist for everyone in 10 or 20 years,” he said. “We’re going to wonder why the heck did we not do this earlier.”

As his estate manager, Baltazar, said, “Somebody needs to start it. If you don’t put that seed, nobody can see what grows.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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