A Santa Maria berry grower has paid $30,000 in an unfair labor practices settlement to compensate employees who were allegedly retaliated against during a work stoppage last spring, according to an Agricultural Labor Relations Board representative.  

Money from Rancho Laguna Farms, LLC was distributed to 212 employees on Sunday in the form of $140 checks, as a way to make up the day's worth of lost wages, said ALRB representative Daniela Ramirez.

In response to requests for comment about the settlement, Rancho Laguna owner Larry Ferini said the farm is continuing to improve relations with employees by expanding communication opportunities in indigenous languages.

"Employees within the company helped us to broaden and improve our communications with our valued employees. With this we have been able to more effectively converse with our employees, and we have seen a great improvement in understanding and resolving issues and concerns as they arise," Ferini said. 

For many workers, picking up their checks at the Santa Maria office of nonprofit Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), the checks symbolized not only a day of wages but recognition after months of lobbying that resulted in a 20-cent pay raise from Rancho Laguna and an outpouring of support from the community. 

"Yesterday was filled with excitement and relief," Garcia said on Monday. "The compensation is showing and affirming that [the workers] did the right thing in speaking up for themselves."

In a complaint filed with the ALRB in May, CAUSE alleged that Rancho Laguna supervisors retaliated against farmworkers participating in a work stoppage in demand of better wages by calling the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office to the farm and threatening to bring in immigration officials. 

Several farmworkers who participated in the work stoppage said the presence of law enforcement, along with being told by supervisors to leave if they didn't like the work conditions, caused many of them to believe they were fired.

CAUSE organizers estimated that around 100 workers left the fields that day as a result, almost all of whom the ALRB was able to track down through daily work logs and compensate on Sunday, Garcia said. 

Following negotiations with CAUSE and farmworkers, Rancho Laguna owner Ferini agreed in a June memo to raise workers' pay from $1.90 to $2.10 per flat of berries and to re-hire all workers the following season, along with other conditions dictated in the settlement. 

"Rancho Laguna also agreed to provide their current agricultural employees with information about the settlement and information about their rights under the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Finally, Rancho Laguna also agreed that the ALRB will provide a training to its supervisors on farmworkers’ rights under the act," Ramirez said. 

Under the terms of the act, farmworkers' rights to self-organize and negotiate terms of their employment, including the negotiation of wages, are protected from the interference or pressure of employers by the state. 

In addition, threats, punishment or retaliation against workers for wage-related complaints can result in a $10,000 fine per affected employee for agricultural employers, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations.

In his June memo to employees, Ferini highlighted the importance of workers' rights and also promised to triple the amount of shaded break areas for farmworkers to allow social distancing between individuals. 

"With current situations, as uncertain as we might be of the future, I remain very confident that by investing in our employees, by developing trust and building strong bonds, the company and our employees will be set for a brighter and more prosperous future," Ferini said in the memo.

During protests following the farm's alleged retaliation, workers targeted Driscoll's Berries, which Rancho Laguna supplies. While staff at Driscoll's Santa Maria office accepted a petition with over 60,000 signatures calling for accountability, official communications from the company put space between themselves and the actions of their supplier. 

"During this process, Driscoll’s had limited involvement regarding the wage discussions as that would have interfered with the operations of the separate and independent business of Rancho Laguna Farms," the company said in a 2020 statement