More than 100 farmworkers employed by West Coast Berry Farms in Santa Maria walked off their job site on Oso Flaco Road Thursday to join a call for increased wages across the region.

Employees at the farm, who claim they are not paid enough to meet the growing costs of everyday needs, are demanding that an hourly pay system be put in place along with the current per-box piece rate.

Workers striking outside the company's Skyway Drive office said they want to make the minimum wage of $14 per hour along with $1.25 per box of strawberries and $2 per box of juice.

West Coast spokeswoman Cindy Jewell, however, said that their workers started the season with an hourly wage and then transitioned to making $2.25 per box, which usually equates to around $5 above minimum wage.

"They dictate their pay — we don't dictate it to them," Jewell said Thursday night, adding that the workers received a wage increase to $2.25 earlier this week. 

A smaller group of workers was permitted to present a petition requesting better pay inside the office Thursday afternoon, but no commitments were made, said Fernando Martinez, an organizer with Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project who was assisting with the strike. Workers will resume their strike at 5:30 a.m. Friday near their worksite. 

Martinez said the workers are not making enough to support their families, and after seeing other workers receive increased pay as a result of demonstrations at local farms such as Rancho Laguna and Hill Top Produce Inc. over the last year, more workers appear to be feeling emboldened to call for change.

"We all know that with minimum wage it's a little harder to have a stable income," Martinez said. "Workers are finally able to speak up and not be silenced about the low wages. They see other workers stepping it up to ask for better wages, and it encourages them a little bit more to ask for the same thing."

According to the state Employment Development Department, agricultural workers dealing with berry crops in California's South Coast region — which includes Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties — saw a 5.3% increase in annual earnings from 2019 to 2020.

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While the increase is much greater than in past years, the 2020 average still comes out to just $21,800 in annual earnings. The number will likely increase, however, with California's minimum wage changing to $14 per hour this year for companies with 26 or more employees and to $15 in 2022. 

On Thursday, West Coast Berry employees waited for hours at the Skyway Drive office to talk with a representative. Officers with the Santa Maria Police Department arrived after workers surrounded the vehicle of one of their supervisors, preventing him from leaving the parking lot. 

Officers said they had been told that the workers were forcibly shaking the car of the supervisor, but the crowd disputed the claim, saying that video of the afternoon proved otherwise. Officers then attempted to facilitate negotiations between workers and the unnamed supervisor, but he declined to discuss the issue with the employees, a video of the strike shows. 

"You cannot do anything for us," one worker participating in the strike told the officers. "Who can help us is the company."

Workers and local organizers said they are hopeful they will see progress on Friday.

"The employer has the right to deny any negotiation, but hopefully they see the value of the work, because without the farmworkers these employers wouldn't be making their income," Martinez said. "I'm really hoping we can get something to change for the workers."

West Coast Berries is owned by Oxnard-based Bobalu Berries.

This article was updated to correct the details of workers' wage request.

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