Farmworkers return to work at Half Moon Bay shooting sites

Less than a week after a mass shooting killed seven people at two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay, farm workers returned to the sites where their colleagues and neighbors were gunned down.

Workers returned to Concord Farms last week, said Aaron Tung, whose family owns the farm. The California Terra Garden resumed operations on Saturday and was fully staffed through Wednesday, said David Oates, a company representative.

“Staff wanted to get back to work,” Oates, a crisis PR expert hired by California Terra Garden, told The Times. “We have said whenever you are ready to return to work as you are comfortable we will adjust.”

The reopening of the farms comes as farmworker advocates have expressed concerns that workers may be returning too quickly after the mass shooting that took place on January 23, which officials said was being watched by workers and some children.

“They don’t want to go back to work, but they need to go back to work,” said Darlene Tenes, founder of Farmworker Caravan, an organization that supports farm workers in the area and also provides meals and services to affected people. “How would you feel? Your colleagues just got shot.”

Some advocates have stressed that it is unfair to only ask workers if they want to return to the site. Many of the workers are immigrants and don’t know their rights, Tenes said. More than 40 adults and 19 children were evicted immediately after the shooting, most of them from Terra Garden, California, she said.

“You need to [return] to survive,” she said, adding that returning could expose her to new trauma.

A man holds a candle and a stuffed animal and sits alongside others at a vigil

People attend a vigil to commemorate the victims of the Half Moon Bay shooting at Mac Dutra Park on Friday.

(Ray Chavez/Mercury News via Getty Images)

Oates denied claims that the workers were concerned about the return, stressing that none of them were forced to return.

“I haven’t had anyone say they’re nervous about going back to work,” he said, adding that workers weren’t given a deadline to return. “That was their decision and we are back to normal operations.”

Tung declined to put on record whether the staff expressed concerns about returning, but said “people love working for us.” One employee who was killed, Marciano Martinez Jimenez, had been on the staff for more than 20 years.

The quick return to work for farm workers, a population that proponents say is already economically vulnerable, contrasts sharply with other mass shootings in the United States, where businesses and schools have been closed for months after similar events.

The Walmart in El Paso, where 23 people were gunned down and killed, remained closed for three weeks after the 2019 shooting. The Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, NY, where 10 people were killed, remained closed for two months in 2022. The Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia, where a shooter killed six people in November, is still closed.

Oates said workers would continue to have access to counselors.

Now local officials and advocacy groups are trying to offer rural workers options as they try to recover from the tragedy, including finding new homes or jobs for those interested.

“It’s not just any place for her, this is her life. Here they felt safe until that happened.”

– Joaquin Jimenez, Deputy Mayor of Half Moon Bay

Whether they decide to return to the farms to work and live or seek new employment and a new home is up to workers, organizers say.

Last weekend, religious groups and farmworker advocacy groups called on residents of Half Moon Bay for short- and long-term shelters for affected workers and their families — a monumental task in a coastal community in San Mateo County, where the average home price is $1.2 million US dollars and the average monthly rent is more than US$2,000, which is far beyond what farm workers can afford.

An aerial view of a farm

California Terra Garden at Half Moon Bay. Operations at the mushroom farm resumed on Saturday, five days after a man killed seven people in two shootings.

(Santiago Mejia / Chronicles of San Francisco)

At California Terra Farm, the site of the first attack, workers paid about $300 a month in rent, Oates said.

The goal is to give workers options they often miss out on, said Judith Guerrero, executive director of Coastside Hope, which provides services to the homeless, elderly and families working below the poverty line in the agriculture, hospitality, hospitality and household services industries life . She said workers told her they had been struggling with headaches, insomnia and anxiety since the shooting.

“[Farmworkers] have expressed that they do not feel safe,” Guerrero said. “We really stressed that if you’re not ready to go back to work, you shouldn’t go back to work.”

The Times tried to reach the farm workers affected by the shooting but was unsuccessful. Organizations that provide services to the workers and their families said they could not be made available for interviews at this time.

The two farms were closed while police gathered evidence and investigated the crime scene. Affected employees, most from California Terra Garden, who lived on-site, stayed at a local hotel during the investigation and were provided with hot meals, new clothing and counseling services. County officials, Coastside Hope and Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a local non-profit group that advocates for farm workers, also provided financial assistance to the workers.

Authorities said a dispute with a supervisor and a colleague from California Terra Garden over a $100 repair bill prompted the suspect, who authorities have identified as Chunli Zhao, 66, to pick up a gun and to kill her. San Mateo County Atty District. Steve Wagstaffe said the suspected shooter told investigators he then went out to attack other employees with whom he had had disagreements in the past.

California Terra Garden announced on January 26th that it would build new and permanent staff housing, which may take a year to complete.

The company’s plans to build new units come after it was discovered that the previous RVs and mobile homes that farm workers lived in did not have permits and inspections from the county. Also follows an announcement from state officials who said so opened investigations in labor and workplace practices on both farms.

An aerial view of mobile homes on a farm

Mobile Homes at California Terra Garden in Half Moon Bay.

(Santiago Mejia / Chronicles of San Francisco)

Some workers asked if they could go back to work, requests proponents believe have worried about being paid or losing their jobs.

“They know what it could mean if they don’t go to work and because they’re just farm workers they feel very responsible, but I’m not sure it would be easy to go back to work,” he said Guerrero. “Many saw what happened, many heard the shots.”

Guerrero said a young mother told her that she left her younger child with her older daughter at her home in Terra Garden, California, while she worked or ran errands. Now she can’t imagine doing that again.

Others have said they no longer want to live near where their colleagues at California’s Terra Garden were gunned down, which happened near where many workers and their families lived, officials said. Children who had just finished school witnessed the shooting.

“I heard from someone who asked if there was any chance of getting a new job,” Guerrero said.

The organization is currently looking for homes for about 18 households, she said, including families and single workers from both farms.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, chief executive and founder of Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, or ALAS, said workers are still visibly traumatized by the shooting and some are “not doing well physically.” Many are just beginning to process what happened, she said.

Other supporters also questioned the workers’ willingness to return.

“The people who witnessed the shooting are a trauma that will not be easily removed,” said Joaquin Jimenez, vice mayor of Half Moon Bay and ALAS farm worker program director. “Many want to continue working, others want to work somewhere else.”

United Farm Workers spokeswoman Elizabeth Strater said the union is working with local groups on job opportunities for workers seeking new opportunities, whether in Half Moon Bay or in other farming communities in the state.

However, organizations face several challenges.

Many of the farm’s families and workers have lived in the community for years. Finding new jobs could mean uprooting entire families.

There is also the issue of workers’ immigration status. Advocates said witnesses and victims of the mass shooting would apply for underground visas, which are issued to witnesses and victims of crimes, but the process could take time.

“If we get her out of here, it could add to her shock,” Guerrero said. “We are very ambitious, but we hope that we can offer them better options.”

Although the Half Bay Moon shootings were described by authorities as workplace violence, the killing spree also happened at the heart of the farmworker community: near their homes, where families retreat at the end of the day, gathering around outdoor stoves and grills and children run and play.

“It’s not just any place for her, it’s her life,” Jimenez said. “This is where they felt safe until this happened.”

Outside the hotel where the workers are staying, two younger men sat quietly on a bench last week and looked at their phones. A woman sat crying and talking on the phone in a parked car nearby. A Times reporter asked how they were doing going back to work.

“We’re fine,” they said, their faces sullen and their eyes on the sidewalk. Farmworkers return to work at Half Moon Bay shooting sites

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