Living . . . Off the Land : Agriculture: A state program is placing laid-off farm workers in new jobs. But only a few dozen are participating.


Nine months ago, before a hard freeze ravaged California agriculture, Reyna Lemus, Celso Aguilar and Rosalva Cardenas were toiling in the fields of Ventura County or sorting fruit at a local packing plant.

These days, Cardenas looks after children at a day-care center, Aguilar paints over graffiti in a gang-infested barrio and Lemus is putting her Mexican junior college certificate to use at an office where she has learned to operate a computer.

They are the fortunate few, three of the 85 unemployed farm workers in the county admitted so far to the state's $5.6-million Farmworker Freeze Program, whose participants are put to work for school districts, cities and nonprofit agencies.

Others weren't so lucky. Harvest season ended early this year for about a third of the county's estimated 22,000 farm workers. With half of the county's avocado crop and a quarter of its lemon crop lost to the freeze, the fall harvest could be the worst in county history, according to predictions from local farmers and agriculture officials.

The scarce supply of some crops ensures that most farmers will recover some or all of their losses. But a majority of the unemployed farm workers face the options of going on welfare if they are legal residents or returning early to Mexico if they were working here under a seasonal permit.

Unless, of course, they apply for jobs under Farmworker Freeze, which is financed with emergency funds from the state Employment Development Department, which oversees the program, and the federal Department of Labor.

But not everyone is eligible or interested in participating. Farm workers must be able to prove that they lost their jobs to the freeze, which is usually accomplished with an employment record and a letter from an employer. They also must be eligible for or have exhausted their unemployment benefits.

Further, they must be U.S. citizens, permanent residents or temporary residents who have obtained a work permit, said Shirley Ortiz, director of the nonprofit Center for Employment Training in Oxnard, which administers the program in Ventura County.

Illegal immigrants make up about a third of the county's farm work force, Ortiz said. And longtime legal residents who have paid Social Security taxes for years do not apply because their unemployment benefits surpass $5.75 an hour--which is what the state program pays in Ventura County, she said.

In June, program administrators thought they could fill 400 jobs in Ventura County with participants. But despite advertising at Employment Development Department offices and day-laborer pickup sites, only a fraction of those eligible have stepped forward to join the program, funded from June 11 to Dec. 11. Administrators said they still believe they can fill 35 more jobs in the next couple of months.

Because of the low participation, the county program only has received $325,000 of the state funds so far. Ortiz said she expects that $400,000 will be allocated to the county by the time the program is over.

"With this program, we're barely scratching the surface," Ortiz said. "We thought we would be helping a lot more people, but we now realize it's very difficult to find and identify eligible farm workers. They have pride and self-respect and don't want to come out and admit they don't have food or a place to sleep."

But for the few dozen workers who have been willing and able to apply, she said, the program has provided a rare opportunity to leave behind the hardships and uncertainties of seasonal farm labor.

Reyna Lemus, 27, and Lupe Ortiz, 26, had never worked on a computer before. In their hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico, each had attended junior college. Lemus holds an Auxiliary Accountant certificate, and Ortiz graduated as an executive assistant. Both held white-collar jobs before immigrating to the United States four years ago and becoming permanent residents.

Lemus found work as a strawberry picker in Oxnard, Ortiz as an orange packer in Piru. The freeze left them jobless. The day after they were let go in July, they saw a flyer at an Oxnard unemployment office advertising Farmworker Freeze.

Now, they sit side by side, pecking away at the computer keyboard and electric typewriter they have learned to use. Smiling proudly, they type job applications and key in work schedules at the Center for Employment Training.

"This is really amazing," Lemus said in Spanish. "I can't believe how much information you can feed into a computer."

"It really stimulates your imagination," Ortiz added.

Neither woman wants to return to her old job. Language remains a barrier, but each hopes to increase her skills and marketability by taking English lessons at the center.

"I want to find myself a job that will allow me to grow and expand my horizons," said Ortiz, who already has learned the cliches of the upwardly mobile.

It has been more than two months since Celso Aguilar, 32, put down his hoe and picked up a paintbrush. Under the supervision of El Concilio, a nonprofit Latino group that participates in the state program, Aguilar and three fellow unemployed farm workers now spend their days covering over graffiti in the alleys of La Colonia, Oxnard's working-class Latino enclave.

"What I like the most about my new job is that I'm helping the community," Aguilar said. "I've made a lot of friends, and maybe someone will offer me a job so I can stay in La Colonia."

"This is light work compared to the fields," offered colleague Francisco Umbriz, 57. "And it's very rewarding. I just hope the neighbors help us conserve what we have accomplished."

Gang members constantly scrawling graffiti over freshly painted surfaces don't seem to discourage the crew. "The people who spray graffiti are vandals with nothing better to do," Aguilar said, while painting over a brick wall for the second time this week.

"Instead of wasting their time, they should join us," he added, laughing.

Surrounded by a roomful of children she is teaching to play cards, Rosalva Cardenas said she's glad to be doing something different after 15 years' work at the Saticoy Lemon Co. packing plant.

Eventually, she plans to return to the plant, she said, because it pays $6.25 an hour. But for now she is enjoying her after-school teacher's aide job at the Oxnard Girls Clubs, where she also performs cleaning duties and maintenance work.

"I like to be around kids," she said, a young girl clinging to her knee. "I have four kids of my own and sometimes come down too hard on them. Here, you learn to have patience."

As a side benefit, Cardenas is learning English from the children, and teaching them Spanish with the help of Carmen Hernandez, the club's bilingual teacher.

"Rosalva is a big help, and the kids love her," Hernandez said.

Other institutions are being helped by the Farmworker Freeze Program as well. The city of Oxnard earlier this year shut down 26 bathrooms in public parks because it could not afford to maintain them. But by adding 22 unemployed farm workers to its Parks and Recreation Department at no cost, it has reopened 20 of them, said Gary Davis, director of the department.

"As we get more farm workers we'll open more bathrooms," Davis said. "It's working out good for us."

Head Start in Ventura County, a federal preschool program for low-income families, has gained 26 teacher aides. The nonprofit Commission for Human Concerns in Oxnard--which provides various services to the poor, including food distribution and help with rent--and the Arthritis Foundation in Ventura have benefited as well. So has the Oxnard-based Zoe Christian Center, Ventura County's largest homeless shelter.

Although the program is helping relatively few unemployed farm workers, it is well worth the effort, insists Ortiz.

"Without the program, the people we are employing would be a burden to the taxpayers," she said. "Not only are we putting them to work and teaching them new skills, but as a side benefit, we are helping organizations that deserve our support."

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