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Floods Sideline Farm Laborers : Agriculture: Unemployment claims triple in Oxnard as thousands lose work. Union leaders fear more will be fired after fields are dried out.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ashamed to seek help from the government, Eliodoro Frutos had never been to an unemployment office before last week.

But the farm laborer, out of work indefinitely because of the recent storms, swallowed his pride out of concern for his wife and five children who live in Mexico. Frutos, who has a permit to work in the United States, said his family members rely on the money he sends them to survive.

“I haven’t been able to send them any money,” Frutos said. “They don’t have anything.”

The last two weeks of storms have not only hurt Ventura County’s multimillion-dollar agricultural industry--they have also left thousands of farm laborers without jobs.

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Many of the seasonal workers survive day to day on the few hundred dollars they earn in weekly wages, and they say they will need government aid to weather the crisis.

“It’s been difficult,” Frutos said. “We’re looking for some help.”

Last week’s rains delivered an estimated $23-million blow to the county’s agriculture industry, with most damage occurring in the strawberry and vegetable fields of the Oxnard Plain.

That estimate is expected to climb, because it does not include avocado and citrus losses.

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Avelina Villalobos, who manages the Oxnard office of the state Employment Development Department, said her office received 1,705 unemployment claims last week--three times the usual amount. Most were from farm laborers unable to work because of the flooded fields, she said.

“From the time we open up in the morning, there are people lined up outside,” Villalobos said. “And there are lines of people waiting until the end of the day.”

If they can show permits to work in the United States, the farm workers will receive $140 to $230 a week in unemployment-compensation benefits for up to 26 weeks, based on their wages, Villalobos said.

Mario Brito, who manages the Oxnard bureau of United Farm Workers Union, predicted that the plight of the county’s farm workers will only worsen in weeks to come.

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Many growers now employ agricultural laborers as they desperately try to salvage what they can of their crops. But once the fields are cleaned up and dried out, the farm workers may be fired, Brito said.

“The companies have insurance,” Brito said. “The workers are the real victims.”

But Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said he expects most farm workers to return to their jobs in a few weeks.

“To contrast it with the 1991 freeze, there will be delays, but I don’t think there will be any measurable loss of workdays,” he said. “If anything, there is probably more work available right now to prepare for next week’s rains and cleanup.”

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Playing poker and dominoes in Oxnard’s Del Sol Park, about a dozen unemployed farm workers whittled away the time Tuesday and talked about the future.

“We’re just trying to pass the time until dinner, and then we’ll come back tomorrow,” said Cornelio Anguiano. “The problem is, when there is no work, you lose your appetite.”


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