Wonderful Co., an agriculture conglomerate that sells popular brands of mandarins, pistachios and other products, will raise the minimum hourly wage for its full-time, year-round workers to $15 next month — a move that mirrors wage increases at farms across the state.
The new minimum will mean a pay bump for some 2,000 workers in Wonderful’s packing and processing plants and in its nut, citrus, pomegranate and grape orchards.
The hike takes effect Jan. 1, the same day the minimum hourly wage for agriculture workers in California will rise to $12. The state minimum won’t hit $15 until 2022 for large firms like Wonderful, while smaller firms with 25 or fewer employees will have until 2023.
The higher minimum was announced to workers Wednesday in Lost Hills, the Kern County town that’s home to Wonderful’s almond and pistachio operations, company spokesman Mark Carmel said.
“This move firmly positions the Wonderful Co. as the employer of choice in California’s Central Valley, and we encourage others in the agriculture industry to follow our lead,” said Stewart Resnick, Wonderful’s chairman, in a press release.
The pay increase comes as farmers across the state continue to face a tight labor market, one made tighter by stricter immigration enforcement under the Obama and now Trump administrations as well as by a healthier Mexican economy that has led to fewer migrant workers seeking farm jobs. Many farmers have raised wages as they try to attract workers from the now-smaller pool.
Last year, for instance, Gilroy garlic producer Christopher Ranch raised its minimum hourly wage to $13, up from $11, and this year it raised the minimum to $15. Ken Christopher, the company’s vice president, said the company went from having a shortage of 50 workers to a waiting list of 150.
Carmel, the Wonderful Co. spokesman, said the company has not experienced a labor shortage firsthand.
“This increase is not a reflection on the labor market but rather our desire to become the employer of choice in the Central Valley and California,” he said. “We want to attract and retain the best employees, and this new minimum wage will help us do so.”
Wonderful Co. is a privately held company headquartered in West L.A. that is owned by Resnick and his wife, Lynda, a Beverly Hills couple that Forbes estimates has a net worth of $5.6 billion.
The company controls a vast agriculture empire, growing, packaging and branding a bevvy of high-value products including Wonderful-brand almonds and pistachios, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice and Halos mandarins. The company also owns Fiji Water, two wine brands and flower delivery company Teleflora. It has about 9,000 employees around the world, half of them in California.
Even if the company has not faced a worker shortage, it may be trying to fend off a future shortage by holding on to current workers, said Guadalupe Sandoval, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Assn., which represents companies that supply labor to farm operators.
Sandoval sees Wonderful Co.’s wage increase, and Christopher Ranch’s earlier move, as two sides of a natural push and pull between Central Valley employers, who tend to pay less but have access to more affordable housing, and coastal agriculture employers, who tend to pay more but are in higher-cost areas.
Christopher Ranch, in Gilroy, not far from Silicon Valley, needed to raise its pay enough to persuade potential employees to drive in from the Central Valley.
"Moving to $13 became really attractive and made it worth it for people to carpool into these jobs," Christopher told The Times last year, before further raising wages this year.
Now Wonderful, which has huge operations in Central Valley towns including Lost Hills and Delano, may find itself on the other side of the equation, needing to raise its wages to keep workers from seeking higher wages close to the coast, Sandoval said.
“There are workers willing to trek across the hills to Santa Maria, Paso Robles,” Sandoval said. “I would assume they’re feeling the same pressure: that a lot of Valley employees are finding better wage opportunities by driving a couple hours. If they’re jumping to $15, that would indicate their starting pay is not that high. That's a Central Valley wage, but it’s not a coastal wage.”
In Northern California, for instance, Sandoval said workers frequently make the trek from inland areas such as Stockton and Lodi to work higher-wage jobs in the pricier wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties.