Immigrant agricultural workers on illegal marijuana fields are faced with poor living conditions and are sometimes working without getting paid.

Immigrant agricultural workers on illegal marijuana fields are faced with poor living conditions and are sometimes working without getting paid.

John Rosman / OPB

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Across Southern Oregon, illegal marijuana farms have caused environmental issues in areas already facing drought. Now they’ve raised humanitarian concerns as immigrant agricultural workers deal with working conditions. Advocates say these workers face poor housing and, on some occasions, aren’t paid for the work they do. UNETE’s Program Coordinator Kathy Keesee joins us with details.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Across big parts of Oregon, illegal cannabis farms have caused serious environmental issues in areas already facing drought. Now they’re raising humanitarian concerns as well. Advocates say that agricultural workers who have very little leverage are dealing with hazardous working conditions, dismal housing and sometimes a lack of pay. Kathy Keesee is a Program Coordinator with UNETE at the Center for Farm Worker and Immigrant Advocacy. She joins us now with more. It’s good to have you on the show.

Kathy Keesee: Hey, thank you. Thank you for inviting us here today.

Daave Miller: What prompted you to look into this issue?

Keesee:  Our organization does a lot of advocacy work with farm workers and agricultural workers in general. And so we received a lot of employees coming in with wage claims that they wanted to make because they hadn’t been paid and the majority of them were employed in the hemp or the marijuana fields. And so for us, this was a big concern because literally we’ve received about 200 complaints this year. So it’s a huge issue down here.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for what the complaints are, what are people telling you?

Keesee: The complaints are that simply the employers aren’t paying them. They’ve been promised a certain wage and either they’re getting checks that have insufficient funds or they just simply aren’t being paid. A lot of them, when they do try to claim wages, unpaid wages, they’re threatened with, ‘we’re gonna call immigration on you,’ or actually physical threats. We’ve had somebody who even had firearms, guns and things held up to their heads and said, if you don’t complete the season and things with us, we’re gonna harm your family here or in Mexico or wherever they’re from. So there’s been some huge concerns here, with safety of the workers, when they do come forward and request that their wages be paid.

Miller: What have you learned about how these workers get these jobs and what they know about what they’re going to be doing?

Keesee: In our valley in southern Oregon, there’s been- we call it like the triple whammy. First of all, there was COVID, a lot of people who are small business owners had large yard maintenance companies, daycare providers worked in the hospitality industry. Their incomes were eliminated, like with many Oregonians. That was this common thing during COVID. And so what we saw was people started moving into the hemp fields. Well, what we saw with that was really high, high rates of COVID inside these farms, even as much as at one point, at the new Jackson County, it was like 56% of all the COVID cases were in the Latinx community when they basically make up about 13% of the total population. People were forced to stay in those jobs because they had to, there was nothing else available. Last year, in southern Oregon we got hit with a wildfire. So a lot of agricultural workers lost all of their housing. And what money they did have saved, some of it actually was physically burned up in the fires. They were looking at really, really high rents down here in southern Oregon. So then, lo and behold, the third whammy hits in this year, with the drought. Traditionally agricultural workers would be employed in the grapes or other field crops. The growers, because of the lack of water, decided for example in the grapes, the growers decided not to produce fruit, they just decided to try and keep their plants. Some of the water down here was cut off in July to some of these growers and some of the main agriculture employers down here, their water was cut off at the end of July- even through the harvest. So that said, instead of needing 20 workers on your grape farm, now you only need three or even in the agricultural field, where they used to bring in 600 workers, they only had 200. So the issue was that there was nowhere else to go. And so even though these families are risking future immigration benefits because working in hemp or marijuana, even for a permanent resident, you’re probably risking ever being able to apply for citizenship. So there’s a huge risk for them, but they felt like there was no other option.

Miller: We should say the hemp here, it’s almost like, in a lot of cases we should put ‘hemp’ in quotes because you can legally grow it, and it’s legal hemp if it has a very low amount of THC, but that’s become a kind of cover for a bunch of illegal operations that are just plain growing cannabis marijuana with much higher THC.

Keesee: Yes.

Miller: So when we say hemp we’re often, for the purposes of this conversation here, we’re not really talking about hemp.

Keesee: No, not so much with hemp, if it’s the legal hemp. Exactly like you mentioned, there’s fields where that’s the owner’s part of the field, so the workers don’t go there, and then there’s other parts of it that aren’t really the hemp area. Everybody knows that’s the kind of field where they’re probably just growing the marijuana instead of the hemp. So there’s a definite division there.

Miller: Can you describe the working conditions that you’ve heard about from people who’ve come to you?

Keesee: We’ve had a few people who have come in and mentioned that for example, there was one young man who came who needed a ride to work and so we were helping provide him a ride to work and he would start at five o’clock in the morning and would get off around 11:30 at night because they were trimming or whatever they’re doing all day long. The working conditions there- when I mentioned such high rates of COVID in the hemp farms or the marijuana farms, however you want to call them. They weren’t allowed to social distance. They weren’t given proper PPE, so no masks, they weren’t able to get up and wash their hands, they were tied in tight quarters. So we really saw big outbreaks. Like I mentioned COVID there. Also for the employers that provide labor housing -- and that’s a stretch, to call it housing. The people there’re sleeping under hoop houses. So during the summer it was hot here. There were several days over 100 degrees. These people have to sleep inside the hoop houses and they get up to around 80 or 90 degrees as well. So there were those types of concerns. There’s also children in the camps, there’s lots of illegal electrical setups. So there’s huge risk for fires. Also just with basic sanitation, there’s no...sometimes they have porta potties, sometimes they have shower facilities, sometimes they don’t. So there’s just a lot of what I would consider ‘on the job risks’ for people who are working in the hemp fields and aside from that, since there’s not much regulations on the types of pesticides or  pla...[Unintelligible]  or whatever that are being applied to the plants. We don’t know really what the workers are being exposed to in terms of chemical exposures as well.

Miller: But there is not too much reason to believe that the people in charge have too many concerns about worker exposure, based on everything else you’ve been saying.

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Keesee: That would be my assumption.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the situation right now for many farm workers, many of them migrant farm workers or immigrant farmworkers on illegal hemp or cannabis farms, especially in southern Oregon. Kathy Keesee is our guest, she’s a Program Coordinator with UNETE at the Center for Farm Worker and Immigrant Advocacy. Do you have a sense for the scale of this issue right now? I guess I’m wondering about an estimate for the number and size of these illegal grow operations?

Keesee: I know that with some of the reports and things that we’ve heard out of the Sheriff’s Department who have gone in to do the raids, we might call them raids or the busts on the big grows. They have 200 employees there and there’s so many of these grows around the valley that honestly, I don’t think there’s a way that we can kind of calculate that because we don’t know if they’re moving from grow to grow to work or if they’re more or less permanent at that one site. I know that there’s a lot of workers that are working in the hemp industry down here, but honestly, I don’t have a good feel for exactly what that number would look like.

Miller: What recourse do these workers have if they don’t get paid? That was the initial issue. The initial set of complaints that you talked about, the reason why you’ve been looking into this, people’s checks are bouncing or they’re simply not getting checks to begin with. So what can these workers do?

Keesee: They are able to file for wage claims with the Bureau of Labor. And some of the bigger grows- there was one group that came in, that were around 100 people from one grow that was claiming lost wages. Sometimes we’re able to connect them with the Oregon Law Center or Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, the Legal Aid Services, Oregon, the Farmworker Unit. They pick up those cases as well, but many times, when workers come in and not like that large of a group, but it was like one or two workers that come in and say, hey, we haven’t been paid, then what we are able to do as well is contact the employer directly and let the employer know, ‘we have- let’s just make up some names, Juan and Pedro here that haven’t been paid yet, so it’s kind of up to you, you can either pay them or we can file the claim with Bureau of Labor’, and most of them, since they don’t want any type of involvement with any state agencies, they’ll pay those two workers. We don’t know about the rest but the two that did come forward, a lot of times they will take care of those.

Miller: But you also noted that, and maybe you wouldn’t do that for Juan and Pedro... people if those had been the ones who had a gun pulled on them. But I mean what about the workers who have been threatened- either physically or made to feel like they have no ability to speak up because of their different versions of vulnerability?

Keesee: That’s a huge challenge for us and we’ve been trying to figure out ways to really get outreach material and educational material out to these workers. A lot of times we know that when you try to go to the hemp farms or the illegal marijuana grows, at the doorways, there’s no way to get into the workers. They’re very protected. There’s armed guards standing at the end of the driveway, You can’t get in. People have gone in to ask where employment or whatever they’re not let in and they’re followed all the way out to the road to make sure that they actually leave. One thing that we’ve been working with the sheriff’s department here is we’ve developed a card that has information about different organizations that serve the Latinx communities up and down like I-5 corridor, on the coast, Central Oregon, Eastern Oregon that during the at least the bust, they give them these cards that have information on them that talks about ‘if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, these are the agencies that you can contact.’ So we’ve given out like, well over 2,500 cards just to local workers who have come, we have a vaccine clinic that we do on Sunday. We have local workers that come into the vaccine clinic. They always get these cards and it’s a wallet sized card that they can carry with them. So it’s a little more discreet. Ideally that’s how we’re hoping to be able to get the information to them that there are possible immigration benefits if they are victims of crimes. If they’re victims of human trafficking or other types of criminal behavior in the farms that they can contact again those same legal offices that I mentioned earlier and they can help them with filing claims, or filing possible immigration benefits.

Miller: Have you been one of the people that goes out with these cards to basically knock on the door of cartel operations that have armed guards in front?

Keesee: I have not personally done it, but we do have access to our vaccine clinics. We do like 100 vaccines a day at the vaccine clinic on the weekends. And so there’s a lot of hemp workers that come in there. And so we know that they’re at least getting that amount of information because really it’s impossible to get onto the farms.

Miller: You know, some of these workers are doing things that are, in a sense, doubly illegal. Many of them are not here legally and they’re working at farms that are illegally growing cannabis. At the same time, many of the people you’re talking about are absolutely being exploited in a variety of ways. So are these workers seen by law enforcement or by folks at state agencies as perpetrators of crimes or victims of crimes?

Keesee: My understanding of that, especially here in Jackson County, is that they are really being seen as the victims, and law enforcement knows that these people are pretty desperate, especially those conditions that I mentioned before in our valley. So they’re desperate for work. And when they go through and do the raids and they fingerprint the people and everything. They’re really looking for people who have serious criminal backgrounds, and they know that a lot of people are only there just because there’s no other choice. And so there’s not an immigration  aspect to this. They’re not detaining people because of their legal status here. They’re basically just letting them go. So they do keep some of the higher risk, the ones that they find that have, possibly warrants, or prior criminal felony charges, those they keep a closer eye on. But the other people, they just simply let them go, they give them the information and then let them go. They really believe that they feel that they’re more victims than the perpetrator of these crimes.

Miller: What about the two Oregon agencies that have the most jurisdiction here? The Bureau of Labor and Industry, BOLI and Oregon OSHA. Have you seen enough activity on those agencies’ parts to crack down on this employment abuse?

Keesee: I think the real issue is, they are doing their best. I believe in Jackson County, there’s four field inspectors. It’s impossible for them to get out to all these different sites. And they’ve received literally during COVID, well over 1,000 calls a month. Just about COVID, no PPE or whatever, not having availability of that stuff. So it’s impossible for them to get out there. So there’s so few enforcement officers with BOLI, same for processing claims in the state, same with OSHA, also here locally, like in the City of Medford with the code enforcement who goes out and examines electrical and those types of issues that are in these hemp camps. There’s just simply not enough people. If anything we could change, it would be increasing the budgets of those organizations, of those departments to be able to increase their enforcement efforts because it’s impossible for them. There’s absolutely no, even with the sheriff’s department, they received a couple of grants recently to try and increase some of their enforcement efforts, but with the number of grows in the valley, it’s just impossible for them to even begin.

Miller: Just briefly…

Keesee:  ...just an adequate job.

Miller: ...and just briefly, you were talking about the triple whammy that’s had hit in the last couple years of COVID  and wildfires and more. But are you expecting something similar for the outdoor growing season next year?

Keesee: That’s what we’re really trying to look into now because we know that the typical season for our agricultural workers is they work during the summer and then try and save up any kind of money they have to make it through the winter. And just because of these issues, number one, not being paid, lack of employment in any other kinds of fields, were already getting families calling saying that they don’t have money for food or their rents -- like rents down here, two bedroom apartment, $1,500. So it’s not something that’s even feasible when you’re earning minimum wage or even $15 an hour, it’s impossible for them to be able to make it. We’re hopeful that maybe the drought conditions might improve for next year and there’ll be other available work in other areas of agriculture here in the Rogue Valley. But at this point we’re really trying to gear up to see how we can best support the workers for next year.

Miller: Kathy Keesee, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Keesee: Thank you.

Miller: Kathy Keesee is a Program Coordinator at UNETE.

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