September 18th, 2023
Israel Serrato is a drug and substance abuse counselor living in Salinas, California.
In 2019, I was released from prison. I was 28, had a 1-year-old son, and was trying to provide for him. But no one wanted to hire a convicted felon.
I turned to a work agency.
They placed me at a job at a major produce corporation that had previously rejected me as an employee. Instead of making $21 per hour, I’d be paid $16 and no benefits. But at least it was work.
The job was six days a week, a minimum of 10 hours but more typically 12 to 14 hours. You were expected to stay later, or come in earlier, without notice. They took an hour-and-a-half per day out of your pay for three mandatory meal breaks, whether you wanted the break or not. Saturdays started at 5 a.m. and usually ended at 8 p.m., and we were expected to work holidays for the same wage.
I was in Receiving. I’d wait for trucks that would come in carrying 18 bins, each bin packing 800 to 1000 pounds of vegetables. When vegetables arrive from the fields, they are beginning to warm, so they go into a cooler. I’d check them for fleas, insects, feces, make sure they were not rotten or dried out. Then I’d let the forklift driver know they were good to go, and he’d take them to a freezer. A gas is released to freeze the produce, and then the temperature is rechecked and the produce counted. The count is key because different companies, stores, states, and countries all want a specific amount of product. The vegetables are sorted into crates, baskets, sometimes big bundles. Then they are loaded onto other trucks and shipped out.
Sometimes there were only two of us dealing with these 20 trucks, and everything had to be timed, precise, so the produce didn’t go bad. For the whole operation—harvest through shipping—there could be 50-75 people working. There were two restrooms, one microwave, and not enough parking.
The job was both physically and emotionally taxing—14-hour days take a toll. I was providing for my son, sure, but I also was always working so it was hard to spend time with him. Also, at $16 an hour, I was still struggling.
Then we would hear the supervisors and foremen talking: Hey, last month we made over $30 million in sales! And because we worked in Receiving, we’d see all this product coming in and shipping out, and see the fields all over Salinas, and Monterey County, and Santa Cruz County—and so the dollar figures made sense, and the fact that our region was called “salad bowl of the world” made sense too.
And we’d also see how the supervisors and foremen were driving nice cars, dressed nice, and wearing watches and jewelry. And we’re dirty. And we had cars that would usually get us to work, but we’re struggling to feed our children, struggling to pay rent, struggling to make ends meet. We literally would go home just to shower, sleep, then come back to do it all again the next day.
So maybe it would get to you, and you’d ask for a raise. And others start asking for raises. And once enough people ask, this would happen: The foreman would show up with ten boxes of pizza, say something along the lines of, “This is for your hard work. Because of you, we made $30 million in sales this month. We’re going to have a good year.”
You’d see some guys light up, smiling, like kids at a candy store. Other guys with more job security than someone like me would say, “You kidding? We made you $30 million and we get two slices of pizza?”
One time I asked a co-workers why he was so happy about pizza?
“I barely have enough time to shower,” he said. “When I get home, I’ll eat a sandwich, sometimes crackers. So when we get free food, and 30 minutes to relax, sometimes that’s all I need.”
I have seen time and again through my work in the fields, warehouse, and factory—the workers who are processing or creating the goods our country produces always get the short end of the stick. But people with families need these jobs—rent, food, gas, utilities, diapers—everything is expensive. At the end of the day most people can’t afford to go on strike.
And sometimes I think the government benefits that are made available are like these pizza parties—enough to make some people happy and maintain order, but not enough to change the struggle. If policymakers were serious, they would mandate that jobs pay family-supporting wages and provide benefits. And assistance programs wouldn’t be so meager and hard to qualify for.
Then a lot fewer of us would need help. And if someone tried to buy us off with a pizza party we would be free to react properly—just laugh and laugh and laugh.