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Half Moon Bay mass shooting illuminates 'deplorable' conditions for farmworkers

Marisa Kendall, Scooty Nickerson, Aldo Toledo, Bay Area News Group on

Published in News & Features

Leaking roofs, rain-soaked bedding, ankle-deep flood waters. Camp stoves for cooking and mattresses in shacks jacked up off the ground by wooden pallets.

Such were the tiny, meager dwellings some of Half Moon Bay’s mushroom farmworkers called home.

Long before mass shootings killed their friends and co-workers this week and tore their lives apart, workers at two farms in this coastal California city endured living conditions that a county official, referring to one of the farms, decried as “deplorable.” It took a tragic episode of mass violence to shine a national spotlight on the issue this week, but experts say such conditions are hardly an isolated case. Those we depend on to grow our food are living in overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe situations all over the state.

“We visit the farms every week. We see the conditions the farmworkers live in,” said Joaquin Jimenez, the city’s vice mayor, who also serves as farmworker program director for nonprofit ALAS, which assists farmworkers with basic needs like food and clothing. “The conditions overall, they’re pretty bad.”

A disgruntled employee shot and killed four workers and injured a fifth at California Terra Garden, a mushroom farm off Highway 92 in Half Moon Bay, on Monday before driving about three miles south to Concord Farms and killing another three farmworkers, according to officials and witnesses. Chunli Zhao, who lived in a rudimentary shack covered by a blue tarp on the Terra Gardens property, has been charged in the shooting spree.

Almost immediately after the tragedy, Gov. Gavin Newsom caused jaws to drop when he said people at the farms were sleeping in shipping containers and getting paid $9 an hour without access to health care. As the investigation has unfolded, it’s become clear there was evidence of many problems at both farms dating back years — including multiple lawsuits over working conditions and a code violation for unpermitted farmworker housing. Yet poor living conditions were allowed to persist, and local officials seem unclear about who is to blame.


San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller, when asked if the owner of Terra Garden would be penalized for the farm’s poor living conditions, said: “I really don’t know what would happen with respect to that, or who investigates that.”

Mueller and County Executive Mike Callagy surveyed both farms after the shooting. At Terra Garden, they saw trailers held up by cinder blocks that looked like they would collapse in an earthquake, Mueller said. There were also shed-like shacks.

“I couldn’t see any plumbing, or certainly no shower facilities or kitchen,” he said, describing the conditions as “deplorable.”

Across the state, the number of employees living at their worksites has more than doubled in recent years — going from nearly 17,000 in 2016 to more than 35,000 in 2020, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. At the same time, the number of inspections of employee housing, as well as citations for violations, have dropped since 2017.


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