“These shoes aren’t made for water,” he said, adding that morning dew and irrigation keep farm fields damp—even in the desert of the Imperial Valley where he was working. Villalobos estimated that a pair of decent used boots would run him $30, almost half a day’s wages; the bags were free.
Villalobos moved quietly, trying to keep from waking his grown nephew, Roberto, who was sleeping in the back bedroom of the trailer. For years, Villalobos and his partner, Juana, had raised Roberto, whom they had taken in as an infant. Then, last year, Juana died after battling diabetes and heart disease, leaving the two men on their own. Villalobos tied his boot before repeating the process with his left foot and grabbed a bag of bologna sandwiches he had made that morning. By 6:15 A.M. he was out the door.
At 6:30, Villalobos was sitting in a parking lot on the east side of town, watching the sunrise from his rusted Ford Blazer. He was the first to arrive at the lot, an empty plain of gravel and sand ringed by a corrugated aluminum fence. Other workers began to arrive, waiting in their cars for the 7:30 bus that would take them to the fields. Most, Villalobos included, had U.S. citizenship (or legal permission to work) and a coveted position on a union crew, guaranteeing them steady work harvesting. But Villalobos had seen enough in nearly seven decades of field labor that he remained wary of any promise of job security. Showing up early was a preventive measure, intended to guarantee his spot cutting broccoli rabe and reduce the risk of losing a day’s wages.
In late March, Villalobos became a plaintiff in a wide-ranging labor-abuse suit against a former employer, Juan Muñoz Farm Labor Contractor. The company is one of several that lawyers say were hired by Calandri/SonRise Farms in 2009 and 2010 to harvest onions for its SonRise label, a brand sold across the U.S. and abroad. A second defendant, Maui Harvesting, faces claims from another plaintiff, Adalberto Gomez. Two women alleged to be operating as unlicensed farm-labor contractors are also named as defendants. The case alleges that while Gomez and Villalobos picked onions across the Coachella and Central valleys in California, the contractors routinely altered payment documents to undercount hours worked; failed to pay the state’s minimum wage of $8 an hour or overtime; failed to provide safe or sanitary working conditions; and housed the workers in unsafe and unsanitary living quarters. Significantly, Calandri/SonRise Farms was also named as a defendant in the suit, meaning it was not absolved of responsibility because it had outsourced its harvesting work.