Bill contains farmworkers drought aid

SACRAMENTO -- Farmworkers sidelined by the drought could collect more state cash assistance under a bill to be introduced today by a Valley lawmaker.

Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, said his legislation will help "make sure the resources are in place for those who work so hard to keep our economy running."

In the hard-hit west Valley, an estimated 200 farmworkers already have lost jobs. The number of layoffs could grow to nearly 1,000, said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District. Growers in the district have been hampered by the dry spring and court-ordered pumping cutbacks at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Arambula's bill, AB 1107, applies to workers in counties designated by Gov. Schwarzenegger as being in a water state of emergency. So far, nine Central Valley counties have been named, including Fresno, Tulare, Madera, Kings and Merced.

The legislation targets laborers who are working part time instead of full time because of the drought. The "partially unemployed" farmworkers would be able to collect more cash from the state's unemployment insurance program.

For example, a worker eligible for $250 a week in unemployment insurance who makes $200 in one week would normally get $100 from the state. Under the bill, this same worker would get the full $250 benefit. Workers could collect the extra cash until end of the year.

Unemployment insurance is paid for by taxes on employers. Arambula's office anticipates that there is enough money in the program to cover the additional payouts to farmworkers without raising taxes.

Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill. Last year, he signed similar legislation to help workers hurt by the January 2007 freeze, when extreme cold destroyed many crops. It was estimated at the time that the extra benefits would drain $2.25 million from the state unemployment fund. Actual payout figures were not available Thursday from the state Employment Development Department.

In a separate move, Arambula and state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, are calling for the governor to send more food from state-run warehouses to Valley food banks.

Schwarzenegger is reviewing the request, said spokeswoman Rachel Cameron.

Sarah Reyes, Arambula's chief of staff and former head of the Community Food Bank in Fresno, said private food donations are down because of the sagging economy. But the need will grow as more farmworkers lose jobs, she said.

So far, the governor has directed drought-relief actions at growers, though it's not clear whether the moves will help much, if at all. As part of his emergency declaration issued a week ago, Schwarzenegger called for operational changes to get more water to the fields. His plan included allowing ground water to be pumped into the California Aqueduct so west Valley growers can more easily move water within the region.

But the pumping hasn't started yet, because the state is still testing water quality, Woolf said. Even if pumping begins, Westlands is not expecting much new water, she said.