High fuel costs, low wages drive CA farm workers to limit

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High fuel costs, low wages drive farm workers to limit

Filed: 04/08/2000

By OLIVIA GARCIA Californian staff writer e-mail: ogarcia@bakersfield.com

With five children and a wife to support, Jose Luis Ayala is watching every penny he spends.

The recent surge in gas prices doesn't make life any easier for the minimum-wage farm worker.

Now, plans to go out to eat, buy furniture and clothes, and take nice long family drives are out of the question  at least until gas prices decline.

"The gas prices have affected us a lot, especially now when everything else is expensive," said Ayala as he toiled in a peach orchard near highways 99 and 46. "After you pay your bills, your house payment, and gas, you're left with nothing."

During the week, Ayala drives his white station wagon from Earlimart to peach orchards in northern Kern County, spending about $10 a day for gas.

That accounts for about a quarter of what he makes each workday.

Already, half of his $1,200 monthly income goes to his mortgage payment.

With a current average gas price of $1.80 a gallon for regular unleaded, Ayala and other farm workers said they can only complain in frustration and limit what their family can buy.

They don't have any other choice.

"We're limiting things we buy like clothes, furniture, jewelry," Ayala said. "We have to in order to get ahead."

Unlike most Americans who drive to one location year-round, Ayala's work requires that he go wherever the works calls him.

From preparing peaches to picking grapes, Ayala is constantly on the go.

He joins countless farm workers, such as Flavio Calderon of Delano, who must either drive or take vans miles to get to work.

They have little alternative, if they want to support their families.

Recently arrived migrant families are just as frustrated.

Many of them who made nonstop 25- to 30-hour trips from their small hometowns in Texas' Rio Grande Valley said California gas prices appeared to be higher.

To cope, some relatives and friends are hoping to drive together.

Ayala drives to work on his own.

He said he's heard of fellow workers who have given rides to work to immigrants coming in from Mexico for the season's harvest.

But even with the money being tight, some farm workers are opting against charging those who carpool with them, Ayala said.

"They come with no money and no car," said Ayala, referring to recent Mexican immigrants. "We have to help them out."

Others are too afraid to give rides, worried about the beefed-up effort to crack down on violations by farm labor van drivers.

Abel Robles will occasionally give one or two farm laborers rides to and from work.

He said he'd rather not rely on others for rides because some can't afford auto insurance.

Robles said he has no complaints  as long as there is work.

Robles currently spends about $70 in gas each week, about $20 more than he spent before gas prices increased.

"It's real hard," said the peach tree worker. "Sometimes we put in gas and drive to work, and then there's no work. Everyone has been complaining about the gas prices."

The effects are especially felt at home, said Rosa Aguilera, whose husband, a compost and grass seed worker, is the sole breadwinner.

A recent fire that damaged and closed down a Baker Street restaurant caused Aguilera to lose her waitress job.

"I've gotten behind in bills," Aguilera said. "Sometimes, I end up paying two payments at a time."

But Miguel Cabrera is not too worried about it.

The 54-year-old McFarland resident, who makes $6.55 an hour as a grape field irrigation worker, said his case is unique.

He only has to travel a few miles to get to work and doesn't have any children to support.

"The gas prices have affected us, but not to the point to where I'm walking to work," said Cabrera, whose wife no longer works in the fields because of her health. "No matter what, gas prices are going to affect us. But what else can you do? Go to work."

High fuel costs, low wages drive farm workers to limit Filed: 04/08/2000

-- Ain't Gonna Happen (Not Here Not@ever.com), April 10, 2000

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