State allocates $7M to farmworker training programs

California directs federal funding to training programs for farmworkers in Fresno, Tulare counties laid off by stone fruit grower Prima Wawona

Quantities of organic yellow nectarines stored in Prima Wawona packing crates. Photo courtesy of the Prima Wawona Instagram page.
Serena Bettis
Published February 6, 2024  • 
12:30 pm

SACRAMENTO – The Employment Development Department (EDD) awarded nonprofit La Cooperativa Campesina de California (La Cooperativa) $7 million to help support farmworkers impacted by mass layoffs across the state.

In Fresno and Tulare County, this award will benefit Prima Wawona employees who are losing their jobs on March 12, the EDD announced on Jan. 31. La Cooperativa is an association of local agencies that provide farmworkers with job training, support services and more. 

“Through a network of local partnerships in 36 counties, La Cooperativa will use grant funds to address common reemployment barriers and equip participants with the tools, support and skills they need to secure new jobs in high-demand occupations,” the EDD said in a press release. 

Prima Wawona announced to its employees on Jan. 12 that all workers would be permanently terminated on March 12. The Fresno-based company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Oct. 13, 2023, and said last month that it was issuing the layoff notice under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) law “out of an abundance of caution.” 

Prima Wawona’s farming and packing operations are primarily located in south Fresno County and north Tulare County. It has offices in Fresno, Reedley, Sanger, Kerman and Cutler. Its stone fruit orchards span more than 18,000 acres, according to court documents.

The company is currently in the process of liquidating its assets; a final hearing is scheduled for Feb. 8, with a confirmation hearing scheduled for Feb. 28. 

According to court documents filed at the beginning of the bankruptcy proceedings, Prima Wawona employs, on average, more than 8,000 employees through the course of a calendar year; approximately 140 are full-time employees. In October 2023, Prima Wawona said it was employing approximately 600 seasonal employees in addition to its full-time employees.

Seasonal employee numbers fluctuate with the company’s harvest season, growing season and off-season. During the off-season, Prima Wawona employs on average roughly 1,350 seasonal employees.

The majority of seasonal employees — approximately 4,500 — work during the harvest season between April and September. According to court documents, the company also uses approximately 2,400 workers contracted with farm labor contracts. 

EDD assistance

With the EDD award, La Cooperativa will provide outreach to farmworkers laid off from Prima Wawona as well as Campbell Soup Supply, Kern Vineyards, Pak ‘N Save, Foster Farms, Silgan Containers, Mariani Nut Company, TriMas, Kings Garden Inc., Premium Services and more, the EDD press release said. 

EDD Chief of Media Services Aubrey Henry said the EDD focuses on many aspects of the state economy, including the agricultural workforce, and is always trying to ensure it is doing what it can to provide services and training to workforces impacted by certain happenings in their respective industries — like major closures.

“It’s always going to be training to give them the best opportunity to get jobs that are emerging in the areas in which they live,” Henry said. 

Henry said that could look like training in other sectors of the agricultural industry, such as how to use new agricultural technology, or training for other industries in the region that are growing their workforces. Program development is specific to regions and depends on what is happening in certain areas throughout the state, Henry said. 

According to the EDD, the award money comes from discretionary funds allocated through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and administered by the EDD, an arm of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA). 

Promoting self-sufficiency

La Cooperativa’s mission is to help its clients “achieve lasting prosperity and self-sufficiency” through training, education, job placement and wrap-around services, according to its website. It works with member agencies to operate local bilingual offices primarily in rural, agricultural communities. 

The member agency for Fresno and Tulare counties is Proteus, Inc., which has additional community partnerships with organizations like Community Services and Employment Training (CSET), Tulare County Employment Connection and the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation (EDC). 

La Cooperativa Executive Director Marco Lizarraga said the funding received by the nonprofit will be split over two years, and a sizable amount will be directed to Proteus, Inc. Lizarraga said La Cooperativa is also still operating a program funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant that provides one-time relief payments of $600 for farmworkers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lizarraga said the nonprofit receives these awards because there is a “continuous dislocation of farmworkers throughout the state.” By promoting job training and other assistance to farmworkers where they live, the organization can help people gain stability in their lives. 

A recent example of how La Cooperativa helps individuals and their families achieve self-sufficiency involved a former farmworker who was trained to be a welder. Lizarraga said the person made roughly $20,000 a year as a farmworker, but now makes around $50,000 a year as a welder. 

“Obviously, this is an economic impact that allows the family to live much better in terms of them being able to afford living expenses,” Lizarraga said. “That is what self-sufficiency is all about; being able to provide training services to an individual so they can get a job that will make things affordable for them.”

As a recipient of federal funding from the National Farmworker Jobs Program, La Cooperativa has a mandate to serve agricultural workers and their families by helping them gain higher-wage jobs in more stable careers.  

The typical La Cooperativa client is a Hispanic, foreign-born farmworker who has temporary or permanent authorization to work in California, according to the La Cooperativa website. This farmworker is often unemployed for at least half of the year, has six years or less of schooling, is married with children, earns less than $7,500 annually, does not have health insurance and often relies on unemployment insurance but does not otherwise rely on needs-based social service programs. 

To achieve its mission, La Cooperativa member agencies offer English language courses and GED certification courses, vocational training and job placement assistance — which entails helping individuals find and apply to open positions. 

It also provides connections to farmworker housing resources, food support programs, childcare, disability and rehabilitation services, citizen and immigration services and energy assistance programs. 

Proteus, Inc. will conduct outreach to individuals affected by the layoffs, Lizarraga said, by approaching people directly and setting up informational booths in communities where Prima Wawona employees live. More information is also available online or by calling 559-733-5423.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter