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They put food on our tables but live in the shadows. This man is fighting to be seen

Jose Martinez was 14 when he came to the U.S. from Mexico to work in agriculture. He became an activist after years of enduring tough working conditions.
Mike Kane for NPR
Jose Martinez was 14 when he came to the U.S. from Mexico to work in agriculture. He became an activist after years of enduring tough working conditions.

SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — Jose Martinez has lived and worked in the United States since he was 14 years old. Now 67, he drives around the Yakima Valley in Washington state checking on fellow workers.

"When it's hot, do you have a place to protect yourself from the sun and heat?" he calls out to some workers on the side of an apple orchard on a sunny June morning.

Martinez worked in agriculture across the fields of California and, most recently, Washington state. Irrigation, grapes, apples, mushrooms, dairies and now cherries. He's done a little bit of everything.

"I love the fields because you're in the open air," he told NPR in his native Spanish, sitting on the lawn outside his home in Sunnyside, Wash. "It's beautiful. I am proud to do it, to be a farmworker. Why not?"

When people think of farmworkers, often they think of migrant workers and labor organizers like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Now, they may add another name to those creating major changes in the farming workplace: Jose Martinez.

Over the past decade, Martinez has been central to two flagship lawsuits creating policy changes in the state — making Washington one of the leaders in providing overtime to farmworkers and settling a civil rights case in favor of workers. And recently, he has taken his fight to Washington, D.C., where he has pushed for an expansion of legal status and protections for farmworkers.

Federally, farmworkers are largely excluded from many federal workplace safety regulations. They don't have a right to overtime pay or to unionize, and children as young as 12 can legally work in the fields. As a result, some states, like Washington, have extended additional rights and regulations.

A farmworker picks early growth apples to improve spacing in a field near Sunnyside, Wash., on June 13.
/ Mike Kane for NPR
/
Mike Kane for NPR
A farmworker picks early growth apples to improve spacing in a field near Sunnyside, Wash., on June 13.

President Biden came into office with the goal of expanding protections to farmworkers, including providing a pathway to legal status, overtime pay, sick leave and protection from heat exposure. But despite being the self-proclaimed most pro-labor president, his administration has faced roadblocks such as stalled nominations and legislation in Congress, and slow rulemaking, to make big changes a reality.

Martinez's route to legal advocacy has not been easy

The Washington worker's journey to becoming an activist began nearly 14 years ago. That's when Martinez began working in a dairy.

"At that dairy is when I started to see workplace violations and abuses from the foremen to the workers," Martinez recalled. "And that's when I began to do something about the rights that we have as workers in the fields."

Martinez said that while working, he and his fellow farmworkers didn't get lunch or other breaks.

So he sought the help of Columbia Legal Services, alaw firm in Washington that, in part, focuses on immigration issues.

"We began to fight and that overtime [for farmworkers] was born within the state of Washington," he said.

The lawsuit he filed argued that a failure to provide overtime pay violates state protections against discrimination.

"In that dairy, you had to eat with a taco in one hand and work," he recalled. "There were chemicals, rats. You had to eat and run among the cows. They said it was an eight-hour shift, but sometimes it was 12. And we were not paid overtime."

Due to a Jim Crow-era exemption in federal law, most farmworkers in the U.S. do not have the right to overtime pay.

Martinez wins overtime for dairy workers in the state

In the fall of 2020, the Washington Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that dairy workers should be entitled to overtime pay.

"Wow, I felt so emotional," Martinez said, remembering how he reacted to the court's decision.

The Washington state legislature then created a law to provide overtime for all farmworkers, a phased-in process that has already begun. By 2024, farmers will have to pay workers overtime after 40 hours.

Other states, including California, Colorado and New York, have passed their own laws in recent years requiring additional pay for people working on farms specifically.

Martinez said not all workers have been happy with the deal. As an unintended consequence, farmers are hiring more workers to avoid paying overtime wages, resulting in lower wages overall for some longtime employees. While some advocates say they expected this to happen in some instances, Martinez told NPR he did not.

"There are a few different points of view," he acknowledged, saying that some workers blame him for their now-smaller paychecks. "But why don't we work the same long hours and get paid better? Why don't they pay us better?"

Jose Martinez reached out to the United Farm Workers after a COVID-19 outbreak at the mushroom farm where he was then employed and is now working with the group to form a union at the facility.
/ Mike Kane for NPR
/
Mike Kane for NPR
Jose Martinez reached out to the United Farm Workers after a COVID-19 outbreak at the mushroom farm where he was then employed and is now working with the group to form a union at the facility.

Some farmworkers want to get rid of the overtime law. Martinez sees it differently. He's going for bigger change — higher wages so that farmworkers don't feel they need to work 60 to 70 hours a week in harvest season to make enough to live on.

"I had faith that when I start something, I will finish it and it will be done," he said. "I've never been afraid."

A civil rights lawsuit rises out of a mushroom farm

Martinez ultimately quit the dairy. He moved on to work for a fruit packing company, which he said had better working conditions. But the company closed to become a winery. In 2020, he began work only a few miles away at Ostrom Mushroom Farms, a mushroom producer later acquired by the Canadian company Windmill Farms.

Just over a year after being at Ostrom, Martinez reached out to the United Farm Workers, an organization that he recalled from his years on farms in the San Joaquin Valley in California. He voiced concerns over poor treatment from supervisors and went public about COVID-19 outbreaks. During those conversations Martinez tipped off a lawsuit through the state attorney general's office over gender discrimination.

Martinez helped to build what was then Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Sunnyside, Wash., and worked there until he was fired in 2023. The facility was sold to a Canadian company in February 2023.
/ Mike Kane for NPR
/
Mike Kane for NPR
Martinez helped to build what was then Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Sunnyside, Wash., and worked there until he was fired in 2023. The facility was sold to a Canadian company in February 2023.

In the spring of 2023, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the mushroom farm would pay $3.4 million to about 170 workers, resolving a lawsuit "asserting unfair, deceptive and discriminatory actions against female farmworkers and Washington-based workers."

Ferguson told NPR that while he believes this is a case of a very bad actor, it won't be his office's last case and farmworkers are among the workers in the most difficult position to advocate for themselves.

"They may not be documented, they may not speak English, there are restrictions that make it difficult," Ferguson explained, as to why they may not speak up.

Martinez agrees that getting workers to want to talk is a challenge.

"It was really hard at first to convince the workers [to speak up]," Martinez said. "First thing they said is 'they'll chase me out; I have bills to pay and a family.'"

Martinez, who has legal status, says workers who are undocumented are even more afraid to voice concerns. It is estimated that over half of all farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented and those on visas are tied to their employers for housing, transportation and documentation.

"There is sometimes a misunderstanding about the rights that we have as workers," Martinez said. "But when we are working somewhere, we do have rights to a certain extent."

During the pandemic, he noticed workers were arriving on seasonal H-2A visas, and women were particularly being laid off.

"I told them I also have a family, but I want to stop this and what they are doing is not right — they are violating your rights as a worker and we all have rights," Martinez explained.

He's now leading a unionization effort at the mushroom farm. But should a union ever be recognized, Martinez won't be part of it. His employment was terminated on April 20 for unsatisfactory performance upon evaluation and "no improvement in the allocated time," according to an employment separation form obtained by NPR.

Jose Martinez stands in his home in Sunnyside, Wash., on June 13. His lawsuit against an area dairy farm led to the establishment of overtime rules for farmworkers in Washington state.
/ Mike Kane for NPR
/
Mike Kane for NPR
Jose Martinez stands in his home in Sunnyside, Wash., on June 13. His lawsuit against an area dairy farm led to the establishment of overtime rules for farmworkers in Washington state.

Hanging on the wall of his living room are certificates from Ostrom for having the best attendance just months before being laid off.

"I am proud of my roots," Martinez said. "And I will keep fighting to make changes to benefit future generations."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.