Advocacy & Activism, Undocumented Workers

Ag Worker Vanpool Program Slow to Gain Traction

From NapaValleyRegister.com, Rebecca Huval, 16 May 2011.

Ruben Celaya, 33, adjusts his seatbelt for the ride home from work at an Oakville vineyard. The transportation costs him $50 a week as part of Napa County’s Agriculture Worker Vanpool. Rebecca Huval/Registe

Ruben Celaya, 33, adjusts his seatbelt for the ride home from work at an Oakville vineyard. The transportation costs him $50 a week as part of Napa County’s Agriculture Worker Vanpool. Rebecca Huval/Register

[Napa, CA] — In an Oakville vineyard, a group of 14 men loaded into the Agriculture Worker Vanpool and prepared for their drive back home to Lake County.

“How’s everyone doing?” one of the passengers asked in Spanish.

“Good,” a few answered. One worker wiped sweat from his brow with a red bandana.

Since January 2010, the Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency has offered vans to agricultural workers — including winery pourers and receptionists — but has received little response. Right now, only one van is running, with a second scheduled to go into use.

“One of the reasons is (many workers) don’t have documentation,” said Alberto Esqueda, agricultural transportation coordinator for the NCTPA.

In order to use the vans, at least one worker needs to have a driver’s license, Esqueda said, and the van needs to have a minimum of eight passengers. They need to be associated with agriculture and either living or working in Napa County.

Next week, a new Napa driver will start transporting workers from Joseph Phelps Vineyard in St. Helena, Esqueda said.

In May 2009, the Napa program received a one-time $572,250 grant from the state that expires June 30. The agency also received a donation of 10 used GMC Savana passenger vans from Kings County Area Public Transit Agency.

The intent of the program is to “alleviate congestion and reduce greenhouse gases,” Esqueda said. “It benefits our air.”

The program provides the van, insurance, maintenance and gas for the workers, who are then in charge of the day-to-day maintenance.

Passengers are charged up to $55 a week, depending on the distance they travel, and the drivers are responsible for collecting the fees.

To keep the vanpool alive, Esqueda has approached multiple funding sources, and is finalizing a grant for less than $100,000 from the Job Access Reverse Commute for Low-Income Workers.

“If not enough vans are funded, the program will definitely go away,” Esqueda said.

To get more riders interested, word of mouth is key, he said. Esqueda has already approached hundreds of workers himself.

“I literally pull up in a van next to their field and explain the program,” he said.

When Samuel Guzman, the driver at the Oakville vineyard, found out about the program, he was eager to try it.

“This program has helped us so much,” said Guzman, 38, of Kelseyville. “It’s more for them because they don’t have to drive.” He gestured to his 13 passengers.

The men settled into their seats, cracked open cans of soda and surveyed the rolling hills leading to Calistoga.

Salvador Guzman, Samuel’s younger brother, sat behind the driver’s seat.

“There’s less traffic if we all come together,” said Salvador Guzman, 32. “Here, we can talk together, if we’re not sleeping. In the morning, more are asleep.”

The vanpool helps passengers save on rising gasoline prices and keeps unlicensed drivers off the road, he said.

Samuel Guzman departs from Kelseyville around 4:15 a.m., and leaves the vineyard around 3 p.m. for the return trip.

Passenger Ruben Celaya mentioned another benefit. “Sometimes we drive tired, but now we don’t have to drive,” said Celaya, 33, of Clearlake. “We can sleep.”

Esqueda said the program should find more passenger attention if it stays alive. He plans to leave NCTPA to attend graduate school in August, and hopes to find more funding before the grant funding sunsets in June, he said.

“It’s a matter of patience,” Esqueda said. “If the program is around long enough, it will take off.”

Source: NapaValleyRegister.com, “Ag worker vanpool program slow to gain traction” by Rebecca Huval, 16 May 2011.

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