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Half Moon Bay shooting unmasks poor living conditions for farmworkers

Some of the housing provided to the farmworkers and their families at the California Terra Garden, formerly Mountain Mushroom Farm in Half Moon Bay, Calif. (Paul Kuroda for The Washington Post)
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HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — When Joaquin Jimenez heard about gunshots on Highway 92, he immediately thought of the mushroom farm.

Jimenez is the vice mayor of this scenic beach town south of San Francisco, but his day job as farmworker program director for a local nonprofit brought him into daily contact with the less glamorous side of the community, as he donated food and blankets to those who harvest vegetables in the network of family farms up and down the coast. And in his years providing help for this predominantly immigrant workforce, he said, the California Terra Garden mushroom farm stood out.

“One of the worst,” he said.

Monday afternoon’s mass killing — which left seven people dead at California Terra Garden and another nearby mushroom farm — was the latest in a series of problems, including a prior shooting, a destructive fire, and a multiday coronavirus outbreak in 2020, according to Jimenez and other officials with local social services charities who have been interviewing the farm’s employees since the shooting.

At California Terra Garden, workers and their families lived in trailers on the property, cooked outdoors in makeshift kitchens, used portable toilets, and had their rent deducted from their paychecks, officials said. Yet even though aid groups had regularly visited the farm, sometimes multiple times per week, it took a rampaging gunman to expose more broadly the squalor that farmworkers can face even in one of the wealthier communities in the country.

“The living conditions are deplorable, heartbreaking,” said Ray Mueller, a San Mateo County supervisor who toured the farm with law enforcement officials Thursday morning and later tweeted photos from the scene. “There’s modified [shipping] containers. It looks like there’s rooms where people are living where there’s no running water. Very little shelter from the elements. No one should be living there.”

“We’re going to red tag it all,” he added. “No one’s going back to live in that place.”

Police said the man charged with seven counts of murder in the shooting, 66-year-old Zhao Chunli, lived and worked at California Terra Garden. He previously had worked at the second shooting site, Concord Farms, about three miles away. Police called the massacre a case of “workplace violence.”

Zhao was apprehended within hours of the shooting after he parked his SUV at the local sheriff’s office. The dead were described by the San Mateo Coroner’s Office as Asian or Hispanic workers from 43 to 74 years old.

It was not the first shooting on the farm. On July 1, another worker fired a gun into one of its trailers, according to San Mateo County Chief Deputy District Attorney Sean Gallagher. The bullet passed through that trailer and lodged into the wall of another. The suspect, Martin Medina, is in custody on attempted murder charges, Gallagher said.

The occupant of the second trailer, Yetao Bing, 43, was killed in Monday’s shooting.

California Terra Garden, which took over from previous operator Mountain Mushroom Farm last year, grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms in greenhouses tucked amid cypress and eucalyptus trees on a 150-acre property that it leases a couple of miles from the coast. An owner of the company, who drove onto the property in a silver BMW on Wednesday, gave his name as Jack Guan but declined to comment beyond saying of his company: “We grow and sell mushrooms.”

A company spokesman, David Oates, disputed that living conditions were substandard. He said employees earn $16.50 to $24 an hour — above minimum wage — and pay $300 monthly for rent. He said workers receive paid vacation, company-sponsored health insurance, worker compensation and access to a 401(k) retirement plan.

Oates added that the eight families who live on the property do so in state-inspected mobile homes and “large recreational vehicles.” He said that photos taken at the site by Mueller depicted storage areas, not living quarters, although one appeared to show a mattress.

“All the living structures have indoor plumbing, bathrooms, shower facilities and kitchens,” Oates said.

He added that there are “additional outside kitchen structures and port-a-potties for when there are large gatherings the families want to have.”

The company has not allowed reporters to visit the farm. But San Mateo County officials who have toured the property said residents should not be living in such conditions.

“It’s not something that’s acceptable. It’s not healthy. It’s not safe,” said Mike Callagy, the county executive officer for San Mateo. “This is an eye-opening experience.”

He added that the owners have been cooperative with authorities.

“It’s relatively new owners who really didn’t have a full grasp of what was going on there, according to them. They know that now. And they understand that they’ve got to make changes,” Callagy added. “We’re the most expensive place in the country to live and these are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable; they’re hit harder than anyone else.”

Many farmworkers in California face a shortage of affordable housing, and employees often struggle with low pay and access to adequate housing and health care, according to experts who study them. Researchers at the UC Merced Community and Labor Center who surveyed more than 1,300 farmworkers found that the median wage for California farmworkers is $21,915 a year and about half had access to health insurance.

After reviewing the photos from the mushroom farm, Irene de Barraicua, director of operations at Lideres Campesinas, a network of female farmworker leaders, described them as “very typical images … for California and for the country.”

Sometimes farm owners will say their workers are “like family,” de Barraicua said, but “when you look at the living situations, you know they would not let their family live like that.”

De Barraicua added that, particularly for foreign farmworkers, it’s “very common” for part of their paychecks to be diverted toward rent paid to their employer.

“Many of them in a sense are sort of enslaved,” de Barraicua said.

After the shooting, many of the farmworkers and their families were moved into the Quality Inn in Half Moon Bay. On Thursday, their children, some as young as 2 years old, received donated toys, including dolls and stuffed animals, while others kicked around soccer ball in the parking lot. The families — which include immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and China — have been lining up for donated meals at tables outside the hotel lobby. Social service agencies, local officials, representatives from the Mexican Consulate and others have been on-site making services available for the group. It was unclear how long they would need to stay.

Christopher King, a nurse practitioner with the county health department who provided treatment this week to workers from the farms, said the trauma they’d experienced was evident.

“Everybody was pretty raw and you could see the fear in people’s eyes,” King said of his interactions with survivors Wednesday. King treated workers for upper respiratory infections, a bacterial stomach infection, anxiety, headaches and insomnia; helped with blood-pressure management; and provided medications.

He also noted that while there are Spanish-speaking practitioners on the county’s team, none there spoke Mandarin, an extra barrier for some workers. “Due to language and cultural barriers, [the Mandarin-speaking farmworkers] are probably more removed from the ability to access health care than our Spanish-speaking population, and we want to bridge that gap moving forward,” King said.

Most of the workers declined to comment about the shooting or their living conditions, and some said police instructed them not to talk. One worker said he had spent two years at the farm and it was his first job in the United States after migrating from Guatemala.

“I just know this place in the United States, it’s the first time I’ve come,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid the ongoing controversy. “I don’t know restaurants, hotels, all of that. What little I know is on that farm.”

Jimenez, the vice mayor, said he knew a lot about the farm from his work with the nonprofit ALAS, whose full title in Spanish means Helping Latinos to Dream. The charity visited the farm regularly, sometimes multiple times per week, to donate food, water, blankets, bicycles and other goods to the workforce. On the day of the shooting, an ALAS team had been there twice, bringing tarps to cover leaking trailers that had flooded during the recent rainstorms that battered the California coast.

“They were damaged. Water was dripping into the trailers. A lot of their items were ruined. Their mattresses got wet, blankets were wet. That’s why the tarps were brought in for them, so they could put over their trailers,” Jimenez said.

Mueller, the county supervisor, said he’d spoken to a worker Thursday who said “they were forced to sleep with water coming in during the storms.”

“At first they tried to shovel it out with pans and then they gave up,” he said.

Jimenez also knew the suspected shooter, Zhao, a longtime employee at the first shooting site and a former worker at the second.

Jimenez said that in addition to the earlier shooting at California Terra Garden, a homeless man and registered sex offender was found guilty of felony reckless burning in 2017 in a fire that damaged several greenhouses on the farm.

The farmworkers also suffered through the serious coronavirus outbreak in 2020, Jimenez said, that led the county to impose a quarantine on the staff for several days.

“In that farm everybody tested positive, including management,” he said.

Jimenez said he knows many of the local farmworkers and worries that the aftermath of the shooting could leave them unemployed and homeless.

“What they share with me, with us, when we visit, is like, ‘This is what we have right now. We don’t want to stay here for the rest of our lives, but we have a roof, we have a job,’ and we have to be able to respect that,” he said. “One of the workers that I know, joking around with me, he said, ‘You know, Joaquin, I’d rather be here, unless you want me to be in a tent by the creek.’

“We are hoping for changes,” Jimenez said about the living and working conditions. “What I don’t want to happen is for people to go and become homeless. That’s what I worry about.”

More on the California shootings

The latest: California has grappled with two mass killings in three days. A weekend shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park left 11 people dead, and seven people were killed in related shootings at two locations around Half Moon Bay.

The victims: The identified Monterey Park shooting victims include a “loving aunt” and a joyful dancer. The people killed in the gunfire were all in their 50s, 60s and 70s, police said. Authorities have not released the victims’ identities in the Half Moon Bay shooting.

The suspects: Police identified the Monterey Park suspect as Huu Can Tran, a 72-year-old man of Asian descent, who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Sunday. Authorities arrested 67-year-old Zhao Chunli in connection with the Half Moon Bay shootings. He admitted to the shooting rampage at two farms and said he was bullied.

The weapon: Officers have described three guns they linked to the Monterey Park attacker: A rifle found in his home, a handgun recovered from his van and what they said was a modified semiautomatic taken away at the second dance studio. In the Half Moon Bay shootings, authorities recovered a semiautomatic handgun from the vehicle the suspect was located in. California’s gun laws are some of the strongest in the nation.