Amid a state investigation into the working conditions of San Mateo County farms, where seven people were killed in a shooting this week, the farmworker charged in the massacre has said he had experienced “years of bullying” and long working hours before opening fire. In a jailhouse interview with NBC Bay Area, 66-year-old Chunli Zhao admitted to taking a semiautomatic handgun and shooting his co-workers on Monday. The alleged gunman also said he had been suffering from “some sort of mental illness” and was “not in his right mind” at the time of the shooting.
The suspect’s comments to the TV station were “consistent with what he told law enforcement,” according to San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen M. Wagstaffe. The alleged gunman also said he had planned to turn himself in to law enforcement when he drove to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and was writing a note in his car before he was taken into custody.
State officials have opened investigations into labor and workplace practices at the two sites of Monday’s fatal shootings, shedding light on the lives of California’s farmworkers who often live and work in dangerous conditions. The investigations come after Governor Gavin Newsom visited the beachside community on Tuesday, where he spoke with the victims’ families and co-workers about the deadly shooting and their workplace environment.
Without going into specifics, Newsom said some farmworkers were “living in shipping containers” and working for $9 an hour, well below the state minimum wage of $15.50. A spokesperson for Newsom called the workers’ conditions “simply deplorable” in a statement. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the labor commissioner’s office have confirmed they are investigating the two Half Moon Bay-area work sites for potential labor and workplace safety and health violations.
Both agencies “want to ensure that employees are being afforded all the protections of California labor laws,” according to a statement. Half Moon Bay is a rural beach town where the bedrock industry is vegetable and flower farms, though many have closed in recent years, affecting job opportunities. Farm owners have also pointed to the state’s extreme weather, with floods and heavy winds, devastating their fields and the surrounding infrastructure.
About 2,500 to 3,000 farmworkers live in the town at any given time, officials said. Many settle in the wealthy community after finding steady work, often living in mobile homes or trailers on the farms where they’re employed, just a short drive from the town’s multimillion-dollar coastal homes. The two farms subject to the probe are California Terra Garden along State Route 92, the site of the first attack, and Concord Farms on Cabrillo Highway, where the second attack occurred.
Despite the tragic events, the farm owner’s representative David Oates said that Newsom’s characterization of low pay and poor living conditions for workers doesn’t “reflect the conditions at California Terra Gardens.” The company typically employs about 35 people, and about eight families live on-site in mobile trailer homes that are permitted and inspected by the county. The families pay about $300 a month for rent, are compensated at a rate of $16.50 to $24 an hour and receive health benefits.
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