Abigail Cruz '23 Works to Protect the Rights of California Farmworkers

After graduating from UC Law SF in May, Abigail Cruz ’23 is working to protect the rights of farmworkers on California’s Central Coast.

Thousands of farmworkers on California’s Central Coast spend long hours in the hot sun picking fruits and vegetables that help feed America, but few have the resources to challenge unsafe working conditions and wage theft when they occur.

Recent UC Law SF graduate Abigail Cruz ’23 is helping those farmworkers stand up for their rights in her role as a Justice Catalyst Fellow with the Wage Protection Program at Legal Aid at Work.

Her work includes doing research for policy proposals to improve working conditions, conducting trainings for organizers who educate farmworkers of their rights, and supporting active litigation against employers accused of violating state and federal labor laws.

“I’m hopeful my work will bring more attention to the Central Coast area and the need to have more resources here, especially for undocumented farmworkers who can’t travel to bigger cities that have more resources to help,” she said.

Her fellowship project is focused on San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties. For Cruz, the region is familiar territory, and so is the plight of farmworkers. She grew up in the Central Coast city of Santa Maria. Her farmworker parents used to bring her to the fields with them as they picked produce because they couldn’t afford childcare.

“I grew up knowing what was happening, knowing that employers were exploiting my parents’ labor and sometimes not paying them what they were owed,” she said.

As a Justice Catalyst Fellow, Cruz has been drafting motions, researching legal issues, and doing other work to support a lawsuit against a farm labor contractor accused of underpaying workers for boxes of strawberries they picked for Driscoll’s, one of the world’s largest berry companies. She also helps farmworkers who face threats and retaliation for organizing with workers to push for better pay and working conditions.

Though always aware of labor and immigration issues, it wasn’t until college when Cruz first got seriously interested in the law. She took a labor law class at UCLA that sparked her interest. She went on to intern at the Sacramento Public Defender’s Office and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in Chicana and Chicano studies with minors in labor studies and education.

After college, she landed a job with California Rural Legal Assistance, where she helped farmworkers in Ventura County file wage claims and educated workers about their rights, including the right to have water and shade on extremely hot days. She also told workers to record how many boxes of produce they picked in each shift to ensure they were compensated correctly.

For law school, Cruz said she chose UC Law SF in large part because of its Legal Education Opportunity Program, which admits and supports students who have overcome significant disadvantages or adversity. The program provides financial scholarships, academic and bar support, community building, faculty mentors, and professional development.

“The LEOP Program was really instrumental to my success in law school,” she said.

In law school, Cruz participated in the Workers’ Rights Clinic and was placed with Legal Aid at Work, where she now works as a fellow. Through the clinic, she assisted low-wage workers across California who were denied wages and meal and rest breaks.

Cruz said she hopes her year-long fellowship project, which started in August and could get extended another year, will empower farmworkers with the knowledge that they are not alone, because people and organizations are there to support them.

Cruz added that she feels compelled to use her law degree to advocate for workers who are treated unfairly.

“I feel privileged that I went to law school and was able to get this education,” she said. “It feels good giving back.”