Former Skadden Fellow Estella Cisneros Returns to the Central Valley to Fight for Agricultural Workers’ Rights

Estella Cisneros (’12), the legal director of California Rural Legal Assistance’s Agricultural Worker Program, grew up in Planada, California, in the heart of the Central Valley. Nearly 95% of the town’s 4,000 residents are Latino, and the majority — including Estella’s parents, who immigrated from central Mexico — work in some type of agriculture, including on large-scale farms.

Estella attended Stanford University, where she took a sociology class that inspired her legal career. The professor assigned an article about the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which permitted the deportation of permanent residents (i.e., “green card” holders) for a wide range of nonviolent crimes. “I remember being shocked that such a law had passed,” Estella recalls. “It was very scary, because I had a lot of family who were permanent residents and, if they committed even a minor crime, could be deported.”

Estella recognized that her education could provide the tools to protect her family and other vulnerable people. In the summer following her junior year, she interned at CRLA — and was introduced to the Agricultural Worker Program she now leads — at the nonprofit’s Fresno office, about an hour south of Planada. After college, she worked as a legislative aide for a California state senator before attending Yale Law School, where she discovered a passion for labor and employment law. As a 3L, she applied for and received a Skadden Fellowship, to return to CRLA to focus on workplace health and safety for dairy workers.

“Before developing my proposal, I didn’t know about the enormous dairy industry in the Central Valley, because it wasn’t something that my family worked in. I grew up surrounded by dairy, I just didn’t realize it,” Estella says. “The fact that CRLA was among the first law firms to pay attention to dairy workers made it an extremely interesting and exciting opportunity.”

Dairy workers face high injury and fatality rates. (The most notorious cause of deaths is passing out from methane fumes and drowning in manure pits.) Reaching people to educate them about such dangers and their legal rights proved a steep hurdle — they typically work long hours and often live in employer-provided housing. Estella developed educational materials and looked for creative opportunities to present them, at community events and any other places she might find dairy workers. “I set up a lot of smaller meetings and talked to people one-on-one about their rights and to spread legal information,” Estella says.

At the end of her Fellowship, CRLA hired Estella as a staff attorney. Two years later she was named the directing attorney of the Fresno office, where she supervised a staff of about five attorneys and community workers. In 2018, she was again promoted, to regional director of advocacy, supervising the Fresno and Salinas offices. Eight years after joining CRLA as a Fellow, she was named the legal director of the Agricultural Worker Program.

The program is a joint effort by the five CRLA offices that specialize in representing agricultural workers. “The work is extremely interesting, as agriculture is vastly different in the Central Valley versus, say, Monterey County, in terms of labor practices and what they grow,” Estella says. “Both have big employers, but the issues and hazards workers encounter in dairy farms, for example, are not the same as the ones faced by those in grape fields.”

As legal director, Estella oversees the program’s statewide efforts, keeping an eye on changing laws and other developments likely to impact agricultural workers. “California is rightly known for having a lot of regulations. Worker advocate organizations embrace those regulations, especially when they relate to workplace health and safety, because our clients rely on them to protect themselves,” she says.

Most recently, after decades of a double standard, the state brought overtime regulations for agricultural workers in line with the protections afforded other workers, with time-and-a-half pay kicking in after eight hours, rather than 10. “Implementing this law will take time, but we’re already representing clients who aren’t being properly compensated,” Estella says. Other new regulations CRLA seeks to enforce include paid sick-leave and, in the wake of increased wildfires, air quality protections. In addition, since the start of the pandemic, AWP has helped clients secure COVID relief and sought to ensure that employers follow COVID health and safety regulations.

Estella’s other efforts include drafting amicus briefs and advocating for legislative policy (where not limited by CRLA’s receipt of federal funding). As part of CRLA’s senior management, she works with the executive director and chief deputy directors to help set organizational policy and make decisions impacting all 15 offices. She also serves as her program’s spokesperson, regularly talking with reporters about issues affecting California agricultural workers. “We had a couple terrible months at the height of COVID, as giant wildfires raged across California and temperatures passed 110 degrees,” Estella recalls. “The combination of three major emergencies was drastically and disproportionately impacting farmworkers, so we just wanted to get the word out: ‘This is what our communities are facing.’”

Estella considers being able to make a difference while working so closely to home an added bonus. “It’s been a privilege to serve farmworkers and their families, because that’s how I grew up — this is the community I was raised in, it’s in my blood,” Estella says. “I am doing what I want to do, which is the greatest gift my parents could possibly give me. It’s a way to honor all the sacrifices and hard work they’ve endured.”