By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Volunteers for vino: Saga continues
Placeholder Image

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Westover Vineyards of Castro Valley. Owner Bill Smyth is preparing to shutter his winery because the California Department of Industrial Relations slapped him with $115,550 in fines, back wages and penalties for using unpaid volunteers. Those fees put Westover in the red.

Why did the state go after him? Smyth suspected a complaint by a “disgruntled” former volunteer. On Monday, I heard from Scott Cantacessi, whose wife, Kim, worked/volunteered at Westover for 17 years. On her last day, as she was walking to her car, Cantacessi fell and fractured her arm. “I got hurt on your property,” she told Smyth. She wanted Smyth to reimburse her the cost of insurance and medical copayments.

Because Cantacessi hurt her arm after her final shift, Smyth maintains she was not a volunteer at the time of the accident. Still, Smyth agreed to pay Cantacessi $2,000 if she signed a form to protect him from any third-party claim. “Of course we didn’t do that, because we know that would be the insurance company coming to get back their money from us,” the Cantacessis explained.

Given that Smyth was in a serious battle with cancer, Kim Cantacessi did not sue. Because she did not want another person to get injured at the winery absent workers’ compensation, however, she says, she contacted the state.

This might be a good time to mention that Kim Cantacessi now works as a field representative for the Service Employees International Union.

“I have to say I was a little surprised about the fees and interest he had to pay,” Kim Cantacessi told me. If she had known about the penalty, she might not have gone to the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Do you think it’s right for the state to make it illegal for volunteers to work at wineries? “For a for-profit business? Absolutely,” she answered. “I work for the SEIU. One of our main things is to raise the minimum wage. What am I going to say? Raise the minimum wage, but not for winery workers?”

Scott Cantacessi says he fought with his wife for years about her decision to work for no pay — well, for a few bottles of wine. He knows many individuals choose to volunteer for vino. “They’re doing it for nothing,” he said, “because the winemaker is like a little celebrity and they feel like they’re in, and they’re having a good time.” But they won’t feel so good after an accident.

Smyth is appealing $30,000 of the $115,550. Though he maintains that he was not negligent (which Kim Cantacessi disputes), he wishes he had paid her the $2,000. Still, it would be “a travesty” if the couple managed to distract public attention from the real issue. Many local wineries — many small businesses, for that matter — cannot operate without volunteers. The law is bad for business — and individual freedom.

Smyth asked California Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski to talk to Department of Industrial Relations Director Christine Baker about changing the law. Smyth shouldn’t hold his breath. Department spokeswoman Erika Monterroza told me that the two “agreed to conduct additional outreach and education in his region.” So the state is going to spend more energy telling wineries they can’t use free help — and you that you have no right to choose to donate your time