Late last week, Yazmin Alvarado set out for the strawberry fields near Oxnard, California anxious and afraid of catching the novel coronavirus. Part of a crew of more than 100, she knew she was at high risk.
Members of her crew work and take breaks next to each other. They lack access to soap, water, and gloves, give each other rides to the fields in overloaded cars, and many share apartments with multiple families. As a ponchadora—the person who inspects fruit quality and records each harvested box—Alvarado has constant physical contact with others.
What’s more, she and her co-workers don’t qualify for sick pay, most lack health insurance, and they desperately need the paychecks, so they don’t have the option to stay home, she told Civil Eats. And yet, Alvarado’s employer, a large California berry company, hasn’t offered any training about COVID-19, nor taken any measures to protect the crew, said the 26-year-old worker. To top it off, the government and state health departments are offering little to no information in Spanish.
“We don’t have enough information. And we’re afraid to speak out… [we] don’t want to lose any hours,” said Alvarado, whose paycheck supports her 5-year-old twin girls and unemployed husband. But the fear of contracting the virus is pervasive.
“What if someone gets sick with the virus and still comes to work,” she asks.
While California has ordered all of its residents to shelter in place to stop the virus’ spread, Alvarado’s crew and more than 800,000 other agricultural laborers in the state are exempt. Many continue working, with few or no protections, to power California’s $54-billion agriculture sector and supply the nation’s empty supermarket shelves. And while no farmworkers have been confirmed to be carrying the virus, many agricultural areas have seen confirmed cases.
Agricultural workers are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
While most Americans stay at home, farmworkers continue to work, designated as “essential workers” by the Department of Homeland Security. But advocates and organizers are sounding the alarm: Agricultural workers are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. Nearly half lack legal work authorization and residency status, making them ineligible for essential benefits that could help them stay home when sick.
And yet the value of the agricultural labor force, which has long lived in the shadows, is also becoming much clearer to Americans than it’s ever been. While there is no evidence of COVID-19 spreading through food or food packaging, if (or perhaps when) it spreads among farmworkers, farmers say workforce gaps in the chain could exacerbate pre-existing labor shortages and lead to disruptions in the food supply.
Although consumers and government officials have now deemed immigrant workers “essential,” few resources have been dedicated to help them stave off the virus. The workers say they are confused, anxious, and unsure of how COVID-19 will impact their health, employment, and livelihoods. And with many schools suddenly shuttered, some farmworker families are also facing an impossible choice: continue to work or quit and take care of the children.
“Some farmworkers are panicking,” said Elvira Carvajal, lead community organizer in Florida for Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “There are no safety measures, there are no benefits. Families can’t afford to pay for childcare. They’re leaving [children] alone at home or taking them to the fields and leaving them in their cars. This is very dangerous.”
Risks at Work and at Home
Across the U.S., about 2.5 million farmworkers, most of whom are Latinx, toil on American farms. In addition, a growing number of foreign guest workers, most hailing from Mexico, are brought to the U.S. every year under the H-2A visa program. More than 250,000 were certified nationwide in 2019, though the State Department last week decided to suspend visa processing at the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Mexico, so that only returning guest workers will be allowed to come into the U.S., potentially leaving some growers short.
In some parts of the country, these workers are already busy harvesting produce—whether it’s strawberries in Southern California, citrus, asparagus, and kale in the San Joaquin Valley, or tomato, eggplant, and guavas in Florida. Others are pruning and thinning trees, training vines, transplanting, or weeding. Harvesting typically ramps up later in spring, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into fields and packing houses.
Some work shoulder-to-shoulder, while others are spread out in the fields, depending on the speed and the crops. Working outside may minimize the risk, experts say, but that’s not the case for packing houses and canneries, since the virus is spread by respiratory droplets and can survive on surfaces for up to three days. Those who work alone on machines seem to be the least exposed.
And while the average age for field workers is just 38 years old—and older adults and people with serious underlying medical conditions seem to be at the highest risk for severe symptoms from COVID-19—if young farmworkers get infected (with or without symptoms) they can become vectors for the virus.
Advocates say it’s the conditions outside of work that place farmworkers in most danger. Many workers carpool to work—with 4 to 6 workers sharing a single car—or are bused to work on packed buses. And their crowded living conditions pose perhaps the biggest challenge, said Norma Ahedo, community health worker coordinator for the Salinas-based Center For Community Advocacy.
Earlier this month, Ahedo said, she did a health check at an apartment in Salinas where four farmworker families—including seven children—were living in three small bedrooms and the living room. It’s typical for an entire family to live in a room, she said. It’s also not uncommon to see two families sharing a single room with a divider down the middle, she said.
“These are small spaces, very closed in, with few windows and many people living on top of each other,” Ahedo said. “And if someone does get sick, where will they go?” (Medical experts recommend that people sick with coronavirus use a separate bedroom and bathroom, or even just maintain the safe distance of six feet.)
H-2A guest workers also live in shared grower-provided communal housing camps or cheap motels where they can easily spread the virus to each other. When a few guest workers got the mumps in Washington state last spring, the entire labor camp had to be quarantined.
High Anxiety, Food Insecurity, Lack of Childcare
In addition to the threat of physical illness, advocates say the virus is causing huge emotional stress in the farmworker community. Ahedo said she’s worried for the families who have to shelter in place for long periods in overcrowded living conditions.
“This is causing high anxiety in both adults and children,” she said.
Though some workers may not fully grasp their risks or know how to prevent the spread, many are very worried about how the virus will affect their jobs and livelihoods. Already, some farmers who have lost markets due to restaurants, farmers’ market, and schools closing, have reduced working hours.
Farmworkers’ financial instability is compounded by the fact that many have family members who work in other low-wage, hourly jobs hard-hit by coronavirus closures, especially in the food service industry, said Daniel Gonzales, executive director of the Center For Community Advocacy. “It’s a time of great insecurity and much anguish and anxiety for these families,” he added.
Food scarcity is also looming as several rural communities in California and Washington are reporting a lack of basic necessities, said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “They’ve told me, ‘We have nowhere to get food. The corner markets and dollar stores have empty shelves (and they aren’t restocking).’ This is creating anxiety and despair.”
An Open Letter to Growers: Help Protect Your Workers
Last week, the United Farm Workers (UFW) sent an open letter to agricultural employers and organizations urging them to take “proactive steps to ensure the safety of farm workers, protect buyers and safeguard consumers.”
The need for action is dire because most non-union farmworkers do not have health care coverage or other benefits, said Armando Elenes, the UFW’s secretary treasurer. The California Farm Bureau Federation says it’s working with ag employers to “adjust on-farm practices to account for social distancing and other measures” to assure the safety of their employees.
But a poll the UFW just completed on its Spanish-language social media platforms showed more than 90 percent of the farmworkers who responded had not been advised by their employers on best practices to resist the virus. And a UFW Facebook Live event last week attracted 18,000 views, with hundreds of farmworkers commenting that their employers had provided no information at all.
The fact that many farmworkers are undocumented means they can’t file for unemployment and won’t benefit from the aid package Congress passes.
Language is a major barrier to accessing information about the virus and its prevention, said Elenes. Many workers speak only Spanish, while some primarily speak Indigenous languages such as Triqui and Mixteco. And since they’re not getting information from their employers, workers turn to social media, which is ripe with conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus.
The fact that many farmworkers are undocumented means they can’t file for unemployment and won’t benefit from the aid package Congress passes, said Elenes. Three states—California, Oregon, and Washington—currently offer farmworkers a limited number of sick-pay hours, he added. Despite these laws, many growers and labor contractors require doctors’ notes from workers, making it difficult for workers to access the benefit, he said. And some flat out refuse to give workers sick pay.
“If they stop working because they’re feeling ill, they no longer have a job. The growers do not guarantee their positions,” said Treviño-Sauceda. Some, she added, may also avoid doctors because they fear questions about immigration status or the Trump administration’s new public charge rule, which bars people who use certain benefits, including Medicaid, from converting their temporary immigration status into a green card.
The UFW’s open letter advocates extending state-required sick pay to 40 hours or more and removing the caps on accruing sick pay, eliminating the 90-day waiting period for newly employed farmworkers to be eligible for sick pay, and placing workers who are infected or whose family members are infected with COVID-19 on paid administrative leave for the duration of their illnesses.
The letter also asks growers to provide basic information and training to workers, such as encouraging them to wash their hands and avoid touching their faces.
Training Offered to Some, Others Are on Their Own
Some farmers are starting to provide training and are instituting additional safety measures. Last week at Del Bosque Farms on the west side of Fresno in California’s San Joaquin Valley, grower Joe Del Bosque and his wife held a tailgate meeting in Spanish for about 60 workers in his asparagus harvest crew to discuss coronavirus prevention and food safety measures. The grower said his company received resources from AgSafe, a nonprofit in Modesto that provides health and safety training.
Del Bosque, who farms about 2,200 acres of mostly organic produce—including several kinds of melons and asparagus—said his employees are his greatest concern. His business, after all, depends on them showing up.
“We’re an essential industry, at this time and always, so we need to make sure our workers are comfortable knowing they can come to work and still be protected,” he said.
Del Bosque’s company offers clean restrooms with fully equipped hand-washing stations. It advises workers to regularly scrub their hands with soap, to sneeze into their elbows, and to stay home when ill—measures that have been part of the company’s food safety program since before the pandemic. In addition, Del Bosque said he has instituted new social distancing measures and a rule about not touching other workers.
“We understand how diseases can be transmitted not just from one worker to another, but also through the produce,” he said. “We simply want to reinforce what we’ve already been doing for many years.”
Del Bosque said rows of asparagus are spaced 5 feet apart, but the workers harvest at their individual speeds and can maintain the required 6-foot social distancing guideline in the fields. In June, when the melon harvest begins, he may have to add more distancing measures, especially for the packers.
Del Bosque can’t prevent his workers from car-pooling because many have no other way to get to work. He can’t tell them to live with fewer people either. And while the company asks workers to stay home when sick—farmworkers in California can acquire between 3 and 8 sick pay days per year, depending on the hours they work—sick leave doesn’t kick in for three months, so some new members of the crew aren’t protected.
Del Bosque said he offers Obamacare-level free health insurance to both his seasonal farmworkers and year-round crew after 30 days. Some also qualify for MediCal, California’s version of Medicaid, which is available to legal residents or U.S. citizens.
According to workers and their advocates however, other employers aren’t nearly as diligent.
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) told Civil Eats it continues to respond to complaints and serious injuries and illnesses of field agricultural operations during the pandemic. Inspectors verify compliance with the field sanitation requirements and personal protective equipment, if applicable, said spokesman Frank Polizzi. He encouraged workers to call in complaints and said Cal/OSHA plans to post guidance for agricultural employers and workers on preventing the spread of COVID-19, in English this week and soon after in Spanish.
On Friday, after Monterey County issued a shelter-in-place order with sweeping exemptions for agriculture, officials in the region issued a farmworker protection advisory that was applauded by the area’s agricultural industry. And in North Carolina, another state with many guest workers and migrant workers, the health department has also issued guidelines for ag employers.
Few other counties or states have followed suit, but many workers have begun taking their own protective actions.
Alvarado, the Oxnard farmworker, said she and the others cover their faces with bandanas when they cough and buy their own gloves. After work, she changes in the car so as not to bring her clothes into the house. To learn more about COVID, she tunes in to Spanish-speaking radio stations. Last week, when she came down with a dry cough, she immediately went to the emergency room, where she was told it probably wasn’t the virus.
“I hope they can find a solution that would let farmworkers with coronavirus symptoms stay at home without losing the day’s salary or our jobs,” she said.
Education in the Time of Social Distancing
Organizations that work directly with farmworkers have also been working on education campaigns. But the organizations are struggling with how to reach the workers because most immigrant farmworkers prefer face-to-face conversations to online ones, and some are illiterate or lack access to the internet.
For now, UFW, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, and the Center For Community Advocacy have all been turning to social media, including Facebook Live and apps such as Skype and Zoom. They’re also working with local legislators and doctors to provide more information in Spanish.
Radio Bilingue, a national Spanish-language radio network headquartered in Fresno, has been running information spots in Spanish, English, and Mixteco about coronavirus protection, COVID-19 symptoms, and what to do when a person falls ill, said broadcasting director Maria Eraña. The network has also dedicated its flagship talk show program, Linea Abierta, to discussing the pandemic, as well as producing regular updates for its public affairs talk shows and newscasts.
“Our main message,” said Eraña, “is that it’s not the time to panic. It’s time for prevention. And it’s not the time to be afraid of going to the doctor.”