As COVID-19 Surges, Farmworkers Are Paying A High Price

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Above photo: Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa harvest romaine lettuce on a machine with heavy plastic dividers that separate workers from each other on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California. Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

A survey of workers in 21 counties found the coronavirus is devastating them directly and indirectly, with farm hubs having the highest infection rates in the state.

Every day, California farmworkers worry that the pandemic plowing through agricultural hubs will catch them and kill them. They also worry that not working will kill them.

The collapse of food service demands when most businesses and institutions shut down has cut farm jobs statewide by 20 percent, or 100,000. Many farmworkers who are still working have had their hours or days reduced, sometimes without warning. Lockdowns have also cost workers second jobs they needed to make ends meet. They are juggling bills and going hungry.

These are some of the findings in a new survey of 900 farmworkers in 21 farm counties, released on Tuesday. The survey was coordinated by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), with a wide group of researchers, farmworker organizations and policy advocates. The Covid-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) reinforces the dire warnings that farmworker advocacy organizations made when the coronavirus lockdowns began: The least protected essential workers in the country, toiling under environmental conditions like excessive heat, pollution and dust, are being devastated by the coronavirus, directly and indirectly. 

California has the largest agricultural industry in the country, a $54 billion economy that is the  backbone of the fifth largest national economy on the planet. Farmworkers, without whom the industry would collapse, are proving especially vulnerable to contracting Covid-19. The survey coincides with new evidence that farmworkers are contracting the virus at much higher rates than people in any other other occupation. The CIRS has found that in Monterey County, farmworkers are three times more likely to contract the coronavirus than the general population. Farm hubs have the highest rates of Covid-19 in the state, and Latinx patients comprise the majority of cases in those hot spots.

Most counties do not track cases by occupation, a serious detriment to stemming the spread of the disease, said Don Villarejo, CIRS’ founder, who compiled the Monterey County data. “There is a lack of transparency,” he said in a press conference with several farmworker groups that helped conduct the survey, adding that the lack of information makes tracking and containing outbreaks more difficult.

Farmworker advocates say that despite the state’s efforts to help contain the coronavirus among agricultural workers, the attempts thus far have not been working. In Imperial County, the state’s coronavirus epicenter, efforts to inform the farmworker community and preventoutbreaks are failing, said Esther Bejarano of the Comite Civico del Valle (Civic Committee of the Valley).

“There’s no point spending more money on what’s not working,” she said, referring to a new plan by Gov. Gavin Newsom, announced on Monday, to spend $52 million in the center of California’s agricultural region. “We need structural change. We need systemic support.”

Farmworkers, she said, “are in a crisis.”

Recommended protections for farmworkers, like masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing, need to be made mandatory, advocates said, and longstanding conditions that farmworkers have endured, such as crowded buses to and from work, or overcrowded housing, need to be addressed.

Education campaigns to reinforce social distancing or hand-washing are moot at this point. Farmworkers, the survey found, know what they need to do to protect themselves from the disease. They follow the usual protocols at home.

On the job, however, workers lack control of their own safety. Fewer than half of those surveyed said they had received masks from their employers. Even among those who had, they had received them once or a couple of times. (Farmworkers generally wear face coverings to protect themselves from pesticide dust, dirt and the sun. More than 95 percent of those surveyed said they are masked in the fields.)

Social distancing is still an idea, not a reality, for many of those surveyed. In some cases, farmworkers who asked for better protections, such as more distancing in the fields, or hand sanitizer, have faced retaliation. Crew bosses have punished them by cutting their hours or days, advocates said.

Farmworkers would benefit from more testing, advocates said. At this point, few have been tested. For the undocumented (a majority of farmworkers), a lack of health care is not the only issue. Many worry that if they identify themselves to receive even free medical care, they will end up deported.

The farmworker study is ongoing. Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, executive director of the rural studies institute, said the research, which is still preliminary, was being released “because it needs to be out there.”

Evelyn Nieves is a former staff writer for the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.

  • Nylene13

    The problem is these giant industrial farms. Farms should be small, organic and worker owned.