Essential but disposable: How California farmworkers battle the COVID-19 pandemic

Filipino farmworkers pick table grapes in a field near Poplar, California in the San Joaquin Valley. Most workers wear facemasks or bandanas as a protection against spreading the coronavirus. Teresita Mateo came from Laoag, in Ilocos Norte province of the Philippines. | Photo by David Bacon

by Jenny Manrique

In addition to high risk exposure to COVID-19, farmworkers in California have borne the brunt of setbacks caused by the pandemic: loss of income and employment, sudden childcare costs due to school closings, problems with distance learning due to poor or zero Internet access, food shortages, housing insecurity and even mental health problems.

The dire diagnosis was compiled in the report “Always Essential, Perpetually Disposable: California Farm Workers and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” research conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies and several grassroots organizations.

“The study findings show that farmworkers and their families experience a lot of reality and a lot of fear,” said co-author Bonnie Bade, professor of anthropology at California State University in San Marcos, who spoke at a Feb. 3 video press conference.

“The reality is the job loss and loss of income, unsafe and high-risk working conditions, lack of health insurance and sick leave, housing insecurity, deportation and death,” she added. “The fear is of being exposed at work and infecting their children, of not being able to put food on the table, of not having the technological resources to support distance learning … fear of eviction, fear of testing positive and being intubated in a hospital and dying alone.”

The report includes stories collected through 63 in-depth interviews as a follow-up to the statewide COVID-19 Farmworkers Survey (COFS) of 915 people last year, in response to the overwhelming number of indigenous and Latino people in the fields falling sick from COVID. Although the data shared is from California, the complete study tracks workers in the fields of Oregon and Washington.

“The mental health of farmworkers’ families emerges as a primary concern voiced by participants,” Bade said. “Working women sacrifice wages to stay home and navigate an unfamiliar world of computers to keep kids online, while isolated teens contemplate and commit suicide.”

Prevention practices against the coronavirus in the fields are almost nil and some bosses even refuse to give the workers basic resources such as masks, alcohol and soap.

Although farmers try to keep physical distance, many should carpool with colleagues or live in shared houses with other families, increasing the risk of infection.

Federal or state aid provided during the pandemic is delayed or directly denied to this population, according to those interviewed.

“We asked them for masks and they (bosses) just laughed. And we asked for soap to wash our hands, and they (bosses) just laughed. Several of my coworkers and I called Cal OSHA (California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration), to ask for help before we could get infected. They told us that they were going to send letters and that they were going to talk to our boss but they never did anything.”

Eliseo’s testimony was shared by Erica Fernandez Zamora, a community organizer for the California Central Valley Environmental Justice Network, who interviewed residents in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Barriers for farmworkers to report COVID-19-related complaints should be eased, and they must be protected from retaliation,” Fernandez Zamora said. “Agencies like Cal OSHA should bolster health and safety enforcement for these workers.”

Another concern for the campesinos is that many belong to mixed-status families who were excluded from receiving financial relief in the first round of stimulus checks.. The incoming Biden administration has said that a social security number is not needed to access such relief going forward.

Community-based organizations (CBOs) and migrant clinics have taken the state’s place in providing food and rent relief through the few donations they receive. They also distribute sombreros, working gloves and personal protective equipment (PPE), and ensure that information about COVID-19 is available not only in Spanish, but in indigenous and Asian languages.

“Many times public information is shared in academic Spanish format and even that can be inaccessible to Spanish-speaking communities,” said Paola Araceli Illescas, another researcher who works at the Vista community clinic that serves north county in San Diego. For this study, a total of 15 interviews were conducted in other languages than Spanish and English.

“CBOs are often trusted messengers for the community and can be key to dispelling any fears of misunderstandings caused by threats of public charge,” added Araceli, referring to the test to determine whether someone who is applying for permanent residency or some other immigration relief, may become dependent on federal public benefits in the future.

This public charge, which Biden has vowed to eliminate, has resulted in farmers’ reluctance to even get tested for COVID-19 and increased vaccine hesitancy.

“I watched on the news that the hospitals are at full capacity and I am very scared because I don’t have health insurance and I feel that my life as an undocumented person is not as valuable as saving the life of a U.S. citizen,” said Rodolfo, 46, one of those interviewed for the report.

“We’re exposing ourselves every day to this virus and we don’t have the good fortune to be able to work from home,” said Martin, concerned about the reduction in his salary. “You can’t harvest from a computer.”

The researchers emphasized the need for the California legislature to pass SB 562, the Healthy California Act, which guarantees access to health for all Californians regardless of their immigration status.

“It’s time to prioritize free access to COVID testing and vaccination for farmworkers and other essential undocumented workers,” said Deysi Merino-González of the Farmworker CARE coalition in San Diego.

“I hope that the next relief package will prioritize their legalization … Farmworkers are the backbone of the nation’s food system, the food they give us supports the immune system attacked by this pandemic,” added Merino González.

The report also includes other recommendations such as investing in broadband internet infrastructure in rural California and including farmworkers in developing response plans for future emergencies.

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