By Martin Bennett
A deepening COVID-19 crisis, now surging in most California agricultural counties, puts farmworkers in the pandemic’s crosshairs. Thousands of farm and packinghouse workers have contracted the virus in the agricultural counties of Imperial, Kern, Kings, Tulare, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Monterey and Ventura, as well as in the North Bay.
The UFW sent a March open letter to growers, calling for hazard pay for farmworkers due to the health risks and potential virus exposure. The UFW pointed out that all Safeway workers, in 900 stores in 18 states plus distribution centers, received a $2 an hour hazard pay increase (ending in mid-June). No statewide organizations representing growers, such as the California Farm Bureau Federation, responded.
These workers are the foundation of our food system. To avert catastrophe for workers and consumers, the federal and state governments must quickly adopt policies protecting the state’s farmworkers’ health and safety.
Even before COVID-19, farmworkers were amongst the state’s most vulnerable and impoverished workers.
Ninety percent of California farmworkers were born in Mexico, seven out of ten have just one employer, most farmworkers are married parents, and few migrate between California’s agricultural regions according to the 2018 Department of Labor National Agricultural Workers Survey.
UC Davis economist Phillip Martin reports that the average California farmworker works 36 weeks annually, earning barely $20,500 per year; and only one-third received employer-provided health insurance. Half of those eligible rely on at least one public program, such as Medi-Cal or Food Stamps, but 60 percent of the state’s farmworkers lack work authorization and cannot receive any social safety net benefits, unemployment insurance, workman’s compensation, or federal stimulus checks.
The cost of housing is a major expense for California’s farmworkers. The vast majority rent from someone other than their employer, and for most, housing is unaffordable, taking 30-60 percent of their gross monthly income for rent.
A new PBS Frontline documentary about farmworkers, “COVID’s Hidden Toll,” aired in July—simultaneously, the California Institute of Rural Studies (CIRS), in Davis, published a new report analyzing COVID-19’s economic and health impacts on the state’s estimated 800,000 farmworkers.
The CIRS study is based upon 900 farmworker interviews in 21 counties, including Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties. The investigation’s final report will include 600 more interviews.
CIRS researchers found that 100,000 agricultural jobs were lost by June, a 23 percent drop in total farm employment, due to lower demand from restaurants, schools, colleges, hotels, and sports arenas. Nearly half of all farmworkers experienced decreased work time and loss of income after the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March.
A San Joaquin County orchard worker told researchers: “We were out of work for two months … were evicted … had to find another place to live. We visit churches to also receive food … children studying at home… can get behind, and the cost of childcare has increased.”
Farmworkers are vigilant about the disease but daily confront dire challenges.
Ninety percent of farmworkers surveyed indicated that they were social distancing outside of work, wearing facial masks, washing hands frequently, and showering and changing clothes to prevent infecting their families. Yet the report estimates that Monterey County farmworkers are three times more likely to contract the virus than workers in other industries.
More than half of all farmworkers statewide reported that employers did not provide masks; one quarter indicated they received neither information about social distancing and best safety practices, nor if other workers were infected at their workplaces.
One-fifth of the farmworkers interviewed are indigenous (Triquis, Zapotecs, Mixtecs), who report not receiving COVID-19 information in their native language. A 2010 California Rural Legal Assistance study estimated that 165,000 indigenous farmworkers and their family members live in California.
Most farmworkers have underlying health conditions,such as persistent musculoskeletal injuries, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and respiratory illnesses like asthma and chronic bronchitis, due to years of strenuous physical labor and pesticides/toxic chemicals exposures, which may predispose them to contracting COVID-19.
One Salinas broccoli picker, and single mother of two, who is coping with cancer and diabetes told Frontline: “I have concerns about where I work because I don’t know if someone is sick and I feel insecure. If they were checking people before going to work, that would help me feel more safe and could work without worry. In these times, it’s necessity that makes us work despite the fear we have.”
Should they contract the virus, more than half of surveyed farmworkers indicated that their lack of health insurance and paid sick leave would be barriers to receiving medical treatment. A quarter suggested that their undocumented status prevented them from providing their name, address, and telephone to a clinic or physician.
A Kern County orchard worker stated, “I would be afraid to go to the hospital with my daughters because I could be blamed for neglect if I didn’t take them sooner. Then they would separate us and deport us.”
CIRS researchers concluded that poverty-level wages; the inability of farmworkers to social distance in crop work on broccoli, lettuce, and celery; inadequate workplace protection; minimal access to affordable health insurance; the cost of car ownership and the necessity to often carpool in packed vans; plus, overcrowded and unaffordable housing are the main causes for high infection rates among farmworkers.
A separate 2018 CIRS study found that two-thirds of Monterey farmworkers live in overcrowded conditions (more than one occupant per room whether a detached house, apartment, or mobile home). Dr. Max Cuevas, Salinas Clinica de Salud del Valle CEO, told the Fresno Bee: “If a farmworker gets sick, it can be difficult for them to isolate if they live in a house with multiple families and housing is a huge issue.”
Governor Gavin Newsom’s April Executive Order mandates two-week (80 hours) paid sick leave for all food sector workers affected by the virus—including farmworkers. In July, the Governor also announced new policy initiatives to protect farmworkers, including funding for free hotel rooms to isolate and quarantine farmworkers; expanded access to workman’s compensation; and stepped-up agricultural Cal-OSHA enforcement, including interagency strike teams and random inspections.
But much more must be done to halt the spread of COVID-19 in California’s farm counties.
The CIRS report recommends urgent policy changes, including releasing county level data by occupation and industry; free farmworker testing; increased healthcare access regardless of immigration status; mandatory personal protective equipment supplied by farm operators; and health and safety training for workers in their primary language.
Also, expanded unemployment benefits, income supports for the undocumented to offset lost wages, and housing and childcare assistance are essential to curtail COVID-19 in agricultural counties.
Letters in July and August to the Governor from the legislature’s Latino Caucus explained that addressing the COVID-19 crisis in California farm communities requires establishing mobile testing stations near rural worksites, expansion of telehealth services to all agriculture regions, and prioritizing farmworker testing. Also, the state’s personal protective equipment surplus stockpile must be directed to the farm sector, immediate rental assistance is needed particularly for undocumented farmworkers, budget allocations for the California Farmworker Housing Assistance Tax Credit and the State Low-Income Housing Credit require substantial increases to fund farmworker housing, and Cal-OSHA must aggressively expand farmworker COVID-19 popular education and improve tracking of farmworker complaints. Assemblymen Robert Rivas (D– Hollister) and Eduardo Garcia (D – Coachella) have introduced the ‘Farmworker Relief Package’ to address these issues.
Moreover, Cal-OSHA enforcement efforts must be greatly expanded beyond the Governor’s recent request. Most importantly, according to Garret Brown, a retired Cal-OSHA staffer and coordinator of the Inside Cal-OSHA website, the agency is understaffed and has 53 unfilled compliance and safety health officers out of 246. California has one inspector for every 99,000 workers. In comparison, Oregon has one for inspector for every 22,000 workers. Cal-OSHA chief Doug Parker insists the agency is currently hiring but cautions that scaling-up to full capacity will take time.
California legislators are also urging the Governor to expedite the development of Cal-OSHA emergency COVID-19 health and safety standards “to set clear, enforceable metrics for employers to meet and compel reluctant businesses to take appropriate action to protect workers and the public.”
Furthermore, the CIRS farmworker interviews revealed widespread fear of employer retaliation if workers speak out about unsafe working conditions.
The Frontline documentary replays the cell phone video of an HR manager addressing a group of Salinas food processing employees, who had walked out after news spread that an employee tested positive. The manager tells the workers, “What’s happened here is not to be taken lightly. It is serious,” and if they did not return to work … “you could be fired.”
The North Bay has not yet experienced the widespread virus outbreaks among farm workers of the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast, and elsewhere. Still, troubling signs have appeared: according to Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, seventy-five percent of all confirmed infections are Latinx, and 20 percent are Latinx agriculture and food processing workers. By late July two Sonoma County wineries had seen major outbreaks and 134 farmworkers had contracted the disease. Two of three County of Napa farmworker housing complexes closed due to confirmed COVID-19 infections, and dozens of Lake County farmworkers have tested positive.
Growers should study the CIRS report to ensure that they have implemented all possible measures to protect farmworkers and operate safely. These precautions include: free and frequent testing; daily access to facial masks that meet National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Standards (NIOSH); worker access to sanitary stations with sufficient soap and water and time-off every thirty minutes for hand washing; plus organizing the flow of work such that worker social distancing in the vineyards is possible.
The hundreds of ferocious wildfires ignited by lightning and thunder storms across the state in August only compound the precarious health and safety conditions of farmworkers. Cal-OSHA has approved a temporary standard for outdoor workers (extended through November). This rule requires that when the EPA Air Quality Index for fine particulate matter reaches an ‘unhealthy’ level (above 150) for more than one hour, growers must relocate workers indoors with filtered air or to another outdoor area where air quality is below 150, or workers must be trained and provided NIOSH approved respirators such as the N-95.
Enforcement of the Cal-OSHA wildfire smoke rule is challenging given Cal-OSHA understaffing, most farmworkers lack work authorization, and many do not speak English.
The United Farm Workers (UFW) polled their members on August 23rd, and 84 percent responded that they had not received N-95 masks from their employers. Agricultural commissioners in Monterey, Merced, and other farm counties reported shortages of N-95 masks.
In addition to the Governor’s Executive Order for the food sector that mandates paid sick leave, both the City of Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma recently approved two weeks emergency paid sick leave for any resident affected by the virus. Growers should inform all workers about the paid sick leave benefit and encourage employees to isolate or quarantine if they have symptoms or test positive.
The wealth of wine country depends on farmworkers, who are at considerable risk. This Labor Day, as the historic pandemic harvest gears up, growers should honor and recognize farmworkers with a hazard pay raise of $2 an hour or more. Vintners must strictly comply with CDC guidelines, the Governor’s Executive Orders, Cal-OSHA standards, and the County’s health officer orders to protect farmworkers’ health and safety.
This article is printed with the permission of Martin J. Bennett, an Instructor Emeritus of History at Santa Rosa Junior College, a policy and research analyst for UNITE HERE 2850, and a member of North Bay Jobs with Justice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org