Protect forgotten agricultural workers during COVID-19

Illustration of farm workers bent over in a field, while masks float above them in the air.
Lucy Yang/File

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No le importamos a nadie, a pesar de lo duro que trabajamos, somos desechables.” “Nobody cares about us. Although we work really hard, we are disposable.”

I was speechless when a farmworker in Fresno, California, told me this in April after being a victim of retaliation by a contractor. The contractor had punished her and her husband for asking for changes in the workflow that would allow them to social distance. Unfortunately, this farmworker is not alone. Many agricultural workers have experienced similar situations and have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple ways.

Earlier this year, when shelter-in-place had just begun, I had the privilege of being part of a collaboration of community organizations and researchers that produced the “COVID-19 Farmworkers Study,” or COFS. We conducted more than 900 phone surveys with agricultural workers across California to understand how they have been impacted by the pandemic and recommend policy changes to support these workers.

The study, released in July, found farmworkers experienced a significant loss of work and income because of the pandemic. For one, market demand decreased, especially demand for commodities that are normally exported abroad. In addition to the difficulties of social distancing in the fields, agricultural workers faced job loss due to an increased workforce. During the pandemic, former agricultural workers who had moved to other occupations and were working in service industry jobs at places such as restaurants, beauty salons and flea markets were forced to return to the fields to seek work. This resulted in an influx of labor that prevented workers from making their usual income. One farmworker, for example, described the increase in the normal crew from 25-30 to 100. “The work that we would normally complete in 8 hours we finished in 4,” she said. “They sent me home after 4 hours of work. After I had paid the raitero and the babysitter, I had hardly anything left.”

Working conditions for agricultural workers have also changed during the pandemic. Some have described experiencing changes in the workflow that allow them to stay 6 feet apart. Some reported receiving face coverings at work sites, but 43% of farmworkers reported receiving none at all. Still, 95% of the survey participants reported using a face covering, which means that a significant portion of them secured masks themselves, even though in April, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or CalOsha, recommended all agricultural employers provide masks to employees. The reality is, many farmworkers were left with the burden of covering the extra cost of masks, which could be significant for those in rural communities.

Agricultural workers in areas of the state affected by wildfires — Santa Cruz, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Sonoma, among others — have experienced added costs and problems accessing face masks. Due to wildfire smoke, farmworkers need N95 masks that protect them from fine particles in addition to the coronavirus. While the California Department of Food and Agriculture, or CDFA, purchased and distributed N95 masks through agricultural commissioners, the distribution efforts among farmworkers were not effective — especially in counties such Fresno where the commissioner relied on growers and contractors to distribute the masks. Of the 140 farmworkers we talked to in Fresno County in September, none told us they received an N95 mask from their employer.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected agricultural workers in other ways beyond the workplace. Many described experiencing challenges to finding childcare as well as having to pay more for childcare, given that children were not attending school. They also reported increased expenses in food, as children no longer had meals provided to them during the school day. Food insecurity due to lack of social programs, fear of seeking medical services and a lack of testing due to the absence of health insurance were other challenges documented in the COFS.

During these 10 months that our state has been paralyzed by this pandemic, we have seen multiple efforts to help some of California’s most vulnerable populations. Some community organizations, including the one I work for, have been distributing COVID-19 relief funds to undocumented farmworkers. State and local agencies have launched programs and initiatives to support these workers and ensure their basic needs are met. But these efforts are not enough.

While their work must continue through the pandemic to ensure a continuous supply of food to people across the country, agricultural workers aren’t always treated as “essential.” We need to channel additional resources to help agricultural workers because the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities affecting the community.

The majority of agricultural workers are uninsured, and so we need to guarantee access to free COVID-19 testing and health treatment as they continue to risk infection while carrying out essential work. Many agricultural workers also live from paycheck to paycheck, making them especially vulnerable if they become infected with the coronavirus and are forced to quarantine. To support them, we need to offer financial assistance as well as food assistance while they shelter in place. Overcrowding is a well-documented problem among agricultural workers, and so housing assistance programs are needed to ensure that farmworkers who need to quarantine have the proper space to do so.

Above all, recommendations made by government agencies such as CalOSHA and the CDFA need to be enforceable — and enforced — to ensure protection of farmworkers. The agricultural workers in our state are the engine of an industry that generates not only food but billions of dollars. We owe them programs and policies that prioritize their well-being and that make them feel valued, not disposable.

Nayamin Martinez is the director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network, or CCEJN. CCEJN has been working closely with agricultural workers in the Central Valley throughout the pandemic, offering COVID-19 relief funds and masks. CCEJN is also one of the six organizations that conducted the surveys that compose the “COVID-19 Farmworker Study.”