Study shows disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on CA farmworkers

Photo of California farmworkers working in a field
Tony Webster/Creative Commons
Many farmworkers are undocumented, food insecure and have been financially burdened by the pandemic, according to Ana Maria Mora, a researcher for the study and an assistant researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. (Photo by Tony Webster under CC BY-SA 2.0)

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In a recently published study, campus researchers outlined the impact of COVID-19 on California farmworkers.

The study, which administered more than 13,000 COVID-19 tests to 1,091 adult agricultural laborers between July 16 and Nov. 25, was conducted by public health researchers at UC Berkeley in conjunction with Clinica de Salud del Valle De Salinas, or CSVS, a clinic network serving agricultural workers and their relatives in Monterey County.

This is the first long-term study on the prevalence of COVID-19 infection risk factors and their impact on farmworkers to date, according to campus professor Nicholas Jewell, who moderated a Berkeley Conversations webinar featuring the researchers.

“One of the problems with farmworkers is that they’re a hidden population,” said Ana Maria Mora, a researcher for the study and an assistant researcher at the campus School of Public Health. “I don’t think people understand how much these workers sacrifice in their lives to do what they do. They work an extensive amount of hours under extremely challenging conditions.”

According to Mora and CSVS CEO Maximiliano Cuevas, a key takeaway from this study is a disproportionately high COVID-19 positivity rate among farmworkers.

According to Cuevas, the study’s most recent findings show a 13% positivity rate among farmworkers in Monterey County. This rate is substantially higher than the 10.7% positivity rate across Monterey County’s general population and the 4.9% rate in California as a whole, Cuevas said in an email.

“One of the most worrisome pieces of information from our studies is the fact that people are going to work while sick,” Mora said.

Of the study’s participants, 58% went to work when they were COVID-19 positive and experiencing symptoms, either out of fear of losing their jobs or their pay or because they were told by an employer to continue working, according to Mora.

Many workers are also undocumented, food insecure and have been financially burdened by the pandemic, Mora added. The study shows that more than half of workers are unable to pay their bills and are showing increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, she said. 

Mora also noted that many workers are living in crowded houses and commute to work with people they don’t live with, further putting them at risk of infection.

The study lists policy and action recommendations, including more rapid testing in fields, neighborhoods and clinics, as well as implementing a “culturally- and linguistically-appropriate education campaign” across all levels of the agriculture industry.

It will also be important to study similar risk factors in other California agricultural counties, Cuevas said in an email.

“Having this population be so severely hit by the pandemic can affect our food supply,” Mora said. “So it’s not only about protecting them; it’s protecting everybody who depends on their work.”

Contact Katia Pokotylo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katiapokotylo_.

A previous version of this article stated that more than 13,000 tests were conducted in the study. While this is true, only 1,091 participants were enrolled in the study.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the positivity rate among farmworkers in Monterey County was 19.3%. In fact, it was 13%.