- Author: Ricardo Vela
Agricultural workers have not stopped working since they were deemed essential at the start of the pandemic. They have continued to plant, harvest, and process the nation's food during the crisis as well as during devastating fires.
"They should give us wage support in agriculture. We expose ourselves every day to this virus, and we're not lucky enough to be able to work from home. It can't be harvested from a computer, said Martin, a 49-year-old farmworker from Southern California.
The lack of an adequate response from employers and the federal government has made agricultural workers feel used and abused, and doubly struck by the crisis. They claim that the government's lack of response has left them vulnerable to various health problems: Eliseo, a 40-year-old agricultural worker from the San Joaquin Valley, commented, "We're supposed to be indispensable and essential, but we don't seem to be essential -- like we're useless garbage you can throw away, and then they're going to hire more people. That's how I feel."
California's eight hundred thousand agricultural workers have been struck hard by COVID-19. Clara, a 53-year-old farmworker from the San Joaquin Valley, explained, "Things have changed drastically because we had to stop working. Because there hadn't been a good job as there would have been. Sometimes they wouldn't let us come to work because they didn't want a lot of people."
The phase two of the COVID-19 Pandemic report , (COFS) conducted by Bonnie Bade, PhD; Sarah Ramirez, PhD, MPH; Dvera I. Saxton, PhD. Made public on February 2nd, 2021, shows how the pandemic has worsened the economic vulnerabilities and fragility within the food system and increased disparities in insecurity, risk, and health for agricultural workers and their families. Clara's family is one of the affected
"We were out of work for almost two months. God only knows how we survived it because we don't even understand. We survived with the help of God and friends who gave us food,” she said.
The report states that agricultural workers need to continue working because of food and job insecurity, even while they are sick. Those who are unable to work cannot afford to take many days off for fear of not having enough money to pay rent and bring food to their families.
The conditions under which they carry out their work and transportation are two of the high-risk factors for agricultural workers to contract COVID-19. They often travel to the fields in large, overcrowded groups in a truck. And at work, all of them take their rest under a tent, without following health measures such as social distancing or mouth coverings. Pedro, a 45-year-old farmworker from the desert region, explained, "The concern is that we are full in transport. At lunch, they set up a 4x8 tent [to provide shade]. The foreman yells at us that the work must continue and that he doesn't care if one has COVID-19 or not. They don't even wear masks. The chief kept quiet and didn't tell anyone until some of them died."
During surveys conducted in the investigation of field workers' conditions, the farmworkers denounced the inconsistent implementation of public health policy in agricultural workplaces. The report adds that the government did not recognize their concerns about workplace safety or, in some cases, they were openly dismissed and mocked by employers, supervisors, and government agencies responsible for protecting workers' health.
Eliseo, an agricultural worker from the San Joaquin Valley, testified, "We reported that they [bosses] didn't give us face masks. In other words, we asked them for face masks, and they just laughed. And we ordered soap to wash our hands because there were so many places where we couldn't wash our hands, and they just laughed. And several of my co-workers and I called Cal/OSHA, and we got together to call for help before we could get infected. And they [Cal/OSHA] told us they were going to send letters and they were going to talk to our boss, but they never did anything."
The mental health of agricultural workers and their families during the pandemic is another major concern shown in the report. Their main anxieties are the fear of getting sick or infecting others, losing income and jobs, and being evicted from their homes. Marcos, a 45-year-old farmworker from the San Joaquin Valley, explained, "If we don't work, we don't pay bills, we don't buy food, we don't pay the rent, and then where are we going to live?"
Eduardo, a 31-year-old agricultural worker also from the San Joaquin Valley, said, "I'm afraid to get sick, but what keeps me awake at night is the idea that I'm infectious but symptomless, and it makes me think maybe it's my fault they closed our workplace because I infected all my friends. That's a big fear that invades my thoughts."
The lack of social support networks, including extended family, churches, and other community spaces that have been limited for farmworkers, has harmed these communities as it has done for the rest of the population.
On testing and vaccination, the report notes that the spread of misinformation due to conspiracy theories and the lack of vision of government agencies to offer agricultural workers evidence at nearby sites has created a high mistrust among these families. For indigenous language speakers, not understanding where to test, how to test, and interpreting and acting on the results was even more frustrating. Lupe, a 30-year-old Oaxacan farmworker from Southern California, said, "We don't know, or we don't go. We haven't been to do the coronavirus test because we don't know where to go. If they give it to us, we'll go because we don't know where to go."
As for vaccines, the study shows that side effects are a great fear. Simultaneously, a smaller percentage of males reported not being interested in getting vaccinated for fear of being microchip implanted, while women were reluctant to get vaccinated for fear of becoming infertile. 12% showed a distrust of the government.
The coalition of community organizations and universities recommends creating a culture of equity for field workers.
- As essential workers in national and global food systems, policies should include food and agricultural workers in all financial assistance and aid programs at the federal, state, county, and municipal levels, regardless of their immigration status.
- During school closures, there must be ongoing financial assistance for families with at least one adult staying at home or forced to stay home due to reduced hours, illnesses, temporary closures, staff reductions, or layoffs.
- Creation of culturally and linguistically appropriate places of communication for agricultural workers, such as regionally organized telephone lines, attended by persons in that community, during hours favorable to these workers, to report on violations of the COVID-19 protocol and other breaches of the protocol related to work in times of pandemic.
- In pandemic and ordinary circumstances, public health and occupational health and safety messages should remain clear and consistent in this regard. Messaging must be relevant for language and culture, but it must also come from trusted sources in the community.
- Expansion of testing and vaccination efforts in rural communities. Agricultural workers will benefit from appointment sites for free trials in places near their homes or workplaces.
- Agricultural workers should be included and represented in the design and dissemination of each and every public health campaign aimed at them. Agricultural workplaces should appoint field workers to serve as health and safety ambassadors, offering them a higher salary.