Science

The Farmworkers Risking Their Lives to Keep the Food Supply Going

“We’re trying not to get exposed, but we don’t have the ability to stop working.”

Workers wearing suits and masks sit in a cart with tools and spray orchards.
Agricultural laborers spray orchards to protect against insects and weeds in a fruit farm on March 27 in Mesa, California. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

This story was originally published by Grist and has been republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Every day when Carmelita finishes her shift in the strawberry fields of California’s central coast, she sprays herself down with Lysol, takes off the handkerchief she uses to protect her face, and tucks it in a plastic bag before getting in her car. She’s the sole provider for her two young sons and can’t afford to miss a day on the job.

But these days, with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the country, that’s getting much tougher. Carmelita carefully follows the safety precautions recommended by health experts, but that’s especially difficult in the fields. The farm where she works in Oxnard isn’t enforcing safety protocols, the 44-year-old farmworker told Grist. (Carmelita requested that her last name be withheld because of fear of reprisals from her employer.)

To make matters worse, her co-workers dismiss her repeated pleas that they maintain the expert-recommended 6-foot distance from her. They laugh and tease her: “Nothing’s going to happen.” They tell her that, if she doesn’t want to work, she should just go home.

Carmelita, whose sons are 7 and 13, doesn’t have that luxury. Every afternoon when she picks up her youngest from the babysitter’s house, the first thing he does is run into her arms for a hug. The last thing Carmelita wants to do is infect him with the virus, but every day she runs that risk just to put food on the table for her sons—and the rest of California.

“You’re trying not to get exposed, but unfortunately we don’t have the ability to stop working,” Carmelita said in Spanish. “The state calls us essential workers, but they’re not demonstrating our value. We’re putting ourselves at risk to feed the country.”

As strawberry-picking season kicks into high gear in April and May, farmworker advocates fear that a lack of worker safety protections, combined with a lack of access to health care and crowded living conditions, could lead to a major COVID-19 outbreak in farmworker communities across California. As other crops are harvested throughout the spring, much of the rest of the country faces a similar risk. For a working population particularly vulnerable due to economic insecurity, exposure to pesticides, higher incidence rates of respiratory illnesses such as asthma, and chronic conditions such as diabetes, COVID-19 could be devastating.

“If we don’t do something to address the living, working, housing, and transportation conditions of farmworkers immediately, we are setting ourselves up for a tremendous impact in the agricultural sector because these crops cannot be picked without farmworkers,” said Andrea Delgado, director of government affairs for the UFW Foundation—a nonprofit sister organization of the United Farm Workers union—which provides a range of services to farmworker and immigrant communities.

At the federal and state level, the UFW Foundation has urged Congress and state governments to address the unique needs of farmworkers by providing relief that can both prevent the spread of the virus and help workers survive the challenges ahead. There are more than 2.4 million farmworkers across the country, and it’s estimated that about half are undocumented. In the most recent economic stimulus package, Congress earmarked $9.5 billion for the Department of Agriculture and $14 billion in loans for the agricultural industry, but Delgado’s concern is that none of this funding is specifically directed at farm laborers.

The UFW Foundation is calling for Congress to provide farmworkers with hazard pay, financial support for child care, and sick leave, among other benefits. Farmworkers on average earn about $10.60 per hour and have a median annual income between $17,500 and $19,999. Just 47 percent of farmworkers reported having health insurance, according to the latest National Agricultural Workers Survey.

“Right now their situation—their legal status, their access to benefits—creates the conditions in which these workers are going to have to choose between going to work and making a living so that they can pay for a house, food, and child care for their children, or staying home and taking care of themselves,” said Delgado.

Farmworkers don’t just work side by side—they often share living quarters to cut costs, doubling or tripling up in apartments, mobile homes, and houses. Many also carpool to work together, traveling long distances to reach orchards and fields in rural areas.

“You can imagine what the implications are for transmission, and their ability to stay healthy and safe, and provide for their families,” said Delgado.

As Americans have complied with stay-at-home orders, they’ve also rushed to stockpile groceries. One of the side effects is that farmworkers are facing an increased level of food insecurity. By the time workers finish their shifts, staples like beans and rice are sold out at grocery stores. Food pantries are also running out of food, according to farmworkers and advocates who spoke to Grist.

Farmworkers in California’s Central Valley have watched this unfold. After 15 years of picking grapes and blueberries near her home in Delano, Susana stopped working about a month ago out of fear that she would get COVID-19. Her husband, who works on a dairy farm, is exposed to similar risks. But without Susana’s salary and with three children to feed, the couple can’t afford to have him stay home.

“We never expected to go through something like this, and we’re really worried about what’s happening. We don’t go anywhere. We stay at home with our children,” Susana, who requested that her last name be withheld because she is undocumented, told Grist in Spanish.

The family of six, which also includes Susana’s mother, is now struggling to make its money last on just one income. On some days, Susana can’t afford to shop at the grocery store. She relies on local food banks, but they too run out of key staples quickly, she said. The fruit, milk, and lunch meals provided twice a week by her children’s schools go a long way toward helping the family survive.

But with school closures, low-income students who once received free breakfast and lunch meals on campus now get lunch just twice a week in areas such as central California. To assist those in need, two schools that primarily serve the children of farmworkers in Delano are now offering breakfast to students and their parents, said Nancy Oropeza, a Delano-based organizer with the UFW Foundation. To survive, some families are now rationing or going without food, she said.

“Unfortunately that’s a fact,” Oropeza told Grist. “Maybe they had enough food for the last week, but now they’re running out.”

Organizations such Líderes Campesinas, a network of women farmworker leaders, are urging state leaders to take action, describing farmworkers as “one of the most vulnerable links in our nation’s food supply chain, labor force, and citizenry.” In a letter sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom this week, the Oxnard-based organization pressed state officials to prioritize the needs of farmworkers by addressing the inadequate levels of health education on COVID-19, the lack of access to health care, and food insecurity.

Advocacy organizations that serve farmworkers have been closely tracking the coronavirus, which has quickly spread to low-income, densely populated areas. In California’s Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, advocates have watched with concern as COVID-19 cases have surged in cities like Santa Maria and Oxnard, where many farmworkers work and live.

“If there is a major outbreak among agricultural worker communities, it can spread really, really quickly,” said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which advocates on behalf of immigrant, indigenous, and undocumented communities throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“I really worry about what’s going to happen as peak strawberry season coincides with this peak outbreak of COVID-19,” he added. “You can’t pick strawberries over Zoom.”

That collision will deal a blow to a segment of the population that largely lacks not only health care but also sometimes even the information on how to best protect oneself before or after exposure.

Advocates have been encouraging growers to take “meaningful steps” to protect farmworkers from coronavirus exposure by promoting workplace practices that prioritize workers’ health and safety, but they say that many companies are not responding.

The United Farm Workers union polled farmworkers via social media networks to determine whether employers are providing any coronavirus-related information. The union found that few are doing so, according to Armando Elenes, the organization’s secretary treasurer.

Certain employers operating under union contracts have issued new guidelines, such as picking practices that require social distancing. But across the industry, the UFW said, it has learned through its members that companies are not actually enforcing these best practices. In its March 30 letter to agricultural employers, the UFW called for extended sick leave and easy access to medical services as well as screening, testing, and treatment for nonunion farmworkers who lack health care.

Among farmworkers that CAUSE has surveyed, workers report that employers are providing safety measure briefings at the start of work shifts and staggering people in the field rows. But even with these measures in place, Zucker pointed out that the nature of the work makes it difficult for the workers to comply. For example, during peak season, employers pay workers by the box, creating a strong incentive for farmworkers to skip breaks.

“Things like taking 20 seconds to wash your hands—it sounds like not that long. But when you’re washing your hands it’s a really long time, especially when you feel like you have to get out there to make a dollar to survive,” said Zucker.

Beate Ritz, an occupational epidemiology expert at the School of Public Health at the University of California–Los Angeles, said it’s very likely that the coronavirus will spread into working-class farming communities, based on existing transmission patterns.

The impact of the coronavirus will be determined by how seriously the agricultural industry takes this health threat, whether it enforces safety measures, and what resources are directed at addressing issues such as health care access.

“You can have either a large outbreak and the whole system breaks down, or, as we’re trying to do now by what they call the ‘leveling of the curve,’ so that it doesn’t peak too much, you can have it spread over time,” said Ritz.

The Economic Policy Institute also warns that the peak in farm employment, which increases from spring through July, will overlap with the coronavirus peak. The nonpartisan think tank, which conducts economic research, concluded that employers will need to provide health insurance, paid sick days, and adequate safety equipment. The think tank argues that growers should also implement social distancing measures, even if some of these safety measures reduce productivity.

“Farmworkers already labor under what can sometimes be dangerous and unhealthy conditions, and now COVID-19 presents an additional challenge,” the report stated.

Many of the areas that employ farmworkers tend to be rural and lack the health care and other infrastructure to respond to a potential outbreak. In Washington state and California, the UFW Foundation is concerned that farmworkers won’t seek medical attention even if they have symptoms because they lack health insurance or fear being deported. Some have never been treated by a medical doctor.

“These are folks that need to be working and can’t afford not to work, even if they get sick,” said the UFW Foundation’s Delgado.

In Oxnard, that’s the case for Carmelita, who plans to continue picking strawberries. Her sons depend on her, and nobody will forgive the payment that’s due on the room she rents in a shared mobile home.

To make ends meet, she’s gotten creative. When school closures forced her to find alternative child care for her sons, she couldn’t afford the new expense. So she bought a video camera, installed it in the bedroom she rents, set up a study schedule for her 13-year-old, and started monitoring him via her cellphone during the day.

What weighs on her is the possibility that she might get sick with COVID-19 and no longer be able to care for her sons. So she takes precautions at work to minimize the risk. In her free time she volunteers with Líderes Campesinas, ensuring that other farmworkers have access to potentially lifesaving information.

“I know the risks that you face working in the fields due to pesticides,” said Carmelita, a native of Mexico who began picking grapes at the age of 13 during winter and summer breaks in her homeland. “So I’m aware of the risk. But this type of risk, no.”

These risks are what motivated her to work with organizations like Líderes Campesinas so that she could learn how to properly protect herself and others. Now, she just needs to convince her co-workers to do the same.

“The reality is that any of us can be exposed,” she said.