Every day when Carmelita finishes her shift in the strawberry fields of California's central coast, she douses herself with Lysol, removes the bandana she uses to protect her face, and puts it in a plastic bag before getting into her car. . She is the sole provider for her two young children and cannot afford to miss a day at work.
But these days, with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the country, that is getting much more difficult. Carmelita carefully follows the safety precautions recommended by health experts, but that's especially difficult in the fields. The farm where he works in Oxnard is not enforcing safety protocols, the 44-year-old farm worker told Grist. (Carmelita requested that her last name be withheld for fear of retaliation from her employer.)
To make matters worse, her co-workers reject her repeated pleas to keep an expert's recommended distance of six feet from her. They laugh and make fun of her: "Nothing is going to happen." They tell him that if he doesn't want to work, he should go home.
Carmelita, whose children are 7 and 13, doesn't have that luxury. Every afternoon when she picks up her youngest daughter from the babysitter's house, the first thing she does is run into her arms to hug her. The last thing Carmelita wants to do is infect him with the virus, but every day she runs the risk of putting food on the table for her children and the rest of California.
“You are trying not to expose yourself, but unfortunately we don't have the ability to stop working,” Carmelita said in Spanish. “The state calls us essential workers, but they don't demonstrate our worth. We are putting ourselves at risk to feed the country.
As the strawberry picking season gets underway in April and May, farm workers advocate fears that a lack of worker safety protections, combined with a lack of access to health care and conditions crowded lives, could lead to a major outbreak of COVID-19 in farm workers in communities across California. As other crops are harvested in the spring, much of the rest of the country faces a similar risk. For a workforce particularly vulnerable due to economic insecurity, pesticide exposure, higher incidence rates of respiratory diseases 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 farm workers immediately, we are preparing for a tremendous impact on the agricultural sector because these crops cannot be harvested without farm workers,” 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 farmworkers and immigrant communities.
At the federal and state levels, the UFW Foundation has urged Congress and state governments to address the unique needs of agricultural workers by providing help that can prevent the spread of the virus and help workers survive the challenges that lie ahead. There are more than 2.4 million agricultural workers nationwide, and it is 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 neither of these funds are specifically directed at farm workers. .
The UFW Foundation is asking Congress to provide farmworkers with risk 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. Only 47 percent of farm workers reported having health insurance, according to the latest National Farmworker Survey.
“Right now, their legal situation, their access to benefits, creates the conditions in which these workers will have to choose between going to work and earning a living in order to pay for a house, food and childcare, or staying in home and take care of themselves, ”Delgado said.
Farmworkers don't just work side by side - they often share homes to cut costs, double or triple in apartments, mobile homes, and houses. Many also travel together to work together, traveling long distances to reach orchards and fields in rural areas.
"You can imagine what the implications are for transmission and your ability to stay healthy and safe and provide for your families," Delgado said.
Food shortages for farm workers
As the Americans have complied with the orders to stay at home, they also rushed to store food. One of the side effects is that agricultural workers face a higher level of food insecurity. By the time workers finish their shifts, staples like beans and rice run out at grocery stores. Food pantries are also running out of food.
Farmworkers in California's Central Valley have seen this unfold. After 15 years of harvesting grapes and blueberries near her home in Delano, Susana stopped working about a month ago for fear of receiving 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 cannot afford to stay home.
“We never expected to go through something like this, and we are really concerned about what is happening. We're not going anywhere. We stay at home with our children, ”Susana told Grist in Spanish, who requested that her last name be hidden because she is undocumented.
The family of six, which also includes Susana's mother, is now struggling to make their money last on one income. Some days, Susana can't afford to shop at the supermarket. She trusts local food banks, but they too quickly run out of staples, she said. The fruit, milk, and lunch meals provided twice a week at your children's schools greatly help the family survive.
But with schools closing, low-income students who once received free breakfast and lunch on campus now eat lunch only twice a week in areas like central California. To help those in need, two schools that primarily serve the children of farm workers in Delano now offer breakfast to students and their parents, said Nancy Oropeza, an organizer for the Delano-based UFW Foundation. To survive, some families now ration or run out of food, he said.
“Unfortunately that is a fact. Maybe they had enough food for the last week, but now they are running out, "he added.
Organizations such as Lideres Campesinas, a network of women farmworker leaders, urge state leaders to take action, describing farmworkers as “one of the most vulnerable links in the food supply chain, the workforce and the citizenry. of our country ”. In a letter sent to Governor Gavin Newsom this week, the Oxnard-based organization lobbied state officials to prioritize the needs of farmworkers by addressing inadequate levels of health education in COVID-19, lack of access to the health care and food insecurity.
The looming outbreak
Advocacy organizations serving farm workers have closely followed the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly to low-income and densely populated areas. In California's Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, advocates have watched with concern as COVID-19 cases have emerged in cities like Santa Maria and Oxnard, where many farm workers work and live.
“If there is a major outbreak among farmworker communities, it can spread very, very quickly,” said Lucas Zucker, director of policy and communications for the Central United Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSA), which advocates for the indigenous immigrants. and undocumented communities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
"I am really concerned about what will happen as the peak strawberry season coincides with this peak COVID-19 outbreak," he added. "You can't pick strawberries on Zoom."
That collision will be a severe blow to a segment of the population that is largely lacking not only medical care, but sometimes even information on how to better protect themselves before or after exposure.
Advocates have been encouraging producers to take "significant steps" to protect farm workers from exposure to the coronavirus by promoting workplace practices that prioritize worker health and safety, but say many companies do not. are responding.
The United Farm Workers union surveyed farmworkers via social media to determine if employers are providing information related to the coronavirus. 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 selection practices that require social distancing. But across the industry, the UFW says it has learned through its members that companies are not applying these best practices. In its March 30 letter to agricultural employers, the UFW requested extended sick leave, easy access to medical services, as well as screenings, tests and treatment for non-union agricultural workers who lack medical care.
Among farmworkers CAUSE has surveyed, workers report that employers are providing reports of safety measures at the beginning of work shifts and are reeling people in the field lines. But even with these measures in place, Zucker noted that the nature of the job makes it difficult for 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 seems like it's not that long. But when you're washing your hands it's a long time, especially when you feel like you have to go out to earn a dollar to survive, ”Zucker said.
Beate Ritz, an expert in occupational epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health, said the coronavirus is highly likely to spread to working-class agricultural 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 they apply safety measures, and what resources are spent addressing issues such as access to healthcare.
"You can have a big outbreak and the whole system breaks down or, as we're trying to do now by what they call 'curve leveling,' so it doesn't peak, it can have spread over time." Ritz said.
The Institute for Economic Policy also warns that the peak in agricultural employment, which rises from spring to July, will overlap with the peak of the coronavirus. The nonpartisan think tank, which conducts economic research, concluded that employers will need to provide health insurance, paid sick days and proper safety equipment. The think tank argues that growers should also implement social distancing measures, even if some of these safety measures reduce productivity.
"Agricultural workers already work 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 agricultural workers tend to be rural and lack the medical care and other infrastructure to respond to a potential outbreak. In Washington state and California, the UFW Foundation is concerned that agricultural workers will not seek medical attention even if they have symptoms, because they lack health insurance or fear deportation. Some have never been treated by a doctor.
"These are people who need to work and cannot afford not to work, even if they get sick," said Delgado of the UFW Foundation.
Staying the course
In Oxnard, that's the case with Carmelita, who plans to continue harvesting strawberries. Her children depend on her, and no one will forgive the payment due for the room she rents in a shared mobile home.
To make ends meet, she has gotten creative. When the school closure forced her to seek alternative child care for her children, she was unable to pay the new expense. So he bought a video camera, installed it in the room he rents, set a study schedule for his 13-year-old son, and monitors him through his cell phone during the day.
What weighs on her is the possibility that she will fall ill with COVID-19 and can no longer care for her children. So she takes precautions at work to minimize the risk. In her spare time, she volunteers with Lideres Campesinas, ensuring that other farm workers have access to potentially saving information.
"I know the risks you face working in the fields due to pesticides," said Carmelita, a native of Mexico who began picking grapes at age 13 on winter and summer vacations in her homeland. “So I am aware of the risk. But this kind of risk, no.
These risks are what motivated her to work with organizations like Lideres Campesinas, so that she could learn how to protect herself and others. Now, she just needs to convince her coworkers to do the same. "The reality is that any of us can be exposed," he said.