Things That Matter

Farmworkers Are Testing Positive For Covid-19 At Record Numbers, So What Are Officials Doing To Help?

Every day, California farmworkers worry that the pandemic plowing through agricultural hubs will catch them and kill them. They also worry that not working will kill them. Now, there is further evidence that their worries are grounded in reality.

A recent survey – the Covid-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) – points out the grim reality this vulnerable community faces as they work to support the nation’s ongoing need for food services.

California’s farmworker community – now considered essential – is being hit hard by the Coronavirus.

California’s agricultural communities have been hit the hardest by the Coronavirus pandemic. From Imperial County along the U.S.-Mexico border to Fresno County in the Central Valley, these counties are also home to large migrant communities who are considered ‘essential workers’ as they work California’s farms and ranches.

As new details emerge, a grim picture of the virus among farmworkers is emerging. The Covid-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) reinforces the dire warnings that farmworker advocacy organizations made when the coronavirus lockdowns began: The least protected essential workers in the country, toiling under environmental conditions like excessive heat, pollution and dust, are being devastated by the coronavirus, directly and indirectly. 

Now, five months into the pandemic, infection rates are spiking. Fresno County is experiencing 435 cases for every 100,000 residents; in Tulare it’s 472 and in Merced it’s 564. The statewide average: 269.

Though county figures say about 31% of overall cases are in the Latino community, some on the front lines estimate that up to 70% of cases from the recent spike have hit in that demographic, in a region where they account for about 42% of the population, according to census figures. Experts agree that official case counts across the state may be low because of testing problems.

And experts agree that fighting Covid-19 in the Central Valley could be an uphill battle. Many farmworkers live in crowded, dorm-like buildings. And thanks to a hostile government, many migrants are fearful of seeking any sort of medical or legal or financial help. Many of the people most at risk do not speak English and are traditionally hard for government to reach. Therefore, packing plants have emerged as coronavirus clusters in parts of the state.

The state is struggling to get a hold on the outbreak but officials have launched a new program they hope will have an impact.

The recent spike in infection rates within the Central Valley has drawn national attention, and now seems to have the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom. His administration is dispatching three of his Coronavirus ‘strike teams’ to the region to help local officials track cases of Covid-19, inspect workplaces, quarantine the sick, and ramp up testing within vulnerable groups.

Each team, consisting of about a dozen experts on health, housing, public outreach, agriculture and other fields, will try to contain an alarming spread through the region. Much of their work will focus on the San Joaquin Valley, where agricultural fields and crowded food-processing plants have become fertile ground for the virus.

“If you asked me today what our biggest area of concern in a state as large as ours, it is indeed the Central Valley,” Newsom said recently in announcing the deployment. “We need to do more for our agricultural and farmworkers.”

In addition to the strike team, the state is allocating $52 million in federal money to help improve testing and contact tracing within the valley. It’s also spending $6 million in private donations to buy food and other basics for low-income Valley residents whose livelihoods have been threatened by the pandemic.

But for many farmworkers, despite the risk, they have little choice but to continue to work.

Credit: Brent Stirton / Getty Images

California’s farmworkers have long been one of the state’s most vulnerable communities. Now that the pandemic has ravaged the state’s economy, migrant farmworkers are considered ‘essential workers’ and are exempt from many of the protective lockdown orders, forcing them to risk their health while at work.

Meanwhile, the collapse of food service (restaurants and institutions) has le to the shutdown of farms across the state and roughly 20% of farm jobs have been cut – that amounts to nearly 100,000 workers. Those who are still working have largely seen their hours cut. So for many, they have little choice but to return to a dangerous job or risk juggling bills and going hungry.

On the job, however, workers lack control of their own safety. Fewer than half of those surveyed said they had received masks from their employers. Even among those who had, they had received them once or a couple of times. (Farmworkers generally wear face coverings to protect themselves from pesticide dust, dirt and the sun. More than 95 percent of those surveyed said they are masked in the fields.) 

Social distancing is still an idea, not a reality, for many of those surveyed. In some cases, farmworkers who asked for better protections, such as more distancing in the fields, or hand sanitizer, have faced retaliation. Crew bosses have punished them by cutting their hours or days, advocates said. 

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