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Undocumented Farmworkers in the Time of COVID-19

As Americans shelter in place, washing hands and staying six feet away from each other, farmworkers carpool to get groceries then retreat to cramped, crowded quarters, sleeping several to a room. They are not coronavirus deniers: The pandemic terrifies them. They simply have no choice; are compelled to work yet feel disposable. Two-thirds of the 500,000 to 800,000 farmworkers in California are undocumented, and so excluded from the coronavirus relief bill. Farm work is how they survive — if it doesn’t make them sick.

california farmworkers without protective equipment
Seasonal farm workers pick and package strawberries in Central Valley.

Over the last decade, toiling under conditions of record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, drought and floods has exacerbated their health risks, ongoing research studies are finding. With no government-mandated protocols to safeguard their health, they are scared to work, scared to not work.

While everyone is right to fear the pandemic, farmworkers have more to fear than others. OVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a new virus and whose symptoms can include a fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, or new loss of taste and smell. Workers who may be at higher risk for severe illness include older adults and people of any age with certain underlying medical conditions like chronic kidney disease, obesity, diabetes, or serious heart conditions.

Three distinctive factors affect farmworkers’ risk for COVID-19 in workplaces. First, farmworkers often have close contact with each other both in the fields and indoors. Workers may also be near one another at other times, such as when clocking in or out, during breaks, when sharing transportation, or in shared housing. Second, farmworkers often have prolonged close contact with coworkers, both on the work site and during transportation and housing. Third, exposure could also occur when workers have contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, equipment, tractors, workstations, toilet facilities, or breakroom tables and then touch their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about how this virus spreads.

Other factors that may also increase risk among some workers:
● Sharing transportation such as ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles, car-pools, and public transportation.
● Living in employer-furnished housing and sharing living quarters, cooking and eating areas, bathrooms, and laundry facilities with fellow workers.
● Living in crowded and multigenerational housing.
● Contact within their households/families and with fellow workers in community settings in areas with ongoing community transmission.
● Mobility of the workforce (i.e., migrant workers) who, in moving from farm to farm, can potentially spread the virus between communities.
● Poor access to clean water for hygiene purposes throughout the day.

Because of all the risks outlined above, sanitizing stations should be in multiple locations on the farm, such as the point of entry or exit to a farm field, the location where farmworkers clock in/out, and, if possible, in individual containers made available to workers in field settings.

Moreover, all communication and training for workers should be easy to understand and should be provided in languages appropriate to the preferred languages spoken or read by those receiving the training, be at the appropriate literacy level, and include accurate and timely information.

U.S. farmers insist they are trying to help their beleaguered workers in this collapsed economy. After hard lobbying from the farm industry, the Trump administration scored $23.5 billion in aid to farmers as part of the $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress. It empowers Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to allocate the funds with little to no congressional oversight. The bill includes no rules for how farmers should protect their workers, if at all, from the virus, or long-term reforms to ensure their health.

Many farmworkers have not been told a word about how to navigate the coronavirus. They know they are supposed to wear gloves and masks and stay away from others but they don’t feel they have the freedom to speak out. Workers risk their health picking, planting and packing when feeling sick or exploited because they need the money. They will not report their illness out of fear that if they test positive for the coronavirus, they and their co-workers will be thrown out of their jobs and quarantined. Repercussions have taught them code of silence.

Advocates are pushing for measures that would help farm workers survive the coronavirus and beyond it. When a 17-year-old pregnant farmworker died of heat stroke in 2008 because drinking water was too far away from where she was harvesting (despite regulations on the books since 2005 designed to prevent such things), an outcry led to enhanced safety regulations. On social media and in interviews, groups such as the UFW say that farmworkers are always essential to keep the nation fed.

On April 2, nearly two weeks after the UFW sent an open letter calling for the agricultural industry to step up with real reforms that would protect farm workers from cataclysmic consequences in the (likely) event the coronavirus reaches farm country, the union UFW issued another, longer one. The letter signed by the UFW president, Teresa Romero, and its secretary-treasurer, Armando Elenes, calls on farmers to provide extended sick leave, eliminate required doctors’ notes when workers claim sick days, make workplace plans to enforce social distancing and other measures mandatory, and to give workers easy access to medical services. It asks for a way for the great majority of non-union workers to get screened, tested and treated and for hazard pay in the form of pay raises or bonuses of $2 to $3 an hour.

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