Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

We must protect farmworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic, expert argues

By Brenda Eskenazi


Co-authored with Pedro Moreno, a family medicine physician in Salinas, and Aaron Voit, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. 

A photo of a green field, with farmworkers seen in the distance

By now, we’ve all seen the news reports of frantic shoppers emptying supermarket shelves. The impulse is understandable: Food is a basic need we share.

But what about the people who bring us that food in the first place?

Farmworkers plant, tend and harvest the fruits and vegetables that keep our families strong and healthy. Now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must assure the health of farmworkers — who are the backbone of our food system.

In the past week, a number of California’s farming counties announced “shelter-in-place” orders with provisions that farming can continue as an “essential industry”. Farming — and farmworkers — are indeed essential. But what does it take to ensure that farmworkers can take necessary precautions and continue their vital work to put food on our plates?

More than a third of California’s farmworkers are uninsured and up to 60% are undocumented. The majority of farmworkers cannot get coverage for most health care needs through Medi-Cal, California’s safety net health insurance, because of their immigration status. New federal immigration rules have caused many immigrants to fear they will be punished for seeking out needed medical treatment.

Documented or not, farmworkers must be allowed and encouraged to be tested and treated for COVID-19 without cost and provided transportation to health care. They need to feel safe from fear of deportation or loss of benefits to their families if they receive medical care. Farmworkers, who speak a wide variety of languages including many indigenous languages, must be provided health safety information that is timely, accurate, accessible, at the appropriate literacy level and culturally appropriate.

Just like workers in other industries, farmworkers deserve the right to take time off to quarantine, to recover or to care for loved ones. Because many farmworkers live paycheck to paycheck, many are struggling to pay rent and buy food. They need access to replacement income programs that they have already paid into, regardless of immigration status. This is imperative so that families can stay afloat and workers can persevere.

Although some workers are now being told to keep six feet apart, they are often transported in carpools and packed buses to the fields, and live in crowded housing, making frequent cleaning and hand washing, let alone quarantine, impossible. Growers and other agricultural employers must inform farmworkers to space apart during breaks including at food and bathroom lines, transport employees using social distancing, disinfect transport vehicles regularly, increase space between workers on packing lines, and actively promote better housing in farmworker communities that can allow for adequate sanitation, social distancing and quarantine. These policies should be consistently reinforced and required of all farm labor contractors and growers.

The CDC recommends that we all wash our hands frequently and for 20 seconds’ duration, but this is difficult in the fields because of the distance to wash stations, long lines at those stations, cold water-only stations, and the fact that many farmworkers are compensated by the amount they pick and time spent washing hands is money lost.

During this pandemic, employers need to provide more wash stations than the regulations currently require — with warm water if possible and, as a backup, hand sanitizer at each row of crops. And, at least during this emergency, farm labor contractors and growers need to compensate farmworkers at their regular rate even if more time is spent making sure workers and produce are safe.

Farmworkers are parents too. With children out of school, farmworkers will need child care support so that they can be in the fields. There’s no working from home if you’re a farmworker.

The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us how interconnected we are and how vital farmworkers are to the health of all of us. In our moment of need, we are again reminded of their hard labor and sacrifice. Now they need our help. We must support the low-wage workers who are still working in fields, supermarkets, restaurants, and other essential industries we need now more than ever. Farmworkers are one group among them that needs extra attention.

These are trying times that call for strong measures. Time is running out. Policies must be put in place before there are not enough healthy people to tend our farms. We are all in this together.

Cross-posted from the Monterey Herald.