Work life

Examining California farmworkers' COVID-19 rates and risks

By Public Affairs

Researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and Dr. Maximiliano Cuevas had a discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on California farmworkers.

California is the leading agricultural state in the U.S., generating more than $50 billion in agricultural annual revenue and employing 800,000 agricultural workers.

Most farmworkers in California are Latino; they have been declared essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they ensure the continuity of the nation’s food supply. At the same time, Latinos in the U.S. have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new study investigating the prevalence of and risk factors for COVID-19 among farmworkers in Monterey County confirms this nationwide trend: Latinos represent 59% of the population in Monterey, but 74% of the COVID-19 cases and 75% of the fatalities. The study — led by researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and Dr. Maximiliano Cuevas, the CEO of the Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas (CSVS) — asked these questions: Why are farmworkers getting COVID-19? And how can we prevent illness?

Last week, the study’s researchers released a white paper detailing their preliminary findings, which included data from 1,091 participants, and took part in a livestreamed Berkeley Conversations event.

The team found that, although farmworkers did take COVID-19 seriously (91% of the initial study participants said it was a real threat; 24% said that COVID has had an extremely negative impact on their lives) and employers generally offered information about COVID-19 risks and implemented safety measures, employers had not been screening employees in the workplace.

And, disturbingly, more than half (58%) of the individuals in the study group “were going to work when they were positive for COVID-19, and they had symptoms. Most of them said that they were going to work because they felt well enough, but about a quarter went to work because they were concerned about losing their job, losing their pay or because their employer told them to,” said Dr. Cuevas.

“Most of the participants in our study lived in multigenerational, crowded households,” said researcher Ana Maria Mora, assistant researcher at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health. “And, very important, 40% had no place to shelter if they got sick.”

Joe Lewnard, assistant professor of epidemiology at Berkeley Public Health, said that notable risk factors were speaking an Indigenous language (rather than Spanish or English), having only a primary education or less and living outside the city of Salinas, which is the major urban center for the region.

Lead researcher Brenda Eskenazi, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, had specific policy suggestions to reduce risk to farmworkers and ensure the continuity of the nation’s food supply as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on.

Eskenazi stressed the need to implement a multi-pronged, culturally and linguistically appropriate COVID-19 education campaign that not only targets farmworkers, but also employers and supervisors; an increase in rapid PCR (polymerase chain reaction, which tests virus RNA) testing and contact tracing that is culturally and linguistically appropriate; immediate and simple access to services such as income replacement, mental and family health services and food support; and the prioritization of farmworkers in vaccination programs and rapid PCR testing.

As for members of the research team, they plan to broaden their work. “We’re trying to do a slimmed down version of this study in other agricultural counties in California,” said Eskenazi.