America’s farmworkers have always done the essential work of feeding the nation for little reward and with few codified protections or benefits. Researchers and advocates estimate between 60% and 75% of California’s more than 400,000 agricultural workers are undocumented. The United Farm Workers of America estimates only about 10,000 are unionized. An additional 20,000 are in California on H2A visas, a visa category that has seen some processing delays amid coronavirus shutdown orders. With the more farming-intensive spring season about to set in, and a surge in Covid-19 cases expected state-wide, there’s a small and rapidly closing window to establish meaningful safety measures in the fields.
In California, which grows two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and one-third of its vegetables, the pressure to shift and bolster that fast-changing food system is felt acutely. The state’s roughly 400,000 agricultural workers are exempt from shelter-in-place orders, and vital agriculture work is continuing to keep markets stocked nationwide. Growers and labor contractors say they are putting new practices and measures in place to keep workers socially distanced and maintain sanitized common facilities.
But workers and their advocates tell a different story: of vulnerable, low-wage workers operating in fear, without proper protections let alone information about the risks involved in their essential labor, and without hope of any share in expanded unemployment benefits should they fall ill or lose work.
“Nothing has changed at work,” Amadeo Sumano said . “The distance principle, 6 feet between people, does not work in agriculture.” He worries about getting sick, or having his hours cut as some growers contend with a loss in food service orders, and the financial pressure that would come with either scenario, made even more intense because of his undocumented status. "I have lived and worked in this country for many years and paid taxes, but cannot access benefits,” said Sumano. “If either working hours are cut or we contract the virus, we are likely to not be able to pay rent and would become homeless.”
Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America. “The last hands that touched that produce before the consumer puts it in their mouth is a farmworker’s hands, so we better care about what happens to these workers.” He laughed at the notion of growers voluntarily offering hazard pay to compensate for their new risks, as some front line workers in other sectors have demanded. “The ‘essential’ part doesn’t show up on their paycheck. They’re lucky to get minimum wage,” he said.
“They’re getting paid the same, yet they’re exposing themselves to more dangers,” said Irene de Barraicua, spokesperson for Lideres Campesinas, an advocacy organization of and for California female farmworkers. “There is no standard for safety orientation. Sometimes we’re hearing they just get a five-minute talk – stay six feet apart, don’t do this, don’t do that – but they’re working in big crowds. It feels like it’s not being taken seriously because the money is more important.”