Amadeo Sumano picks strawberries with his bare hands in Ventura county, on California’s central coast, and packs them into plastic containers bound for supermarkets. He received a letter from his employerinforming pickers about the importance of hand-washing amid the coronavirus outbreak. But Sumano, 38, and his coworkers, he said, have not been given any gloves.
“Nothing has changed at work,” Sumano said in Spanish. “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.
“It is an honor to be a farm worker and an essential worker,” said Sumano. “But I have many worries.”
The workers who pick and pack the fresh produce in America’s fields now find themselves on the front line of shoring up a supply chain straining under new pressures amid the coronavirus crisis. 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.
Farmworkers at risk
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.
In March, as the coronavirus spread across the US and California ordered residents to stay at home, the United Farm Workers of America sent an open letter to agricultural employers calling for more sick pay, protections and information for workers in the fields.
“What we noted immediately was that workers were not being provided protections or information. [Growers are] not even trying. And that’s gotten workers very scared,” said 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.”
Lideres Campesinas is working to arrange for health professionals to train farmworkers on keeping themselves safe, a program they hope would be made mandatory in agricultural counties. For now, growers and farm labor contractors are doing it themselves.
“We think that if you do what all the health experts have explained – if you can keep your social distance, if you can keep things sanitized, if you can keep sick people at home – we believe that people can work safely,” said Lupe Sandoval, managing director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association.
The association is advising farm labor contractors on best practices to prevent viral spread. Sandoval said some of the contractors who serve as middlemen between farmworkers and growers are spacing workers out in the fields and stepping up the sanitization of toilets, water jugs and rest break tables, while some are even considering “busting out the forehead thermometers”.
“There are a lot of employers jumping through a lot of hoops right now trying to figure out how to make this happen properly,” he said.
With the more farming-intensive spring season about to set in, and a surge in Covid-19 cases expected statewide, there’s a small and rapidly closing window to establish meaningful safety measures in the fields. An outbreak in the farmworker community would wreak havoc on an already strained food system. But there are currently no known coronavirus infections in California’s agricultural community, said Sandoval, “and we want to keep it that way”.
Farm workers are an aging labor force facing higher rates of respiratory disease and hypertension: all factors that would put them at greater risk for more deadly Covid-19 complications. And the masks that shield them from dust and pesticides, and that would also protect against the virus, are now in short supply for frontline workers across the world.
If they are unfortunate enough to fall ill with Covid-19, farmworkers would qualify for the additional sick leave provided through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the national legislation that expanded paid leave amid the Covid-19 crisis, but most would likely struggle to pay the resulting healthcare costs. Many farmworkers have no health insurance.
While Sandoval worries about workers who would abuse new, more abundant paid leave, Elenes of the United Farm Workers of America remains skeptical that workers will be able to utilize it at all.
“In our experience, workers are ridiculed for even trying to use sick pay. They’re asked if they have a doctors note, but they don’t even have healthcare. Or sometimes they just flat out deny them,” he said.
The disease and California’s response to it have also added pressure to the social services farmworkers rely on for routine care and support.
“We’re trying to fill the voids we’re seeing on the ground for the individuals that are most at risk, which are farmworkers – individuals with chronic diseases, respiratory health illnesses,” said Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworkers Foundation. “A lot of organizations have been pulling out of communities for the safety of their own staff. I want to make sure my staff are safe and secure, too. But this is not the time to hide behind your desk or at home, you’ve got to be at the forefront. The situation is critical.”
The California Farmworkers Foundation operates primarily in the state’s Central Valley, an agricultural stronghold home to the nation’s most productive farming counties and many thousands of vulnerable, low-wage farmworkers. In response to Covid-19, the organization is launching a pop-up telemedicine clinic, increasing food distributions to farmworker communities, and partnering with growers to provide education on the virus at work sites.
Hernandez is concerned that the loss of vital services could be just as dangerous to farmworker communities as the virus itself, especially if necessary routine medical care is reduced.
Even as grocery stores struggle to keep shelves stocked, farmworkers and their advocates worry their essential work could nonetheless dry up.
“Everything’s slowing down, and it’s going to trickle down in the next couple of weeks,” said Hernandez. “You’re going to see less work for farmworkers. So everybody’s fearful right now.”
That scenario is already playing out in some sectors of California agriculture.
“Many workers are having their hours cut. Business is low so they don’t have work for people. And they don’t really give them any notice,” said de Barraicua.
Growers maintain that overall, the food system is healthy, but the near total closure of food service in restaurants, event centers, office parks and college campuses has decimated business for some farms.
“The foodservice sector represents roughly half of all fresh produce sales,” said Cory Lunde, a spokesperson for the Western Growers Association. “With the near-complete evaporation of this outlet for fresh produce, many growers in Arizona and California have seen their orders cancelled, or requests for delays in payment from their buyers.”
Farming logistics and existing supply chains leave many of these farmers with inventory rotting in cold storage or still stuck in the dirt.
“We are concerned that while the larger operations may be better equipped to survive this market disruption, many of the smaller farms may be unable to absorb the financial shock,” said Lunde.
That shock is passed down to farmworkers who are even less capable of absorbing it. In the case that they lose work, the undocumented majority of farmworkers would not be eligible for expanded unemployment benefits or the one-time $1,200 payment from the federal government.
Strawberry picker Amadeo Sumano lives with seven other people in an apartment, stoking his concerns about exposure to coronavirus.
“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.”
While the coronavirus stimulus package contains billions to support agriculture businesses hit by Covid-19 shutdowns, there will be no bailout for the essential workers who still pick the nation’s strawberries with their bare hands.