In summary

A new study shows farmworkers say they have been left unprotected from COVID-19 by the very employers and agencies who wrote emergency regulations intended to keep them safe.

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When one California farmworker asked his employer for face masks, he said, they laughed at him. He asked for hand soap, and, he said, they laughed at him. 

Farmworkers, despite their status as essential workers during the pandemic, felt shortchanged, vulnerable and disposable, an updated study comprised of in-depth interviews from more than 60 farmworkers by the California Institute for Rural Studies, a policy research center based in Davis, and partner entities shows.

“…Les pedíamos máscaras y nomás les daba risa,” said Eliseo, who went by two different pseudonyms in the study. “Y le pedimos jabón para lavarnos las manos… y nomás les daba risa.”

Respondents say they were unprotected from COVID-19 by the very employers and agencies who wrote the emergency regulations intended to keep them safe.

“While farmworkers have been lauded as essential and heroic in the mainstream media, many farmworkers would have traded this praise for actual protections such as hazard pay, sick pay, better protections, and readily accessible masks at their worksites and communities,” the study stated.

“We asked for masks and they just laughed. We asked for soap to wash our hands… and they just laughed.”

eliseo, california farmworker

Inspections vs. complaints 

While the CIRS report notes the pandemic motivated California to remedy longstanding gaps in Cal/OSHA, farmworkers feel the workplace health and safety enforcement agency is ineffective and unproductive.

Cal/OSHA, when reached for comment, said that its enforcement efforts in the agricultural industry are focused on worker protections. Officials went on to say that ag is the only industry where the number of inspections conducted exceeds the number of complaints. 

“Cal/OSHA has proactively reached out to essential workers in this industry because we recognize the obstacles and fears that may keep workers from reporting safety hazards to Cal/OSHA,” the response stated.

Last summer, Cal/OSHA conducted a study with UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program to meet with ag workers. The agency also stated it issued “ground-breaking emergency rules” that provide worker protections covering employer-provided transportation and housing.

‘We are useless trash’

The CIRS study found many workers were not afforded the protections demanded by the state. Free masks, functional handwashing stations, paid sick leave and social distancing at work never materialized.

A desert region farmworker who went by “Pedro” in the study recounted overcrowded rides to the fields, the bus stuffed full, and he and his coworkers crammed together underneath a 4×8 tent for lunch. No one wore masks, and the foreman yelled at them to keep working, he didn’t care if anyone had COVID-19 or not, according to Pedro.

Their employer kept quiet and nothing happened until some on the crew died. 

“Ellos nunca pusieron atención,” Pedro said. In English, “They never paid attention.”

One farmworker suggested it should be mandatory that masks be available, free or not, showcasing how difficult it was for farmworkers in rural areas to get masks. 

A fieldworker smiles as she sees the caravan of cars pass by with signs and honks showing their appreciation to all the essential workers in the fields on Saturday, April 25, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian
A fieldworker smiles as she sees the caravan of cars pass by with signs and honks showing their appreciation to all the essential workers in the fields on Saturday, April 25, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

Eliseo, a 40-year-old Kern County farmworker, expressed bitterness toward his status as an essential worker. He said the way farmworkers were treated did not match their work.

“…Parece como que no somos esenciales, como que somos como basura que no sirve, se tira y se contrata a más gente,” Eliseo said.

In English, his words read: “It feels like we’re not essential, as if we are useless trash that you can throw away, and then they’ll just hire more people.”

Eliseo spoke about having to take unpaid sick days, despite the mandate that farmworkers diagnosed with COVID-19 receive 14 paid sick days. He was given only three days off before his boss told him to come back to work. He also talked about losing his vacation days, which his employer cut in half due to the coronavirus. 

‘They never want to help us’

Many reported that regulators in charge of enforcement did nothing to keep them safe from COVID-19 when contacted.

Eliseo said he was laughed at by his bosses. He wondered whether Cal/OSHA had “sold out” to growers’ and ranchers’ interests, the report states.

He told CIRS interviewers that he and several coworkers banded together and made a report to Cal/OSHA before they could get sick.

“Dijeron que nos iban a mandar cartas y que iban hablar con el patrón y nunca hicieron nada,” he said. 

In English, he said “[Cal/OSHA] told us that they were going to send letters and that they were going to talk to our boss but they never did anything.”

Eliseo suggested that regulatory agencies like Cal/OSHA needed more oversight by Gov. Gavin Newsom in order to force them to follow up on complaints.

“No sé si los rancheros tienen comprados al Cal/OSHA,” he told interviewers. “No sabemos si el gobierno está vendido, pero nunca nos quisieron ayudar con nada.”

In English, Eliseo said, “I don’t know if the ranchers have bought out Cal/OSHA. We don’t know if the government is sold out, but they never wanted to help us with anything.”

This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Kate Cimini is a reporter with the Salinas Californian and CalMatters' California Divide project. She covers economic inequality, agriculture, and housing. Previously, she covered national security, natural...