In summary

California is upgrading its underutilized Housing for the Harvest program to provide quarantine hotel rooms for farmworkers, in the hopes that a wage replacement and an option to shelter at home will boost participation. But is it too late?

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Heeding the calls of advocates and lawmakers, Gov. Gavin Newsom is pumping up to $24 million into his oft-touted-but-little-used program to help farmworkers self-isolate during the pandemic, offering new financial assistance and flexibility. However, it’s unclear how much will actually get spent.

Newsom announced the innovative Housing for the Harvest program last summer to provide California farmworkers living in crowded homes with hotel rooms if they tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed. But even as the coronavirus ravaged farmworker communities in the following months, an investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian found few checked into the rooms. The state has spent roughly $155,000 to provide just 137 hotel rooms for farmworkers in 13 counties, most of which will be reimbursed by the federal government.

“It has been wildly underutilized,” Newsom said of the program during a visit earlier this month to a vaccination site in Earlimart, a small agricultural community in Tulare County, which has lodged about two dozen farmworkers in the hotel rooms.

Now the state is modifying the program by dangling up to $1,000 in cash assistance, as well as allowing farmworkers to shelter at home, to boost participation. The expansion will launch in April for most counties. “We’re doing the awareness campaign and providing more support to make sure we can meet what we hope is a significantly increased demand,” Newsom said.

Housing for the Harvest

Just one slice of a $7.6 billion pandemic relief deal that Newsom and legislators struck in February, the expansion figures among several California efforts to assist essential workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic while keeping crucial sectors humming. The state is also distributing $600 Golden State Stimulus payments to low-income workers. Excluded from most federal relief, those that are undocumented can get double payments totalling $1,200 if they file taxes.

The $24 million allocation comes from the state’s estimate that up to 17,600 people across 20 agricultural counties will benefit from the revamped Housing for the Harvest program. 

But the new injection of cash comes as vaccine distribution to farmworkers ramps up and case rates drop. And it’s only available to farmworkers who get coronavirus or are exposed between now and the end of June. So far, just 12 counties have expressed interest. All of this raises the question of whether the state is again overestimating how much good Housing for the Harvest can actually do for California’s farmworker communities. 

The California Department of Food and Agriculture, one of several agencies running the program, turned down multiple requests for an interview with Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt, who has helped lead the program. When asked whether the expansion was coming too late to have a significant impact for farmworkers, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office deferred to the Department of Social Services, which declined to offer a more accurate estimate of participation now that counties have sent the state their own predictions.

“Given ongoing vaccination efforts and the varying COVID-19 positivity rates in each region, estimating the number of participants in each county would be challenging at this time,” said Department spokesperson Scott Murray. 

Modeled after local program

The expansion is modeled after Riverside County, which has funded $2,000 checks to cover lost wages for hundreds of farmworkers who tested positive or were exposed, regardless of whether they stay in the hotel or shelter at home. But the county funds run out quickly each time they’re renewed, and the waitlist is long.

“Our workers are not going to stop working if they don’t have the money to feed their family. That is the reality,” said Luz Gallegos, executive director of TODEC, an immigrant advocacy nonprofit that runs the program in Riverside.

Gallegos saw the expansion as a sign that state lawmakers are listening to farmworkers and their advocates. She hoped the financial and shelter aid could be renewed in other times of disaster, like wildfires, and saw it as a first step toward California offering unemployment insurance to undocumented workers.

“If they don’t work, they don’t eat. Why? Because they don’t have any safety net,” Gallegos said. “They’ve been paying into unemployment their whole life, and they can’t even get it.”

Farmworker fears addressed 

CalMatters and The Salinas Californian found many farmworkers feared that the hotel rooms would open them up to loss of wages, deportation, problems with citizenship or residency cases, and the prospect of neglecting their family or battling a deadly disease alone. Many relied instead on a patchwork of financial aid and at-home quarantine support that some counties and local partner organizations mounted alongside the hotel rooms. But those resources were limited and sometimes difficult to access.

María Reyes, a Mendota farmworker who fell sick in December but didn’t want to go to a hotel room because she worried about leaving her teenage daughter alone, told reporters that she contacted Housing for the Harvest. She was referred to local financial and food assistance that she said never came through.

María Reyes, a Mendota farmworker, fell sick with COVID-19 in December but didn’t want to go to a hotel room because she didn’t want to leave her teenage daughter alone. Photo by Gary Kazanjian

Under the revamped program, farmworkers can get quarantine or isolation support, like meals, wellness checks and protective equipment — regardless of whether they decide to shelter at home or check into a hotel. The state will allocate $650 to $750 for the county to deliver wraparound services to each farmworker, totalling about $11.6 million, according to the Department of Finance.

Farmworkers who participate will also get financial assistance — $500 if they shelter at home or $1,000 if they shelter in a hotel — which the state predicts will cost around $9.6 million. Another $2.8 million is set aside for operations.

“Obviously, this is where people are. They’re at homes, not in hotels,” said Lisa Valencia Sherratt, Santa Barbara’s Housing for the Harvest coordinator, praising the new funds. “I feel like the program is now designed to meet the needs of the farmworker community.

In December, a group of five Latino state representatives from agricultural areas called on Newsom to replicate the Riverside model statewide.

“Farmworkers often live in multi-generational housing in tight-knit communities and they continue to work because they cannot forgo their income,” they wrote. “Therefore, to increase participation statewide, we ask that the program include a wage replacement component and be flexible to help farmworkers quarantine closer to their families.”

Participation is hard to predict

It’s hard to say how many farmworkers will sign up, said program administrators in Santa Barbara, Fresno and Riverside.

On the one hand, as vaccine distribution increases, the need for quarantine support has ramped down. Then again, farmworkers have faced obstacles getting the shots despite being eligible. They remain vulnerable to outbreaks: In a December study of Salinas Valley farmworkers, 43% said they had nowhere to isolate at home. And new, more virulent coronavirus variants or relaxed safety precautions could still lead to another virus surge in California.

The state earmarked funds for up to 1,000 farmworkers to take advantage of Housing for the Harvest over the next three months in Santa Barbara County, which has housed 24 people so far. That’s not realistic, said Valencia Sherratt. 

“If this program was longer than three months, we could serve more of course,” she said.

Her team instead pegged the potential caseload at 500 farmworkers, after surveying a small sample of farmworkers over the phone, at a popular market and outside a laundromat in Santa Maria. Most said they or other agricultural workers they know would likely use the revamped Housing for the Harvest program, but few had heard of it. 

With the start of the harvest season this spring, the need for Housing for the Harvest could rise again in Fresno, said Emilia Reyes, CEO of Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, a nonprofit which administers the program locally and has booked a total of 33 hotel rooms for farmworkers. 

“We’re going to still have exposure,” Reyes said, as farmworkers return to worksites and migrant workers travel in from other counties. “The $500 financial assistance for people quarantining at home — that pays for PG&E, the water bill, basically…just to survive.”

Too little, too late?

For Carolina Navarro, Housing for the Harvest is too little, too late. The farmworker in rural Fresno County didn’t know about the hotel rooms in November when she, her 6-year-old son and her 12-year-old daughter fell ill with coronavirus. With the slow winter season, Navarro told the Fresno Bee and CalMatters that she hasn’t found steady work since. She’s three months late on rent. 

Carolina Navarro, 34, stands outside the mobile home she has been renting for the past 12 years, in Cantua Creek on March 2, 2021. Navarro is divorced with two children and has been out of work since November. Photo by Craig Kohruss, The Fresno Bee

The $500 that Housing for the Harvest now offers to people who shelter at home would nearly cover one month’s rent. The $1,000 for those who stay in a hotel room would almost cover two.

But farmworkers who already got sick and lost pay, like Navarro, are out of luck. The Department of Finance confirmed that the wage replacement will only be available to those who test positive going forward.

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

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Jackie covers income inequity and economic survival for the The California Divide collaboration. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2021 for a Reuters data-driven investigative...