With outbreaks of COVID-19 among migrant farmworkers across the country, California needs to better protect these essential workers. Here are some recommendations.
Joel Diringer, Special to CalMatters
Joel Diringer is a farmworker health expert based in San Luis Obispo, email@example.com.
As essential workers, California’s 800,000 agricultural workers have ensured an abundant and safe food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic, while facing heightened risks of infection. It is time to protect the workers who are providing our food.
Farmworkers are predominantly Latino immigrants – Latinos make 39% of the population but are over 56% of the positive COVID-19 cases in California. One quarter of farmworkers are 50 years old or older and face increased risk of serious complications. And farmworkers have higher rates of co-morbidities for COVID-19, such as asthma, diabetes, obesity (and ironically hunger and malnutrition), heart disease and stress.
Farmworkers typically work shoulder to shoulder in crowded conditions in the fields and packing facilities, and in transportation to and from work. And they go home to overcrowded housing, often without adequate washing and sanitation facilities. They live in remote, rural communities without adequate access to health resources. Most do not speak English, and many only speak indigenous languages.
Outbreaks of COVID-19 have been documented among migrant farmworkers in Immokalee, Fla.; at Monterey Mushrooms in Loudon County, Tenn.; and among packing house workers in Oregon, Washington and California. The extent of the problem in California is unknown since most counties do not consistently track and report the occupations of persons testing positive for COVID-19.
We do know that in Monterey County, the “salad bowl of America” and the only county that regularly posts COVID-19 occupational data, agriculture accounted for 36% of positive cases. And produce packing houses in Santa Paula and Coachella have reported COVID-19 outbreaks.
Cal/OSHA has issued guidelines, checklists and multilingual educational materials, as has the UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety. Under Cal/OSHA’s guidance employers must update their written safety plans and training to protect workers from all known hazards, including COVID-19. They must allow adequate time for frequent handwashing and should adopt procedures to increase physical distancing at work and other protections.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an Interim Guidance for Agriculture Workers and Employers – a series of suggestions that can be adapted by ag employers. And, the agricultural industry has also made efforts to protect its workforce through recommended steps such as worker education, adapting work environments and increased sanitation.
Unfortunately, we don’t know how the guidelines are being implemented in the field. With no visible regulatory enforcement, we are left to hear from workers directly. We have been convening farmworker advocates to share with state agency officials what is actually going on in the field.
Farmworkers report the lack of social distancing at work and while traveling in crowded transportation to and from work. They are not being provided masks or gloves on a regular basis. Preventive training is not always provided in a language or manner that workers can understand. Workers have little knowledge about their expanded rights to sick leave, workers compensation and medical care. And they uniformly report that Cal/OSHA is nowhere to be seen in monitoring or enforcing safety practices. The forthcoming COVID-19 Farmworker Study will shed more light on farmworker actual experiences under COVID-19.
As we recommended to Agricultural Labor Relations Board at its first hearing on COVID-19’s impact on the agricultural industry and farmworkers this week, California’s labor enforcement and health agencies to:
- Perform audits of illness and injury prevention plans, observe how workers are being trained and protected, and see what is actually happening in the fields and packing facilities,
- Ensure that when there is a workplace infection, agricultural employers take corrective actions such as deep-cleaning, determine work related contributing factors, inform other workers, guarantee that infected workers receive care and that close contacts are quarantined with compensation for time off work, and
- Require every county to collect and report the occupations of persons testing positive for COVID-19 to track outbreaks and enhance prevention.
We need to protect our food supply and our farmworkers. Relying on California’s $50 billion agricultural industry to implement protections without state oversight, with more than 1 million farmworker families in jeopardy is insufficient. We can and must do better.