Farmworkers keep America fed in the midst of COVID-19

September 8, 2020

Farmworkers are the backbone of America’s food chain; California’s farmworkers alone produce more than a third of the nation’s vegetables and account for more than 13 percent(link is external) of the country’s agricultural value. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, these farmworkers are forced to remain working despite the higher risk(link is external) they face in contracting the disease and suffering from life-threatening and disabling complications. Most farmworkers (link is external)suffer from a lack of healthcare access and chronic health conditions, pesticide exposure, crowded living and working conditions, no access to personal protective equipment, and the inability to practice social distancing while at work, all of which exacerbate their risk in contracting COVID-19. States such as California, Washington, Florida and Michigan have experienced(link is external) and continue to experience COVID outbreaks among hundreds of farmworkers. More than 150 farmworkers (link is external)who work for Primex Farms in Central California have tested positive to COVID-19 and 188 out of 216 farmworkers (link is external)in a Southern California housing facility also contracted COVID-19. Without necessary protections, these upsurges will reduce the farmworker workforce and greatly impact the nation’s food supply chain. 

Despite the risk farmworkers face while doing their essential work, they have received little support from federal agencies. The $19 billion Farm Relief(link is external) initiative released in April by the Trump administration provides direct payments(link is external) to farmers who have suffered at least five percent price decline due to COVID-19, but none of the Farm Relief funds(link is external) are going towards ensuring farmworkers have the proper working conditions to reduce the risks of contracting COVID-19. Additionally, the USDA has no plans(link is external) to provide the much needed COVID-19 relief assistance to farmworkers. Although the Families First Coronavirus Response Act(link is external) signed by Trump protects some employees who fall sick with COVID-19 by requiring employers to provide up to two weeks of COVID-19 sick pay, these protections do not apply to employees who work in private companies that employ more than 500 employees. By providing direct checks to the owners of industrial-sized farms but little assistance to those who harvest our food despite the immense risks they face, the federal government has made their blatant disregard for both the physical and financial health of farmworkers clear. 

In efforts to close the gap left by the federal government, California’s Governor issued an executive order(link is external)  requiring employers from large companies in the food sector to provide COVID-19 sick pay to its employees(link is external), including farmworkers. However, some farmworkers do not understand or are not aware of these newly added protections. Additionally, while both the CDC(link is external) and Cal/OSHA(PDF file)(link is external) have issued guidelines for COVID-19 infection prevention in the workplace for agricultural employers and employees, it is not clear how California agencies are carrying out these guidelines,  as there seems to be a lack of regulation(link is external) in enforcement. According to Civil Eats(link is external), most of the investigations carried out by OSHA regarding complaints do not result in inspections(link is external). Additionally, some farmworkers report(link is external) a lack of personal protective equipment and of proper social distancing measures. While it is important to recognize the actions that California’s government has taken in efforts to close the gaps left by the federal government, both the state and federal leadership have failed in ensuring the enforcement of the guidelines designed to protect farmworkers. 

Providing safe working conditions and paid sick leave to farmworkers regardless of their immigration status is critical to mitigate the already high risk of farmworkers becoming infected with COVID-19, and most California voters agree. In a study(link is external) by UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies(link is external) and the California Initiative for Equity and Action (Cal-IHEA), it was found that 71% of California’s voters who were polled support paid sick leave for farm workers who fall victim to COVID-19, regardless of immigration status.Additionally, the Berkeley IGS Poll(link is external) found that 94% of California’s voters who were polled agree that employers should provide hand washing stations, personal protective equipment, and the adequate conditions for farmworkers to practice physical distancing while at work. These poll findings show that the majority of California’s voters support increasing farmworker protections. 

Assemblymember Robert Rivas’s Farmworker Relief Package, AB 2043(link is external), aims to protect farmworkers and the food supply chain by directing agricultural employers to implement the Safety and Health guidelines for COVID-19 infection prevention established by Cal/OSHA, directing the Cal/OSHA Standards Board to establish standards in the workplace for COVID-19 infection prevention such as sanitation practices, social distancing requirements, and personal protective equipment, and also requesting an outreach campaign directed to agricultural employees. This campaign would focus on informing agricultural workers about COVID-19 protection guidelines. I call on our leaders to support AB 2043 as an avenue to protect farmworkers. The federal and state governments must also ensure the enforcement of the CDC and OSHA COVID-19 guidelines, and they must provide relief assistance, health care access, and free testing regardless of farmworker imigration status. Farmworkers play a vital and essential role in keeping our society functioning; it should not have taken a pandemic for us to appreciate and protect them. 

Atziri Barboza Gonzalez was born and raised in Jalisco, Mexico. She relocated to the United States when she was 16 years old in pursuit of a better life. Atziri is a first-generation college student pursuing a Bachelor in Arts in Chemistry and a Minor in Business at California State University, Fresno. While at Fresno State, she has been involved in different clubs and organizations. Currently, she is the Vice President of Outreach and Recruitment for MiMentor Central California, where she previously served as a Vice President of Mentorship and as an Ambassador. Growing up, Atziri witnessed the harmful effects that health disparities have on low-income, underserved communities. Atziri has an interest in public health, she plans on pursuing an MPH and MD dual degree program after graduating from Fresno State where she will serve as an advocate for underrepresented and underserved communities.