America’s Farmworkers – Now “Essential,” but Denied the Just-Enacted Benefits

David Bacon | 04.03.2020

This article was originally published at The American Prospect.

In fields and rural communities across the United States the nation’s 2.5 million agricultural laborers are waiting for the shoe to drop – for the first cases of coronavirus among farmworkers.  As they wait they are already feeling sharply the effects of the measures taken to contain the virus’ spread.

Francisco Lozano, a farmworker in Santa Maria on California’s central coast, says poverty makes this crisis much worse.  In the winter, when there’s no work, families live off meager savings from the previous season, and when those are exhausted, they borrow from family and friends.  “This is the time work starts up again, picking strawberries,” he says.  “But instead of pulling ourselves out of debt our situation is worse now than ever.  The fruit is bad, and they’re paying by the hour – minimum wage [California’s hourly minimum wage is $13].  That’s not enough to live on.”

Working conditions themselves have deteriorated. “Because of the rains we’re working in the mud,” he explains.  “We work close to each other so social distancing is impossible.  They tell us to wash our hands, but there are lots of people for each station and the soap runs out.  People normally have colds at this time of year, and many of us have to work anyway because of the economic pressure.  With the virus, that’s dangerous. But the growers just want production.”

Picking strawberries in the mud in Santa Maria.

In Washington State one of the few farm jobs in March is cutting tulips, and Skagit County normally hosts a Tulip Festival in April. But three crews, each with 80 to 100 workers, started cutting only to be told that most would be laid off. According to Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the state’s new farmworker union, “growers told them that no one is buying tulips. But the workers also suspect growers couldn’t comply with the governor’s orders to maintain social distancing of six feet between people. And now the workers who lost their jobs haven’t been able to find any others.”

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Luis Jimenez, head of the Alianza Agricola in New York State, charges that the needs of farmworkers are ignored. With 4000 farms the state produces more yogurt and sour cream than any other area of the country, and most workers live in housing provided by the dairies. “But we can’t buy food until we get off work, and by then the store shelves are empty – no rice or eggs or meat or paper,” he says. “The growers tell us we have to stay home when we’re not working, but then how do we eat?”

Like all workers interviewed for this story, Jimenez fears the arrival of the virus. “We live 8 to 10 people in a house, so how would we isolate? Some have their own room, but I know one farm where everyone sleeps in bunk beds in a big room. At work we have to help each other all the time, like when we have to move a cow. You can’t do this alone, and the job requires it. The ranchers say that health is important, but I feel they’re really only concerned with getting the work done.”

Who Are These Essential Workers?

For the first time in U.S. history farmworkers have been officially declared “essential workers.” Without their labor there would be no fruits, vegetables or dairy products in the stores. Yet the economic situation of farmworkers has never reflected that essential status – nor does it now. The last National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2017 found that the average farmworker family had an annual income between $17,500 and $20,000.

More than half relied on at least one public assistance program, with 44 percent using Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California). A third received either food stamps or WIC nutrition assistance. But most telling for families facing the pandemic, less than half of farmworker families have health insurance, and among them, only a third got it from their employer. A third of farmworker families paid cash for doctor visits, and a quarter relied on Medicaid or Medicare.

Guiillermina Ortiz Diaz, Graciela, Eliadora, Ana Lilia and their mother Bernardina Diaz Martinez sleep and live in a single room in a house in Oxnard, where three other migrant families also live.

Exacerbating these problems, according to NAWS, half of all farmworkers are undocumented. Lack of legal status makes workers ineligible for almost all public benefits. Emergency rooms normally must accept people with serious conditions regardless of status, but otherwise, no papers usually means no healthcare.

Sandy Young, a family nurse practitioner at the Las Islas Family Medical Group clinic in Oxnard, California, says that “it’s always been true that undocumented people fear that if they go to hospitals or clinics, their names will be give to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. In our present situation that lack of free access can be critical.”

The Las Islas clinic has a specific program to provide care in Mixteco, the language of the valley’s main population of indigenous Mexican immigrants. Young describes them as “a young population, which in the current crisis is a plus factor. But their general health is bad and they usually get healthcare in a hospital emergency room, which is the most dangerous place.”

The new interpretation by the Trump administration of the “public charge” policy would disqualify anyone from applying for a visa if they were deemed likely to receive public healthcare, housing or nutrition benefits. Undocumented families, therefore, fear that getting healthcare will stop them from gaining legal status in the future or being able to reunite families. People might stay at home with the coronavirus rather than seeking testing or treatment, she fears.

Further, without sick pay the pressure to keep working is intense. “We won’t stop working,” Jimenez declares. “We’re willing to risk the virus. But I didn’t come here to die. I came so that my family in Mexico will live. We don’t know what will happen to those who get sick. How will we pay our bills and send money to help our families survive?”

The barracks for H-2A workers behind a razorwire-topped fence in central Washington State.

Undocumented workers are not the only group of farmworkers who are particularly vulnerable. Another group are workers in the H-2A visa program, through which growers and contractors recruit workers in other countries, who then work for the duration of a contract and afterwards must return home. Last year over 250,000 workers were brought to the U.S. under that program.

For these workers, living conditions make maintaining a social distance of six feet virtually impossible. Housing for H-2A workers in central Washington often consists of prefab dormitories, in which four workers sleep on bunk beds in a single small room, and many workers share a common kitchen.

According to attorney Corrie Arellano with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the legal aid organization for the state’s farmworkers, growers and contractors bring about 800 workers to Santa Maria each year. “At first they filled up almost all the inexpensive motel rooms in town,” she said. “Now they’re renting out houses and apartments, and pushing up rents.” In a case filed by CRLA attorneys in Santa Maria, Jose Gonzalez, Efrain Cruz, Ana Teresa Cruz and Rosaura Chavez were held a house in which 18 to 20 workers slept in two bedrooms, and were told they could only leave to go to work. One Santa Maria residence (at 1318 North Broadway) was listed as the residence of 80 of these workers.

According to Mary Bauer, general counsel for the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a group that advocates for the rights and welfare of H-2A workers, “it is unclear how workers will access medical care or be able to self-isolate if conditions require them to do so. Employers are not currently required to provide housing which allows workers to be quarantined where necessary.”

A room in a dormitory for H-2A workers in central Washington State.

Despite the Trump administration’s toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric, it has directed U.S. consulates to process H-2A visa applications by growers and contractors, while most other visa applications have been stopped. It even dropped a previous restriction in which visas would be given only to workers who had been contracted in previous years.

According to Edgar Franks, an organizer with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, “there are already 5000 H-2A workers in central Washington, and growers expect to have 20,000 by the end of August.” In Santa Maria Francisco Lozano also reports the arrival of H-2A workers, and as growers bid for available apartments to house them, “rents have gone up very rapidly. Prices are going up too, and the stores are making a lot of money.”

A Union Makes a Difference

While only a tiny percentage of farmworkers have unions, those who do usually have a better relationship with their employers and more secure rights and benefits, which translate into better preparation for the advent of the virus.

In Washington State Familias Unidas por la Justicia advocates for farmworkers with the state government. “The Governor says there should be money for workers,” Torres says, “but it’s distributed through the unemployment benefit system, where undocumented people can’t get it because you have to have a Social Security number. We have a committee now that’s meeting with him to recommend a better system.”

At Sakuma Farms, where the union has its first contract, there are still big questions about the future. The strawberry harvest doesn’t start until May, and the company calls workers who live in California in April to come for jobs that their union contract guarantees. “But will people be able to come?” Torres wonders. “And if and when they do come, they’ll live in a labor camp with about 250 people close together. Will that be safe? If they can’t come what will happen to them, and who will do the work here?”

Women in the labor camp at Sakuma Farms during the 2013 strike when their union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, was founded.

At another Washington employer, the big Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, worker Adelaida Mendoza, a member of the United Farm Workers, says the company provides safety training about the virus. “They’ve put out hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes in the lunchrooms,” she says. In addition to implementing social distancing, “they always have soap, water, and paper towels to clean our hands and disposable cups to drink water.” Workers at the company have a union medical plan and sick leave.

Armando Elenes, the UFW’s secretary treasurer, says that at Gallo Sonoma workers are assigned to separate rows of grape vines to provide social distancing, and have sick pay available. “In the mushroom sheds workers used to pick in pairs, because it’s faster on the piece rate,” he says. “Now each worker is given a different [growing] bed so they’re not working side by side.”

At the big Salinas-based D’Arrigo Brothers vegetable company UFW member Oswaldo Cisneros says that workers are making their own suggestions to the company for safer conditions. One broccoli rabe cutter, for instance, proposed harvesting plants on one side of a row first, and then afterwards the other, instead of cutting on both sides at the same time. Such an arrangement would keep workers more widely separated. “We think we should be at least 80 inches apart,” he says.

Even in unionized companies, however, social distancing is not possible for some jobs. On machines for harvesting lettuce or other vegetables, there are often seats a fixed distance apart, corresponding to the distance between rows in the field underneath. “We don’t push special equipment like masks and gloves because they can be carriers themselves,” Elenes asserts. “People need to be trained not to touch their faces, to wash frequently and avoid physical contact.” To do that the union has a network of stewards who themselves get training about how to help workers in the crew protect themselves.

A crew of union workers harvests lettuce in 2018 at D’Arrigo Brothers behind the lettuce machine.

“But some things are more difficult,” he acknowledges. “People have to ride to work together. I don’t know how you can get around that. If you can be contaminated opening a door, the only way is to wash your hands getting into and out of the car.”

Other organizations are also trying to intervene to help keep the fields safe for workers. CRLA has sixteen offices in the agricultural valleys. In the past, lawyers interviewed workers in those offices, documenting complaints of violations of labor and health and safety laws. Community workers went out to the fields, interviewing laborers and making sure they had bathrooms and fresh water.

Now the group’s lawyers and community outreach workers are challenged by the need to work remotely. “We do intake by phone,” says Esmeralda Zendejas, Legal Director of CRLA’s Agricultural Worker Program. “Our community workers can’t go out to the fields, so now they call the people they know in the community to find out if there are violations. We’re concerned not just about the normal issues like wage theft, but also about the new regulations to protect workers during the pandemic, and the benefits they should know about.”

A recent outreach flyer tells workers that even though they are called “essential workers,” they still have the right to shelter in place to maintain social distance, to leave home for work or other purposes only when it’s necessary, and to stay home if they’re sick or need to care for a sick family member. At work they have the right to hand-washing stations with soap and towels, clean bathrooms, accessible water with disposable cups, and protection equipment provided by the employer, like masks and gloves. Community workers leave the flyers in supermarkets and pharmacies, and speak out in social media and on radio programs.

Workers get into a crowded van to go to the fields in Oxnard.

Enforcement and Exclusion

Enforcement, however, is the big question. “California is coming up with good new measures to meet this crisis, but we need to be concerned about enforcement,” Zendejas warns. “Some employers are trying to do the right thing but others are not. The price of the lack of enforcement could be very high.” In Santa Maria, Lozano charges, “the growers won’t even talk about giving sick leave, and they don’t recognize sick days.”

Pushing in the opposite direction, the UFW sent an open letter to the state’s growers on March 17 calling them to take measures to protect workers’ health. Those measures include providing 40 hours of sick leave; eliminating waiting periods for sick pay and the requirement for doctors’ notes when workers claim it; cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces multiple times daily; and daycare assistance since schools are closed.

Union president Teresa Romero says she’s received no response. The union also advocates legislation to extend federal relief and unemployment benefits to undocumented workers, mandatory plans to ensure social distancing, and accessible medical services including free testing, especially for non-union workers with no health care. Monterey County agricultural groups, she fumed, announced an “advisory” for worker protection, but “their only clear message to farm workers was they should keep working,” she said.

Sandy Young with a patient at the Las Islas clinic in Oxnard.

Santa Barbara County has created a rapid response team. Heavily agricultural Ventura County next door, where nurse Sandy Young works, doesn’t have one yet. She thinks it should. “We need that and practical measures like making free thermometers available to everyone, along with good information. A team could do assessments of the pressing needs. We have a mobile van we could use to give tests in neighborhoods, but we need a dedicated person to run it, and tests of course. In reality, though, our public health system here is completely overwhelmed.”

As Congress began discussing a possible bailout and relief package, unions and community organizations began drafting proposals and demands. Thirty six organizations signed a letter to the administration drafted by the Washington DC advocacy organization Farmworker Justice, calling for more protections for H-2A workers. The recommendations included safe housing with quarantining facilities, safe transportation, testing of workers before entering the U.S., social distancing at work, and paid treatment for those who get sick.

For its part, CRLA provided two pages of bullet-point recommendations. Included were free testing and coverage for all COVID-19 related care regardless of insurance and immigration status, suspension of co-pays and sliding fee payments at clinics, improved food and nutrition services, and expansion of Medi-Cal eligibility to all ages regardless of immigration status.

Some groups went even further. The Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker groups in food production and distribution, called for hazard pay at time-and-a-half for food workers, who “must have the right to organize so they can meaningfully exercise their labor rights and protect themselves and their communities.” In addition, the Alliance advocated for supplemental income and unemployment benefits, 15 paid sick days per year and free healthcare for all workers.

On a crowded lettuce machine in Winterhaven, California, the distance between workers is much less than six feet.

The Food Chain Alliance was among several immigrant rights groups that have called for eliminating immigration status as a barrier to benefits, eliminating the public charge rule, and ending immigration enforcement against the undocumented and H-2A workers during the pandemic crisis.

The final $2 trillion bailout and relief package adopted by Congress, however, includes a bar forbidding the undocumented from receiving its benefits. The legislation, the CARES Act, provides extended unemployment and one-time cash payments to low and middle-income families. People who lack legal immigration status, and even U.S. citizen children who have at least one undocumented parent, are excluded, however. That exclusion encompasses the majority of the nation’s farmworkers, and in California, as many as 70 percent of them.

Reaction was bitter. To Cisneros, “it’s just a slap in the face. We’re on the front lines. We’re taking risks every day, and we never stop. It’s not just the money. The fact that we do this work that people depend on should earn us the right to stay here.”

“The bosses say we’re essential to giving food to the country,” Jimenez says, “It is unjust to exclude us because we don’t have good Social Security numbers. We all pay taxes. Don’t ignore us. Include us like other industries. We’re here every day.”

FUJ President Ramon Torres charges, “First they want to deport us, then they poison us with pesticides and pay us bad wages, and now they’re afraid that there won’t be any workers. They say we’re essential and we should keep working during the coronavirus, but they don’t give us the same benefits and protections that workers get in other industries. We need amnesty, a halt to the detentions and deportations, $25 an hour with overtime, health insurance, childcare, paid vacations and unions. That’s the minimum we deserve!”

Nevertheless, Sandy Young tries to stay positive. “At least we’re recognizing the importance of farmworkers and indigenous people in the broader community. Now we need to translate that into concern for their health.” But the exclusion, and the anti-immigrant hysteria behind it, is still a troubling sign. “If things get worse, with ‘us versus them,’ it could be really bad,” she warns.

Francisco Lozano with his wife at home in Santa Maria.