California Farmworkers at Risk from Covid 19
A deepening COVID-19 crisis now surging in most California agricultural counties–puts farmworkers in the pandemic's crosshairs. Thousands of farm and packinghouse workers have contracted the virus in the agricultural counties of Imperial, Kern, Kings, Tulare, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Monterey, Ventura. Farmworkers in the North Bay are at risk too.
These workers are the foundation of our food system.
To avert catastrophe for workers and consumers, the federal and state governments must quickly adopt policies protecting the state's farmworkers' health and safety.
Even before COVID-9, farmworkers were amongst the state’s most vulnerable and impoverished workers.
Ninety percent of California farmworkers were born in Mexico, seven out of ten have just one employer, most farmworkers are married parents, and few migrate between California’s agricultural regions according to the 2018 Department of Labor National Agricultural Workers Survey.
The Economic Crisis and California Farm Labor
UC Davis economist Phillip Martin reports that the average California farmworker works 36 weeks annually, earning barely $20,500 per year; and only one-third received employer-provided health insurance. Half of those eligible rely on at least one public program, such as Medi-Cal or Food Stamps, but 60 percent of the state’s farmworkers lack work authorization and cannot receive any social safety net benefits, unemployment insurance, workman’s compensation, or federal stimulus checks.
The cost of housing is a major expense for California’s farmworkers. The vast majority rent from someone other than their employer, and for most, housing is unaffordable, taking 30-60 percent of their gross monthly income for rent.
A new PBS Frontline documentary about farmworkers, “COVID’s Hidden Toll,” aired in July—simultaneously, the California Institute of Rural Studies (CIRS), in Davis, published a new report analyzing COVID-19’s economic and health impacts on the state’s estimated 800,000 farmworkers.
The CIRS study is based upon 900 farmworker interviews in 21 counties, including Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties. The investigation’s final report will include 600 more interviews.
CIRS researchers found that 100,000 agricultural jobs were lost by June—a 23 percent drop in total farm employment—due to lower demand from restaurants, schools, colleges, hotels, and sports arenas. Nearly half of all farmworkers experienced decreased work time and loss of income after the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March.
A San Joaquin County orchard worker told researchers: “We were out of work for two months … were evicted … had to find another place to live. We visit churches to also receive food … children studying at home… can get behind, and the cost of childcare has increased.”
COVID-19 Pandemic and Farmworker Health and Safety
Farmworkers are vigilant about the disease but daily confront dire challenges.
Ninety percent of farmworkers surveyed indicated that they were social distancing outside of work, wearing facial masks, washing hands frequently, and showering and changing clothes to prevent infecting their families. Yet the report estimates that Monterey County farmworkers are three times more likely to contract the virus than workers in other industries.
More than half of all farmworkers statewide reported that employers did not provide masks; one quarter indicated they received neither information about social distancing and best safety practices, nor if other workers were infected at their workplaces.
One-fifth of the farmworkers interviewed are indigenous (Triquis, Zapotecs, Mixtecs), who report not receiving COVID-19 information in their native language. A 2020 California Rural Legal Assistance study estimated that 165,000 indigenous farmworkers and their family members live in California.
Most farmworkers have underlying health conditions—such as persistent musculoskeletal injuries, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and respiratory illnesses like asthma and chronic bronchitis—due to years of strenuous physical labor and pesticides/toxic chemicals exposures, which may predispose them to contracting COVID-19.