Farmworkers ‘Can’t Pick Strawberries Over Zoom’

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“If there is a major outbreak among agricultural worker communities it can spread really, really quickly,” said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which advocates on behalf of immigrant, indigenous, and undocumented communities throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“I really worry about what’s going to happen as peak strawberry season coincides with this peak outbreak of Covid-19,” he added. “You can’t pick strawberries over Zoom.”

That collision will deal a blow to a segment of the population that largely lacks not only health care, but also sometimes even the information on how to best protect themselves before or after exposure.

Advocates have been encouraging growers to take “meaningful steps” to protect farmworkers from coronavirus exposure by promoting workplace practices that prioritize workers’ health and safety, but they say that many companies are not responding.

The United Farm Workers union polled farmworkers via social media networks to determine whether employers are providing any coronavirus-related information. The union found that few are doing so, according to Armando Elenes, the organization’s secretary treasurer.

Certain employers operating under union contracts have issued new guidelines, such as picking practices that require social distancing. But across the industry, the UFW says it has learned through its members that companies are not actually enforcing these best practices. In its March 30 letter to agricultural employers, the UFW called for extended sick leave, easy access to medical services as well as screening, testing, and treatment for non-union farmworkers who lack health care.

Among farmworkers that CAUSE has surveyed, workers report that employers are providing safety measure briefings at the start of work shifts and are staggering people in the field rows. But even with these measures in place, Zucker pointed out that the nature of the work makes it difficult for the workers to comply. For example, during peak season employers pay workers by the box, creating a strong incentive for farmworkers to skip breaks.

“Things like taking 20 seconds to wash your hands—it sounds like not that long. But when you’re washing your hands it’s a really long time, especially when you feel like you have to get out there to make a dollar to survive,” said Zucker.

Beate Ritz, an occupational epidemiology expert at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it’s very likely that the coronavirus will spread into working-class farming communities, based on existing transmission patterns.

The impact of the coronavirus will be determined by how seriously the agricultural industry takes this health threat, whether they enforce safety measures, and what resources are directed at addressing issues such as health care access.

“You can have either a large outbreak and the whole system breaks down, or, as we’re trying to do now by what they call the ‘leveling of the curve,’ so that it doesn’t peak too much, you can have it spread over time,” said Ritz.

The Economic Policy Institute also warns that the peak in farm employment, which increases from spring through July, will overlap with the coronavirus peak. The nonpartisan think tank, which conducts economic research, concluded that employers will need to provide health insurance, paid sick days, and adequate safety equipment. The think tank argues that growers should also implement social distancing measures, even if some of these safety measures reduce productivity.

“Farmworkers already labor under what can sometimes be dangerous and unhealthy conditions, and now Covid-19 presents an additional challenge,” the report stated.

Many of the areas that employ farmworkers tend to be rural and lack the health care and other infrastructure to respond to a potential outbreak. In Washington state and California, the UFW Foundation is concerned that farmworkers won’t seek medical attention even if they have symptoms, because they lack health insurance or fear being deported. Some have never been treated by a medical doctor.

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