Farmworkers risk coronavirus infection to keep the U.S. fed

"If we’re essential, we need help, because we’re the people feeding the country,” says Eugenia Gonzales.

Photograph by Tomas Ovalle
Read Caption

Farmworkers in Ivanhoe, California climb ladders to pick naval oranges. They have been designated "essential workers" by the federal government during the COVID-19 crisis.

Photograph by Tomas Ovalle

While millions of Americans shelter in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, farmworkers on California’s cool central coast move from row to row, carefully picking fat strawberries and packing them into boxes to ship country-wide.

Farmworkers have been labeled essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, critical to keeping the U.S.’s food supplies flowing. But they are worried. Their communities are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the disease, and for many of them, information and protection from the disease has not been forthcoming.

So far, there are no reports of infected farmworkers. But the entire supply chain for fresh produce could be endangered if the virus sweeps through rural agricultural communities with as much force as it has elsewhere.

Many farmworkers are poor, with little or no access to health care. Many suffer from respiratory diseases that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Many live in crowded households and commute to work together, providing them with little opportunity for social distancing. All of these things make them targets for illness.

“Many are afraid to go to work, but also afraid not to,” says Juvenal Solano, a farmworker advocate in Oxnard, California.

Communicating the risk

There’s no word for “virus” in Mixtec, the indigenous Mexican language spoken by many of the thousands of farmworkers currently picking strawberries in California’s Ventura and Oxnard Counties.

When the coronavirus started to take hold in nearby cities, Genevieve Flores-Haro and her colleagues at MICOP, a nonprofit that supports indigenous farmworkers along California’s central coast, scrambled to communicate the virus’ risks to their community. “There’s a sickness going around with these symptoms,” they explained in over 20 different dialects of indigenous languages like Mixtec and Zapotec, which they broadcast over and over again on their local radio station and social media channels.

View Images

At Excelsior Farming, in Hanford, California, farmworkers are presented with new safety protocols intended to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“There’s a storm coming for us, and we’re worried,” says Flores-Haro.

There is enough food in the U.S.—but fresh produce is at risk

For weeks, grocery store shelves have been unusually bare, stripped of flour, yeast, milk, beans, and more—staple foods many rely on. “This temporary supply chain disruption has been like nothing we’ve ever seen,” says Dawn Thilmany, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University.

So far, those shortages have developed because of the unprecedented demand on the system instigated by the sweeping stay-at-home orders across the nation. Shoppers, worried about shortages and trying to prepare for lockdowns, snapped up the in-stock supplies.

The complex supply chain network should be well equipped to catch up. And so far, experts say food shortages are not looming either in the U.S. or abroad.
But that doesn’t mean everything will continue to be as available and plentiful as it has been. Some kinds of food, like fresh produce? That’s another question entirely, says says Megan Konar, a civil engineer and supply chain expert at the University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign. “The main potential choke point in the supply chain is produce,” she says.

Usually, the supply chain for fresh fruits and vegetables is tight, with grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses getting just enough deliveries just in time to sell what they can without too much going to waste. But COVID-19-related disruptions—from unprecedented demand for some products to changes in staffing at stores and warehouses, and more—upended many of the systems that usually work nearly seamlessly, leaving some distribution centers overstocked but grocery stores denuded of things like lettuce.

As a result, trucks of tomatoes and squash have been dumped as waste and small oceans of milk discarded. Experts don’t expect this kind of disruption to continue, assuming the people working in all those supply chain links stay healthy. But if workers get sick, the situation could change quickly.

“We’re seeing this worry, when grocery stores run out of toilet paper or water, we’re seeing this chaos—just imagine if there were no fresh food,” says Joe del Bosque, a California-based farmer. Because his critical harvest season is just getting started, del Bosque says farmworkers are needed “now more than ever.”

Protecting workers protects everybody

So far, there are no reports of farmworkers having come down with COVID-19. But the reliability of that information isn’t clear because testing has been limited in many of the rural regions farmworkers live in, says Andrea Delgado, the government affairs director at United Farm Workers Foundation.

Farmers, farmworkers, and other people involved in agriculture have been labeled “essential” by the U.S. government, their roles deemed critical to keeping the nation fed during the growing coronavirus crisis.

View Images

Carlos Gutiérrez welcomes workers as they gather their ladders and get ready for a day of picking oranges.

But in the U.S., roughly 50 percent of them are undocumented and exempt from the employment relief offered by the CARES stimulus package, signed by President Trump on March 27. They’re also excluded from the expanded health care protections in the Family First Coronavirus Response Act. That means they will not receive economic support, nor do they have access to the expanded paid sick leave provided for in the acts.

The stresses are already growing for many farmworkers across California, and the virus hasn’t yet hit many of the rural communities in which they live. Eugenia Gonzales, a farmworker in Parlier, California, has watched as food prices in her local store spiked, if there was even anything left to buy; bottled water became scarce and expensive; the masks she wears to protect against dust disappeared; and the nearby hospital braced for the worst.

“We can’t even afford to eat right now,” she says.

Right now, the picking season should just be gearing up in many parts of the agricultural West. But Gonzales is also concerned that her season won’t even start. She’s been getting ready to prune grapes in a week or two; then, she’ll care for the crops until the picking season in early autumn. But her small town is still bracing for the impact of the virus, and Eugenia is worried that local health resources won’t be sufficient to handle an outbreak.

“This is a population that is considered to be essential workers, but they’re invisible,” says Myrna Martinez Nateras, a program director at the American Friends Service Committee, where she works with farmworkers in the Fresno, California region.

Many farmworkers are receiving mixed or no signals from their employers about how to protect themselves, says Lucas Zucker, the police director of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. Many told Zucker that as of the last week of March, they had not received information from their employers about the virus or been given access to resources that would help them follow recommended strategies for holding the virus at bay.

View Images

Farmworkers climb ladders to pick naval oranges in this orange orchard in Ivanhoe in the Central Valley.

“Everything that’s a systemic problem for farmworker safety under normal times is magnified right now,” says Zucker.

Some farms, though, have taken the crisis seriously. On del Bosque’s farm—which he says is some 50 miles from the nearest place to get tested for the virus‑—the finicky asparagus crop needs careful handling and workers to pick the delicate stalks. As a precaution, pickers work a row apart at all times, and del Bosque added extra wash stations for hand cleaning.

“The fear is really there,” says del Bosque, “that someone could get sick and then a lot of people get sick.”

But the pressure to continue to work under any and all conditions is high. In harvest season, many workers are paid by the piece—strawberry by strawberry, rather than hourly—creating a huge incentive to work as quickly as possible filling boxes. And for many workers, because they lack sick leave, taking time off work if they feel sick is somewhere between difficult and impossible.

Rippling outwards

The potential economic losses across the food sector can’t yet be gauged, agricultural economists say. But some early indications hint that the sector is taking a significant hit from the economic shutdown associated with the virus. Local food agricultural markets, which serve farmers markets, schools, restaurants, and more, are looking at more than $1 billion losses between March and May unless more actions are taken to support their businesses, says Thilmany.

About half of California’s produce ends up in restaurants, schools, and other institutions, says Cory Lunde of the Western Growers Association, a trade group that works with farmers. Those markets evaporated as counties and states told residents to stay home.

View Images

One concern for some farmworkers is masks. Farms can get hot and dusty, and they often use N95 masks to protect their lungs as they plant and pick. But masks are in short supply now. MICOP donated thousands to local health workers, and organizers hope supply will rebound soon.

The kinds of impacts Thilmany and others anticipate will occur assuming farmworkers show up to their jobs healthy. If the coronavirus spread to them, effects on the food sector would be nearly inevitable.

Gonzales, like many other farmworkers, are proud to be labeled “essential” and to play a role in the effort to keep food available for millions of U.S. residents. But she’s also dismayed that more isn’t being done to support farmworkers.

“If we’re essential, we need help,” Gonzales says in Spanish. “Because we’re the people feeding the country.”

View Images

The Calleja brothers leave work after picking naval oranges all day, getting ready for their drive home. Many farmworkers commute to and from their job sites together. But it's difficult to practice social distancing in a car or van.