Eleazar Sosa, a vineyard manager in Greenfield, oversees a crew of about 20 who monitor the vines for disease, control irrigation and harvest the wine grapes in late summer. This year, he and his coworkers are also confronting a new challenge: the growing threat of coronavirus.
Public service announcements have been developed by organizations in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in English, Spanish and three indigenous languages: Mixteco, Zapoteca and Triqui. An estimated 30,000 people in Monterey County (not all in the agriculture community) speak indigenous languages.
Natividad Medical Center led the creation of the PSAs for Monterey County and beyond. In Santa Cruz County, members of the Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan worked with officials in the city of Watsonville and the county to create them. The bulk of Santa Cruz County’s COVID-19 cases have been in Watsonville so far.
Monterey County/Natividad PSAs
Formal programs are in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 among agricultural workers. But for now, Sosa and his crew are embracing a more direct, community approach to skirt the virus.
In Monterey County, agriculture workers such as field laborers and those working in packing and processing facilities are three times as likely to be infected with coronavirus than employees in the county’s other industries, according to the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS).
Many of these essential workers also lack critical social safety net supports such as health insurance and affordable housing. More than half of agriculture workers surveyed about health care issues recently by the institute reported the double-punch of no sick leave and no insurance.
For those who are insured, the high cost of prescriptions, copays and deductibles present additional barriers.
Sosa knows he is lucky. He and his wife live by themselves, their four kids grown and out of the house. They stay home when not working and limit their trips to just the essentials, like grocery shopping. But he worries about others in his community of Greenfield, particularly those living in crowded quarters or working in indoor produce processing and packing facilities, where social distancing is more difficult. Some employers provide basic, dormitory-style housing; other workers share motel rooms or small apartments with as many as two to three other families.
To help, community organizations have launched COVID-19 education programs throughout the Central Coast. In southern Santa Cruz County, the Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan, a group of local residents, regularly delivers food, masks and other supplies to workers. And in Monterey County, the Grower-Shipper Association (GSA), an industry trade organization, has been working with local hospitals to bring medical professionals directly into the fields.
Abby Taylor-Silva, a spokeswoman with GSA, said the organization knew right away that they had to take action to protect agriculture workers.
“In mid-March, when shelter-in-place orders came forward, we worked with Monterey County officials to put together guidance (for agriculture employers) and issue an advisory,” said Taylor-Silva. “It was really important for us to do this, above and beyond just calling the county (for help).”
Soon after, resident physicians and nurses from Natividad Medical Center began visiting local farms and packing facilities to disperse masks and provide training on social distancing in the home and workplace. So far, they’ve reached around 5,000 workers.
Outreach is conducted in English, Spanish and three indigenous languages: Mixteco, Zapoteca and Triqi.
They also talk about what to do if a family member gets sick and how to get help.
Essential Worker Card
In Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, representatives from the health departments and agricultural commissions have also worked to create an “essential worker” card, a business card that lists information about symptoms and resources that fits easily into a wallet or pocket.
“One of the latest things we’ve done is an essential worker card,” a two-side business card that provides information on virus symptoms and local resources, said Juan Hidalgo, Santa Cruz County agriculture commissioner.
The agency has also gone to farmworker housing to distribute bags containing masks and handouts printed in both Spanish and English focused on safety tips, protocol for wearing and washing masks. They’re working closely with the county’s farm bureau to help employers understand what to do if an employee tests positive for the virus. That includes working to help provide options for those who need to self-isolate and can’t easily do so at home.
Essential Worker Card- English
Essential Worker Card- Spanish
GSA has reserved a bank of local hotel rooms for those workers who need to be quarantined and about 150 workers have stayed in these rooms so far. Strict cleaning is provided by companies GSA hires, along with meals and visits from Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital health care workers.
This part of the program has been so successful that it’s now being replicated by the state through Housing for Harvest.
Dr. Erika Romero said they also make time to speak directly with workers about their experiences and serve as a type of intermediary between them and their bosses.
By the numbers in Monterey County (8/28/2020)
Countywide: 7,522 cases, 53 deaths
5,526 (73% of cases)
Cases involving ag workers:
1,675 (22% of cases)
By the numbers in Santa Cruz County (8/28/2020)
Countywide: 1,735 cases, 7 deaths
1,064 (61% of cases)
Cases involving ag workers:
113 (8.7% of cases)
By the numbers in San Benito County (8/28/2020)
Countywide: 1,018 cases, 7 deaths
*San Benito County doesn’t break it down by demographics/industries, according to county spokesperson
“It’s very difficult for us to just go in and say, ‘Hey, these are some of the things your entire company should do,’” said Romero, a second-year resident physician at Natividad Medical Center. “What we want to say is, ‘You’ve been working here every day, what are some of the things you think could be changed in your specific working conditions?’”
From there, Romero and her colleagues take that feedback and have conversations with employers and managers to help facilitate some of these changes, including ensuring that social distancing is followed on the buses some farms use to transport workers to the field. In addition to providing information on social distancing and wearing masks, they also provide information on where to sign up for food stamps, how to apply for unemployment insurance and ways to get mental health resources, said Romero.
An estimated 90,000 to 100,000 agriculture workers populate the Monterey-Santa Cruz-San Benito area during peak season, plus their families. Not only do they face this greater risk of contracting coronavirus, but there’s also a high likelihood they are undocumented. According to the Center for Farmworker Families, up to 75 percent of California’s farmworkers are undocumented.
Given this, many employees don’t feel comfortable taking sick time even when they’re entitled to it, for fear of potential retribution as well as economic loss.
“Our workers are petrified,” said Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of United Farm Workers, the nation’s largest farm workers’ union. “The fears we have had are coming true.”
Getting employers to actually adhere to regulations and provide paid time off for sickness is a significant challenge, said Elenes. From the start of the pandemic, UFW sent out letters to employers demanding they take steps to protect workers, including providing sick leave and training around COVID safety, said Armando Elenes, UFW’s secretary-treasurer.
The passage of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (better known as the CARES Act,) was a big step, said Elenes. It requires employers with 500 or fewer employees to provide up to two weeks’ sick leave for employees unable to work due to COVID-19.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has extended these protections to employers with 500 or more employees. UFW also got the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to issue specific COVID-19 guidance for agriculture employers, including regularly screening employees for symptoms and notifying health officials when a worker is diagnosed with the virus. However, Elenas said not all companies are following the recommendations and paid sick leave requirements.
“Now we’re fighting to actually get (these measures) implemented,” said Elenes. “Wage theft is rampant in this industry.”
Wage theft, according to the union, doesn’t just mean not paying for time worked; it also means withholding sick time. Elenes said he hears from as many as five employees a day reporting they aren’t getting paid time off when they need to quarantine, or that they aren’t being notified when coworkers test positive. Employers are often doing the “bare minimum,” he said.
And that means employees may go to work sick, because they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They need to feed their families and pay their rent — even as cases climb.
“It’s going to get uglier,” he said.
That’s what Assemblyman Robert Rivas is afraid of, too. The Democrat from Hollister introduced a first-in-the-nation COVID-19 farmworker relief package of bills aimed at protecting the health, safety and economic security of California’s agriculture workers. The package passed the state Legislature earlier this week.
Rivas is also calling for the expansion of a farmworker housing assistance tax credit to incentivize the development of permanent, safe housing for agriculture workers. It’s an issue close to Rivas’ heart; he grew up locally living in migrant farmworker housing with his family.
“We must take steps to alleviate the overcrowded housing conditions that leave farmworkers and their families constantly at risk,” said Rivas. “Once one member of these cramped households becomes infected or exposed, it is too late.”
About the California COVID-19 Farmworker Relief Package
Sponsored by: Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) and Eduardo Garcia (D- Coachella)
Includes five different pieces of legislation:
AB 2043: Agriculture Workplace Health & Safety Act
Funds an outreach and informational campaign for farmworkers and improves tracking of complaints among agriculture workers
AB 2164: Telehealth for Rural and Community Health Centers Act
Deploys telehealth services for rural and community health centers
AB 2165: E-Filing and Rural Access to Justice Act
Expands the availability of electronic filing to all state trial courts, given that access to courthouses is often limited for many farmworker and rural communities
AB 1248: Buy California Agricultural Products
Ensures that all state institutions, including schools, purchase their agricultural products grown in California where possible
$25 million expansion of the California Farmworker Housing Assistance Tax Credit
Request for substantial expansion of the tax credit to incentivize new, permanent and safe housing for farm and other agricultural workers
This package was produced as part of the COVID-19 Information Hub at LocalNewsMatters.org. The Info Hub is a collaborative project supported by JSK Fellowship Program at Stanford University. The story is by Jessica Pasko for Bay City News Foundation; the photos are by David Rodriguez for the Salinas Californian; the audio and overall package is edited by Krista Almanzan, a Senior Journalism Fellow at JSK.