In California, an estimated 420,000 farmworkers continue to go to work every day, despite the far-reaching effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Many of these workers are afraid of being exposed to the virus, but they do not have the option to work from home. While they provide the food on our tables and the very center of our economy and wellbeing, these farmworkers are struggling to feed their own families and care for their children, who are stuck at home due to statewide school closures.
One worker, interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, is 73 years old and has diabetes, but he cannot afford to stop working. Instead, he washes his hands at every opportunity, changes clothes before he enters his house, and takes all possible precautions, despite the fact that his employer has said nothing to its workers about Coronavirus and hasn’t provided protective gear or extra handwashing stations.
A Breakdown of Communication and Support
Although farmworkers are deemed essential employees by California’s stay-at-home orders, they are not met with the same support and safety nets as doctors and nurses. Many workers are undocumented, lack health insurance, and don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or relief efforts at the state and federal levels. While some employers are stepping up to protect this vulnerable population, others are not. Further, employers that implement a policy at the corporate level may not follow up to ensure the effects can be felt for the thousands of workers they employ.
“Messages get lost along the way,” says the leader of a workers’ advocacy group, “Safety directives seem like they’re coming strong form the top, but by the time they reach the workers in the fields, it’s like a game of telephone.”
This ‘game’ gets even more complicated when many workers are not fluent in English and communicate in indigenous languages like Mixtec, Zapotec, and Purepecha. Some indigenous workers didn’t realize there was a crisis until they encountered empty shelves in the supermarket and experienced price gouging from local retailers. Fortunately, nonprofits are translating 15-minute announcements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into indigenous languages and broadcasting them on radio stations where 3,000 farmworkers listen every day.
Social Distancing Isn’t Possible
Even when employers limit the number of people in company cars, stagger lunch breaks to encourage social separation, and assign workers to every other row of crops, proper social distancing is impossible for many farmworkers. On an average salary of $26,000 a year, many households home multiple families and drive to work in crowded carpools. Without the lunches and childcare provided by public schools, countless parents are forced to leave their children at home and spend extra money on food, making it harder than usual to pay their rent.
Farmworkers frequently suffer from asthma and diabetes but protecting themselves from the virus could mean homelessness or starvation.
One strawberry fieldworker and mother stated:
“They say the virus comes from the air you breathe. But I have to work.”
Keeping the Industry Afloat
Labor groups and progressive businesses alike realize taking care of farmworkers means saving our country. Some employees have received printed cards that confirm their status and essential workers, some employers have extended sick leave, and many agricultural families are taking home kits with soap, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning surprise so they can protect themselves at home.
Employers who don’t take these steps or fail to implement infectious disease safety plans could spell the end of the world. A berry-growing CEO put it best:
“If people are fighting over toilet paper, imagine if they had to fight for food.”
Your Rights As an Employee
If you work in the agricultural industry and you are reading this blog, pay careful attention to your employer’s behavior during this time, and document any hardships you face as a result of COVID-19.
If you have questions about your rights or would like to pursue legal action, please contact Reed & Garcia Law, PC for a free, confidential case evaluation.
We can be reached at (310) 242-8933 or online, and we won’t charge any legal fees unless we recover compensation on your behalf.
Call today – we look forward to hearing from you and helping you protect your rights!