Farmworkers face coronavirus risk: ‘You can’t pick strawberries over Zoom’

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Shelter-in-place orders in California exempt farmworkers as essential employees. But many are undocumented, lack health insurance and don’t qualify for unemployment insurance, placing them in a vulnerable position.

Before heading out with his crew of farmworkers, field lead Carlos Garcia donned a blue button-up shirt, a jacket, jeans and work boots. He washed his hands before slipping gloves over them.

He washed his hands when he got to the orange grove near Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley, where pickers filled nearly 100 bins with Cara Cara oranges on a recent sunny morning. He washed his hands before and after using the restroom. He washed his hands before he left the ranch.

When he got home, he walked in through the garage, stripped off his clothes and threw them into the wash before hopping in the shower. It was Garcia’s new regimen as he and thousands of other California farm laborers, many of them immigrants, adjust to the age of the coronavirus.

Despite being 73 with diabetes, Garcia couldn’t afford to stop working. His employer hadn’t said anything about the virus to workers, provided them with extra protective gear or supplied extra hand-washing stations, he said.

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He worried about catching it and passing it to his five children and 12 grandchildren, who constantly fill his home.

Farmworker Carlos Garcia
Carlos Garcia, 73, is being extra cautious amid the coronavirus pandemic because of his age and the fact that he suffers from diabetes. He now wears long sleeves and gloves at all times.
(Tomas Ovalle / For the Times)

“There’s never any attention paid to the campesino,” he said — to the field worker. “God blesses us. We can’t do anything else.

“No one wants to die.”

More than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California. Stay-at-home orders in California exempt farmworkers as essential employees. But many are undocumented, lack health insurance and don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or federal COVID-19 relief, placing the state’s estimated workforce of 420,000 in a vulnerable position.

The United Farm Workers union has called on agricultural employers to protect workers from the coronavirus by extending sick leave, eliminating wait periods for sick pay eligibility, increasing cleaning of frequently touched surfaces and offering assistance with child care amid school closures.

Some employers have issued identification cards or letters for workers to show law enforcement if they are pulled over going to or from a job site. Some have taken further steps, including staggering lunch breaks to encourage social separation, assigning workers to every other row of crops, supplying extra hand-washing stations and expanding sick leave beyond the three days mandated by the state.

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Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director at the workers’ advocacy group Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, said he worries that those directives might not trickle all the way down to each farmworker, especially at big companies with thousands of employees.

Farmworkers are briefed while sitting six feet apart
Excelsior Farming in Hanford conducts a presentation for employees on safety protocols during the coronavirus pandemic.
(Tomas Ovalle / For the Times)
Hands being washed
Carlos Garcia washes his hands at an orange orchard near Reedley in the San Joaquin Valley. More than himself, he said he worries about infecting one of his grandchildren if he were to contract the virus.
(Tomas Ovalle / For the Times)

“There are some inherent challenges in the agriculture industry that during these disasters become really magnified,” he said. “The layers of contracting and subcontracting. Messages get lost along the way. Safety directives seem like they’re coming strong from the top, but by the time they reach workers in the fields it’s like a game of telephone.”

For workers on the Central Coast, Zucker said, this is the worst possible time to face a health crisis. As peak strawberry season ramps up next month, pay switches from hourly to piece rate, he said. Pickers are incentivized to work hard and fast, sometimes at the cost of their own health. Spending 20 seconds washing their hands could feel like an eternity.

“You can’t pick strawberries over Zoom,” he said.

Distancing requirements have made it particularly challenging to get information about the coronavirus to workers who speak indigenous languages. In mid-March, residents began asking advocates at the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project in Oxnard why supermarket shelves were suddenly empty and why smaller grocery stores were selling packs of bottled water that normally cost $3 for $13.

A man picks oranges
Crescenciano Calleja picks oranges at an orchard near Reedley in the San Joaquin Valley.
(Tomas Ovalle / For the Times)

Associate Director Genevieve Flores-Haro said the nonprofit responded by pulling information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, translating it to Mixtec, Zapotec and Purepecha and recording public safety announcements, which have aired on the group’s radio station: Radio Indigena 94.1 FM.

The announcements, which are 15 minutes long and run several times a day, explain basics about the virus, instructions on proper hand washing, and how to look out for and report illegal price gouging of items like bottled water. Around 3,000 people listen to the station a day, Flores-Haro said.

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She said the translations were crucial because those languages rely heavily on context. Unlike in Spanish, for example, there is no word for “virus” in Mixtec, so the sickness must instead be described in detail. About half of farmworkers between Oxnard and Watsonville are indigenous, she said.

Farmworkers walk to their cars
The Calleja brothers leave work at an orange orchard near Reedley in the San Joaquin Valley.
(Tomas Ovalle / For the Times)

Farmworkers in California make $26,000 a year, on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many families share a home with other families and drive to work in crowded vehicles, making physical distancing difficult. Health issues, including asthma and diabetes, are common among workers, Flores-Haro said. Her goal is to make sure they aren’t left exposed.

“These inequities that our families are living with, they’ve always been there,” she said. “But when things like the wildfires happen, when things like a global pandemic happen, you really get to see those disparities laid bare.”

Lucy Cruz Lopez’s biggest concern amid the pandemic is making ends meet. She has worked for the same strawberry farm in Oxnard for 13 years.

While she’s at work, her 16-year-old daughter watches over her three younger siblings. They live an hour’s walk from school — too far away to grab the free lunches that are offered there on weekdays.

Pressured by the collective panic over the virus, Cruz Lopez spent the $200 she had in savings on extra food. Now she worries about paying her $1,500 rent.

A farmworker washes her hands at an orange orchard in Visalia.
(Tomas Ovalle / For the Times)

When it comes to her health, Cruz Lopez said, she is doing what she can to protect herself. On her off time, she and the children don’t leave their one-bedroom apartment except to buy groceries. She stays informed through advocates at the Central Coast Alliance and shares the news with friends and neighbors who speak her native Zapotec but aren’t fluent in Spanish, as she is.

But total social distancing isn’t possible. She doesn’t know how to drive, so she depends on her sister-in-law for rides to work.

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Cruz Lopez said her employer hasn’t mentioned the virus. On an overcast day last week, she picked strawberries while a popular bachata song by Romeo Santos played from a loudspeaker. Some workers were separated by several rows. But one man in blue latex gloves labored in the row directly next to hers.

“They say the virus comes from the air you breathe,” she said. “But I have to work.”

Some growers have taken proactive and creative steps to support their employees.

Since early March, Brokaw Ranch and Nursery co-owner Ellen Brokaw has participated in weekly videoconference meetings with other players in the Central Coast agricultural industry to strategize best practices during the pandemic. The group includes four farmers, two farmworker advocates, the local agricultural commissioner, the president of the local farm bureau, a lawyer on the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board and two employees with the Ventura County farmworker resource program.

Brokaw said the most crucial point is for employers to communicate early and often to ensure that employees have up-to-date, credible information.

“The hardest thing maybe for everybody in this is that we have no idea how long it’s going to go on,” she said. “We have to prepare for a long haul and hope that it’s not.”

With cherry season still a month away, leaders at Warmerdam Packing in Hanford, which grows and packs plums, kiwis and cherries, are devising coronavirus safety plans before they go from overseeing 100 workers to 1,000. They started by hiring a temporary infectious disease risk-assessment specialist and rolling out extra training. Now they’re analyzing how to reduce pack lines, which are usually staffed with 100 people per shift, said human resources manager Natalie Martinez.

And at Reiter Affiliated Cos., the largest berry grower in the world and the leading supplier for Driscoll’s, Chief Executive Hector Lujan said he’s been on daily calls with a crisis management team for a month. The company is developing take-home kits including toilet paper, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and soap so workers won’t have to struggle to find those items in grocery stores, he said.

Employees have received printed cards that identify them as essential workers, Lujan said. Managers have begun identifying people with serious health risks and recommending that they stay home. They’ve expanded paid sick leave from three days to 10 days. The company also dropped the $5 copay for workers to visit its healthcare clinic.

Lujan said his priority is keeping workers healthy and maintaining industry stability.

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“They’re essential today to the food supply — they’ve always been, but now there’s a new level of light shining on them,” he said. “If people are fighting over toilet paper, imagine if they had to fight for food.”