(r) Luis Olmedo, Executive Director, Comité Cívico del Valle Inc,; (l)Armando Elenes, Secretary Treasurer, United Farm Workers.

Latinos nationwide have been impacted at higher levels of COVID-19 than any other ethnic population. Working on the front lines as “essential workers” has increased their exposure to the pandemic. 

Southern California’s Imperial County is considered the state’s COVID-19 hot spot, where the infection rate is as much as six times the state average — 2,835 cases per 100,000 people versus 491 cases per 100,000 statewide. 

The agricultural community is hardest hit. Their work cannot be accommodated to “stay at home,”  and the recommendations by public health officials to prevent the spread cannot be easily applied to the poor who together pick tight rows of produce in the fields, travel in groups, work in assembly lines in packing plants and oftentimes live in overcrowded housing. 

While classified as “essential workers,” they’ve also come to be known as “distressed workers” who cannot practice “social distancing.” 

The guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus provided by public health officials has not been in consideration for workers like them. Their work conditions, pressed against their poverty and need to work coupled with the lack of access to healthcare, make them extremely vulnerable. Some 35.8% of households in the county have workers who earn less than a living wage. 

“We’ve been obviously dealing with this since the beginning, trying to engage the agricultural communities, first by sending out letters, asking the growers, the contractors, and others to step up immediately,” said Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers.  

“Unfortunately, that call, those letters, went unheeded because most growers continue to work and conduct operations as ‘normal’ — and we’re now seeing the effects of that throughout the entire country, including California.”

“Whenever there is close contact, such as H2A [temporary] workers having to carpool together, having to live together, there’s a high propensity of infection,” Elenes said. “Facilities that have a lot of surface space, such as packing houses, production facilities, etc., that workers can touch more often, we’re seeing a lot more outbreaks there.” 

This scenario in Imperial County is occurring among farmworkers now up and down the state. While Gov. Newsom tightens up and rolls back reopening plans, and restricts indoor businesses to control the surge of COVID-19 cases, these orders aren’t applied to the essential workers toiling in California’s fields.

Standard COVID-19 public health protocols are tailored to the middle class who can work with their employers to telecommute.  But it appears, that in itself cannot flatten the curve by itself. 

“All these years we kicked the can down the road — now we’ve run out of road,” said community activist Luis Olmedo, CEO of Comite Civico del Valle, Inc. He and others who work directly with the community point out that what happens in the fields and packing plants isn’t the same as what occurs elsewhere.

“As public officials and experts have grappled with closing businesses and regulating public gatherings, a dominant narrative has emerged; that COVID-19 has spread due to urban density, large public gatherings, and private behavior. These explanations are inconsistent with several patterns and surges,” said Dr. Edward Flores, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of California, Merced

“Recent analysis of 1.5 million CDC records of COVID tests found that during the period of ‘Stay At Home’ orders, COVID rates fell for all groups except for Latinos, whose rates surged the whole time during ‘Stay At Home.’ The CDC Data also suggested that COVID-19 transmission in suburban and rural regions sometimes outstrips that in densely populated urban regions,” Flores said.

“The recent outbreaks of COVID-19 among California farmworkers in counties such as Imperial County, or other places like Oxnard or Hanford, illuminate the central role of the workplace in COVID-19 transmission in rural and suburban geographies,” he said.

Simply put, employers aren’t following protocols and keeping agricultural workers safe. With harvests now in full swing throughout the state and across the country, the spread of the virus is moving more quickly. 

“As they’re carpooling, we’re seeing operations in Salinas where 150 workers are housed together, and it’s starting to spread. In King City, it’s starting to spread,” Elenes said.  

“In Wasco California, one processing facility has 91 employees that are infected, [spreading the virus] to 36 family members and 23 children, for a total of 150 coming out of one facility. And all because their employer wanted to keep things quiet because they wanted production. They did not want their production impacted, and so they literally did not communicate with their employees about what was happening to try to stem the spread.”

In Imperial County, hospitals are currently struggling to have enough beds in their intensive care units. Health professionals there have people waiting for beds and have turned to other counties for help, transferring some of their patients miles away from their home base.  

“What I see on a consistent basis is that I have patients who are lacking the education on how to improve their condition,” said Michelle Garcia, nurse practitioner at the Calexico Wellness Center in Calexico.

“There is a severe lack of education that’s going on here, and this is a major component as to why COVID is so high,” she said. “There are so many patients that we have that just do not get the appointments that they need. They’re working, they can’t do it, they don’t know how to operate their phones and they may not have a smart phone.”

“When I see patients if I’m lucky  to see them via camera — sometimes if it’s just via phone. There’s so much more you can do with a face-to-face consultation.”

In addition to the obstacles for those without access to technology, there is the fear of receiving bad news. Even for workers who know they are being exposed and their wellbeing isn’t considered, they are reluctant to rock the boat especially if they are temporary guest workers.

“There are people and patients who are afraid to be tested because of the fact that they’ll have to stay home. How do you choose between ‘I have to feed my family, my kids aren’t going to eat, I need to go out and earn wages for my family?’” said Garcia.

Employers Aren’t Abiding by CARES Act

Another major concern and roadblock are employers who are refusing or failing to pay agricultural workers who test positive for COVID-19.  California expanded the CARES Act to include sick pay for those who work in the fields and packing plants to provide food for our tables.  However, employees are reporting that some employers are terminating them to avoid providing this benefit.    

“We’re hearing countless workers left and right trying to figure out what to do because their employers are refusing to pay them for either becoming positive  [with COVID-19], having to quarantine themselves because a loved one is positive or just outright terminating them,” said Elenes. 

“Employers are basically continuing operations as usual and even blaming the employees, [telling them] that it’s their fault and they didn’t take care of themselves — we’re definitely seeing a lot more of that. And with the undocumented status of most of the agricultural community that’s even harder,” Elenes points out.  

“With guest workers being deathly afraid not just for their health, but for their family’s financial income, they’re afraid that if they say something they might not be brought back the following year.