Farmworkers have paid a high price for being designated as “essential” during the pandemic.
While millions of Americans hunkered down under “stay-at-home” orders or switched to work from home during the health crisis, field workers kept laboring in the fields to feed the American population.
About a quarter of agricultural laborers in the US are estimated to have contracted the coronavirus, twice the rate of the general population, according to some studies.
Inversely, vaccination rates among farmworkers may be low. Some advocates are trying to stem those opposing tides.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected farmworkers and their family members,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy organization.
“As essential workers, they were expected to continue working during the pandemic,” Goldstein continued. “But they had to work without adequate protection, often unable to observe social distancing and exposing themselves and their families to the virus.”
The pandemic challenges facing farm laborers were highlighted at the recent Farmworker Justice Awards held in Los Angeles. The ceremony honored individuals who have supported the farmworkers movement for justice, including actress Eva Longoria of “Desperate Housewives” fame, farmworker-turned-author and businessman Richard Montanez, John Echeveste of L.A. Plaza de Cultura y Artes, Tom Saenz of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Bel Hernandez of Latin Heat Media.
Longoria told the audience that COVID made many Americans finally realize the essentiality of field laborers, but that these workers need more protection from the pandemic, better pay and improved working conditions.
For his part, Saenz said that big legal battles have been won by farmworkers but more challenges lie ahead. He noted that there’s a possibility of legalizing thousands of undocumented farmworkers under current proposals being considered in the US Senate.
“We are very hopeful that we will finally bring these essential workers out of the shadows,” Saenz said
According to Purdue University’s College of Agriculture, there are more than 630,000 agricultural workers who have tested positive nationwide as of August 2021. Experts, however, believe the infection numbers are higher because they don’t include contracted and temporary labor.
It is estimated there are 2.4 million farmworkers in the US — half a million of them in California. In comparison, health authorities estimate that 40 million Americans have been infected, out of a total national population of about 320 million.
“They live in isolated areas, they are busy and have no time to meet with health professionals,” Goldstein said, adding that many farmworkers lack employer-provided health insurance, have no easy access to healthcare, face language barriers, with large numbers speaking Spanish and an increasing Mayan labor force that speaks their native dialects — all obstacles agricultural laborers have faced for many years. Additionally, about half of the farmworkers are believed to be undocumented.
These barriers also apply to vaccination efforts, according to Goldstein. Then there is “misinformation” being spread on social media and by fringe media outlets.
“Many of those reluctant to get vaccinated have been hearing misinformation about supposed dangers of the vaccines,” Goldstein said.
Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers (UFW), agrees.
“There’s a lot of structural barriers for vaccination,” she said. “Many farmworkers are migrants and move seasonally,” making immunization campaigns more difficult.
She said other factors contribute to the virus spreading, like crowded housing conditions and shared transportation by groups of laborers to and from work.
Despite these and other challenges — or maybe because of them — supporters and advocates of farmers and field laborers have been working constantly to lessen the impact of COVID-19.
Early on in the pandemic, as the search for a vaccine was just being considered, Farmworker Justice and other groups successfully lobbied the Center for Disease Control to prioritize the immunization of farmworkers. “They are in the second tier, right behind health workers,” Goldstein said.
Culturally relevant education campaigns about the pandemic were also developed.
In the Southwest, the collective CovidLatino.org created a Mexican loteria highlighting the benefits of vaccination.
The Farmworker Association of Florida launched educational campaigns about COVID and vaccinations, encouraged safe practices and using language and culture-appropriate videos, text messages, and social media in Spanish, Haitian Creole and indigenous languages about Covid immunizations.
In San Diego County, Vista Community Clinic reached out to farmworkers in the agricultural communities in the north of the county.
According to reporting by CalMatters, a nonprofit journalism project, Riverside County has sent mobile clinics to agricultural worksites. And the Central Valley, Tulare County has opened its large International Agri-Center for growers to send their employees to get immunized.
The vast majority of farmworkers seem to be interested in getting vaccinated. CalMatters reports that about 73 percent said they would get the COIVD-19 vaccine as soon as possible.
Some farmers in Ventura County took the initiative to help vaccinate their workers. Monterey Mushrooms reached out to the UFW and organized clinics on site. “They were super proactive,” Strater said, adding the company also provided the vaccination to the general population of the area.
There are no reliable figures of the vaccination rates among farmworkers but they are believed to be lower than those of the general population. But the high interest in immunization against Covid means there is a huge demand waiting to be met.
“Bringing the vaccines to the worksites may be the most efficient way to help farmworkers,” Strater said.
There is additional pressure on big farmers to help increase the nation’s stagnant vaccination rates. President Joe Biden has announced a mandate plan requiring companies with over 100 employees to require vaccinations of workers. It remains to be seen how that plays out in the fields.