Workers in the field | Kimberly Piñon
By Víctor Almazán
The pandemic has had extensive and intense effects on agricultural workers. Farm workers in Monterey County have suffered the highest rate of infections compared to other types of industry, but the negative effects go further, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 Study of Farm Workers, coordinated by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS). The institute released preliminary results on July 28 at a virtual press conference.
The study was conducted in 21 California counties. With the collaboration of several organizations such as Lideres Campesinas and the Binational Center for the Indigenous Development of Oaxaca, 745 workers were interviewed, 121 of them from Monterey County (16.3 percent). The study had two portions. For the first, telephone interviews were conducted inquiring about working conditions, housing, health prevention, medical access and income. The second part of the study is underway and it will further explore the social and economic effects of COVID-19 on agricultural workers and their families. The purpose of the study is “to bring the voices of workers into the public conversation about responding to the pandemic,” organizers said. Also, the survey will serve as a tool to channel resources, in the form of funds, to agricultural workers’ organizations and to the workers themselves.
In addition to the evident risk of contagion due to employment conditions, the study found that agricultural workers had a significant loss in income and a decline or loss of work.
The study indicates that the workers have not sat idle in the face of the pandemic, and have followed the preventative measures indicated by health authorities, in addition to implementing measures themselves and demanding safety equipment for work from the employers. The following is a summary of the six main findings.
- Farm workers had a dramatic loss of job and income during the pandemic. Almost half of the respondents (46 percent) reported decreased agricultural work time and lost earnings during the pandemic.
- Agricultural workers lack medical access and are afraid to use medical services. Just over half (54 percent) reported that cost, lack of medical coverage, or lack of sick days off from work are major barriers that would prevent them from accessing medical care even if they were sick.
- Farm workers are vigilant about COVID-19 prevention practices outside the workplace. Almost all workers (90 percent) reported taking precautions to protect their families when they get home from work.
- Farm workers report a low number of employers providing masks or face covers. They said only 54 percent of work sites provided masks and face shields.
- Farm workers have suggestions for better prevention against COVID-19 in the workplace. They noted that they have suggested how to improve cleaning practices and workflow to implement physical distancing to prevent COVID-19.
- Agricultural workers are systematically excluded from safety net programs. Farmworkers noted they lack child care, they’re food insecure and are excluded from financial assistance programs.
The study also lists some recommendations for solving these situations.
Monterey among the most affected
Monterey County shows one of the greatest impacts among the 21 counties where the study was conducted. “Farm workers in Monterey County were three times more exposed to the disease than workers in other industries,” said Don Villarejo, a researcher at the California Institute for Rural Studies. “The contagion rate in the agricultural sector is 1,569 per 100,000 workers, while in the non-agricultural sector it is 471 per 100,000.” According to data from the Monterey County Health Department dated July 29, 1,056 cases of contagion occurred among agricultural workers, representing almost 25 percent of the total cases in the county.
The study confirms other causes cited as vulnerabilities in the pandemic: overcrowded conditions in which agricultural workers live, working conditions where it is not possible to follow health measures such as physical distance and the use of appropriate equipment to avoid contagion.
“In addition, in many regions, the majority of agricultural workers are indigenous,” said Oralia Maceda, from the Binational Center for the Indigenous Development of Oaxaca, “And the information is not coming in their languages, Mixtec, Zapotec.” That puts them in a vulnerable situation.
The report notes that “while there is a striking lack of data on farm workers who identify as indigenous and speak indigenous languages, there is a large population of these workers in California.”
“Workers are experiencing significant negative impacts of COVID-19 and these impacts exacerbate the vulnerability of this essential workforce,” the study reads. It also points out that these effects can be reversed or lessened and it gives a series of recommendations that include access to direct payments, unemployment insurance, food assistance, housing support for isolation in case of falling ill with COVID-19 and expanding access to medical care.
It also recommends involving community and worker organizations in the design of preventive safety programs “extended to agricultural workers, indigenous populations, and immigrants” by providing extensive and culturally relevant education to employers, supervisors, and workers in indigenous languages on safety practices in the workplace. Meeting this challenge “will require unprecedented collaboration from all of us,” the study concludes.
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