As Covid-19 cases spike, an unprecedented alliance emerges to protect California farmworkers

In Monterey County, growers and worker advocates join forces with researchers, doctors and public officials.

Advocates have warned since the beginning of the pandemic that the 2.4 million farmworkers who plant and harvest the nation’s food live and labor under conditions that make them extremely vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

And now, just as they predicted, outbreaks among farmworkers have erupted in agricultural hubs across the country as peak summer harvest season gets underway, from Florida to New York, California to Washington State. In California’s Monterey County, which is one of the nation’s top agricultural regions, agricultural workers account for nearly 36 percent of Covid-19 cases.

As the situation in Monterey illustrates, cramped living quarters, mistrust of government, a failure to enforce social distancing in fields and packing sheds, misinformation, and the fear of deportation are all driving the spread of the virus among these workers the nation has deemed essential.

The Salinas Valley, known as “America’s salad bowl,” has emerged as a hotspot in Monterey County. Cases more than quadrupled in the county since the end of May, from 413 to 1,748, with more than half concentrated in the two predominantly Latino Salinas neighborhoods where most farmworkers live. Hospitalizations more than doubled over that period, from 53 to 135, while deaths rose from eight to 15.

Farmworkers stand close together as they harvest a field in Salinas. A manager walks along to the right, inspecting the work.

But the outbreak in Salinas is remarkable, too, for spawning an unprecedented alliance of agriculture industry representatives, county officials, farmworker advocates, doctors and scientists  that turned longtime adversaries into allies in the race to protect farmworkers during the pandemic.

“Usually we work at odds with a lot of the ag employer community because we’re alleging they violated the law and are asking them to do better by their workers,” said Aaron Voit, who runs a medical-legal partnership for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) to improve farmworkers’ living and working conditions. “But we’ve been able to collaborate through this coalition.”

The alliance began to coalesce in early April, about a month after California Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency to prepare for the pandemic. It has picked up members and momentum ever since. Now dozens of representatives from the farming and public-health communities are scrambling to make up for lost time.

Their challenge is daunting. They need to prepare for a potential surge in cases as thousands of seasonal workers arrive for the summer harvest; find ways to deliver effective messages to workers who speak only Spanish or Indigenous languages; and figure out how to ensure that sick workers receive follow-up care.

Yet already the alliance, which now includes most major Monterey County grower organizations, has distributed hundreds of thousands of masks—750,000 in May alone—secured hotels for emergency quarantine housing, and won an $880,000 grant to increase testing.

Brenda Eskenazi’s relationships, built over years of research, helped bring groups that are often at odds together to combat the virus.

“If there’s been any time that growers and farmworkers need to come together, it’s now,” said Brenda Eskenazi, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied farmworker health issues in the region for more than two decades.

She organized the coalition, along with Pedro Moreno, a family physician who’s spent over a quarter century treating Salinas farmworkers, and Hester Parker, who teaches social and ecological justice at California State University, Monterey Bay.

Parker says the goodwill that Eskenazi cultivated over the years through her research was crucial to getting an alliance of such diverse interests off the ground. Eskenazi’s groundbreaking CHAMACOS study, which documented pesticides’ harmful effects on the children of farmworkers in the Salinas Valley, relied on partnerships with agricultural leaders to reduce childhood disease.

“She’s been able to bring us all to the table because of those longstanding relationships she built,” she said.

Every Monday, alliance members join a call with doctors caring for farmworkers at hospitals and clinics to discuss progress and challenges. They call themselves the Monterey County Coalition of Agriculture, or MC-COA. (“Coa” means hoe in Spanish.)

Everyone is struggling to come up with innovative solutions to make sure this epidemic doesn’t decimate agriculture in our county, said Eskenazi.

“Being a scientist, I try to see all sides. And what I’m seeing is that the growers are suffering too,” she said. “They’re afraid their workforce is going to be wiped out, and they’re scared.”

Securing state help

On March 20, Monterey County officials and agricultural industry groups released an advisory for farmworker protection, a few days after the county’s shelter-in-place order exempted “essential” farmworkers. The guidelines included recommendations for sanitation, protective gear, social distancing and steps to take if workers fall ill—but they were voluntary.

Still, for anxious growers they offered important guidance. “The advisory was so critical because I think one of the biggest challenges from the get-go was figuring out what the recommendations were from healthcare providers as we were all learning about this virus,” said Abby Taylor-Silva, vice president of policy and communications for the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California (GSA), which represents 340 members.

But the coalition founders thought the guidelines should be mandatory, and submitted public comments asking county supervisors to make them enforceable. The supervisors never responded.

Eskenazi, Parker and Moreno quickly shifted their focus to helping growers get the resources they needed to protect their workers, and started building the coalition. By mid-April, GSA had signed a letter with Eskenazi and others asking Gov. Newsom for a minimum of 180,000 facial coverings for farmworkers.

As the end of April approached with no response from the state, the coalition tried again. This time they asked for testing kits as well as PPE, noting that 16 farmworkers had already tested positive for Covid-19 and up to 60,000 new workers would soon arrive for the summer harvest. “Addressing Covid-19 in agricultural workers is of particular concern because of the more challenging conditions to achieve the necessary physical distancing,” the group wrote. “We will not be able to suppress the epidemic unless certain conditions are met.”

This time, the state listened. A week later, Monterey County had two new sites offering free Covid-19 testing and 750,000 masks from the state’s emergency PPE stockpile.

Safety instructions for farmworkers, in Spanish and English, posted at an entrance to a farm field in Salinas, California, on July 2, 2020. As Covid-19 cases rise, farms are trying different strategies to inform workers about how to protect themselves.

Masks have been “a really high priority,” said Taylor-Silva. After distributing the masks from the state, GSA partnered with Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital to get a million more at a discounted rate.

Jocelyn Islas, a 33-year-old mother who harvests cauliflower in the Salinas Valley, helped distribute 40,000 masks last month after coalition members secured donations from Hedley & Bennett, a kitchen-wear supplier.

“It was so good to receive the masks not just for me but for all the people who needed them but can’t afford to buy them,” said Islas, a member of Líderes Campesinas, a nonprofit that helps farmworker women advocate for their rights.

In early June, the coalition helped county and agricultural groups update their advisory guidelines.

The new guidelines include a number of detailed measures for growers to “expeditiously implement” at worksites in order to prevent and reduce transmission of the virus. A new section includes provisions to safely transport workers, including making multiple bus trips to allow more space between riders, using assigned seating to track potential exposures if someone gets sick and ensuring that everyone wears masks. Other changes include making sure employees practice social distancing in living quarters as well as in fields and packing sheds, and that they know who to call for medical and social services if they get sick.

Fear, poverty and misinformation

Getting the testing sites from the state was critical. But expanded testing won’t stem the virus’ spread if undocumented workers stay away for fear of being deported.

Covid-19 hit after nearly four years of “extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric,” said Maria Cadenas, executive director of Santa Cruz Community Ventures (SCCV), a nonprofit that promotes social and economic justice. “Now you need them to go to institutions to get tested or get care? They’re not going to do it because there’s too much fear.”

As of July 2, only about 6 percent of the population in Monterey County had been tested, with nearly 7 percent of those tests coming back positive.

Undocumented workers, who account for more than half of California farmworkers — there are an estimated 90,000 undocumented workers in the Monterey Bay Area alone — don’t want to register for testing because they have to provide their name, address and telephone number, said Max Cuevas, a coalition adviser and the executive director of Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas.

Hester Parker,  one of the coalition organizers, calls Eskenazi the “glue” that holds the group together.

So Líderes Campesinas has been helping the coalition get doctors out to fields to speak with farmworkers directly.

The visits helped build trust and alleviate fear of retaliation among farmworkers, said Islas. The doctors explained that workers can get free testing and medical help regardless of citizenship status. “It makes you feel more confident about being safe and that you won’t end up with a huge bill,” she said.

Yet getting these messages to tens of thousands of workers remains an ongoing challenge. The $500 in Covid-19 relief California offered to undocumented immigrants last month was welcome, but it’s hardly enough. Monterey County has some of the most expensive real estate in the country, Cadenas said. “How are they going to pay the rent when they are unemployed and have no savings?”

Although these workers are eligible for state disability insurance, many don’t know that because they speak only Indigenous languages or can’t read the informational leaflets. The coalition is distributing infographics with minimal text at worksites, and trying to translate materials for broadcast on Indigenous radio programs.

“Every Monday meeting I keep saying, if I was undocumented and I was sick, I’m going to continue to work if I’m able because I’m already living on the edge,” said Eskenazi. “I don’t have enough money to feed my family, and you’re telling me if I’m sick, I can’t work.”

Quarantine housing

Farmworkers in Salinas and Watsonville, in Santa Cruz County to the north, harvest most of the nation’s lettuce and more fresh produce per acre than any other agricultural region in the country. But the great majority of those workers live in “substandard and overcrowded conditions,” according to a 2018 worker survey by the California Institute for Rural Studies, largely because they earn about $25,000 a year. To make rent in one of the most expensive regions of the country — Watsonville is 100 miles south of San Francisco — people often cut back on food or medicine, the survey found.

Most farmworker families live with other families, often subletting their living room or garage to unrelated workers during the harvest season, with multiple people sharing a bathroom — ideal conditions for the novel coronavirus to spread.

A woman who chose remain anonymous sits near Sherwood Hall, a quarantine housing site in Salinas, California, on July 3, 2020. The site is located near trailer homes and homeless encampments.

Making sure workers have a space to self-quarantine if they can’t do so at home has been a priority of the coalition. So far, both the county and GSA have come up with alternate sites to isolate people who’ve tested positive.

After several GSA members agreed to provide quarantine housing in mid-April, the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System said it would have its medical staff check in on workers to see if they need to go to the hospital, at no charge to the growers.  “Since we set up our housing in April, they have been calling and visiting daily with everyone we’ve housed,” said GSA’s Taylor-Silva.

As of July 5, GSA had provided quarantine housing, and three meals a day, for 150 agricultural workers, Taylor-Silva said. Monterey County has secured four “alternate housing sites,” which can shelter up to 200 Covid-19 positive patients who don’t need hospitalization. The county has housed 230 people since the program launched at the end of April.

Yet it’s still unclear, even now, how many farmworkers have Covid-19 but aren’t seeking medical care, Moreno said.

Dr. Pedro Moreno, one of the coalition organizers, acknowledges that the group has ‘a long way to go.’

Ensuring farmworker safety ultimately depends on determining the true prevalence of Covid-19 among workers and identifying the best predictors of contracting the virus, said Eskenazi. “We believe there is a lot of silent disease out there,” she said. “But I don’t know to what extent until I do the research.”

Eskenazi plans to recruit 5,000 farmworkers to compare the efficacy of saliva tests to oral pharyngeal swabs (which unlike nasal swabs, the most common way of testing for the virus, can be done without training), with an eye toward developing home test kits. “If saliva is as good if not better, then it’ll be a lot easier for us to do home testing in the future, because people could just spit into something.”

The study should help determine the relative risks of working outside in fields compared to working inside, say, in a packing shed.

When the coalition started, social distancing wasn’t practiced, no one was wearing masks, and no one knew what to do if a farmworker had symptoms of Covid-19. “There’s been so many things we’ve worked through together,” said CRLA’s Aaron Voit.

The coalition continues to grow, and now includes public officials from Santa Cruz, Fresno and Ventura counties — all major agricultural areas.

For Moreno, the coalition has provided a way for everyone to get out of their silos and coordinate care for farmworkers. “Are we doing better than we were a few months ago? Yes, we are. Do we have a long way to go? Yes, we do.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that undocumented workers are eligible for state unemployment insurance in California.

Lead image: Farmworkers, clad in personal protective gear, prepare to harvest romaine lettuce in Salinas, California, on July 2, 2020. It took two letters from the MC-COA coalition before the state provided PPE for farmworkers.

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