Farmworkers deemed ‘essential,’ but still unprotected

Like firefighters and police officers, farmworkers have been deemed “critical infrastructure workers,” meaning they will stay on the job even as the pandemic grows. But despite their essential status and a persistent outcry from their advocates, many of their employers, as well as state and federal agencies, have so far failed to address their heightened risk, reports Esther Honig in FERN’s latest story. 

Honig writes: “In Immokalee, an agricultural hub in southwest Florida known as America’s “tomato capital,” thousands of farmworkers are busy during the peak of harvest season; many of the fresh tomatoes now in grocery stores — or being delivered to doorsteps— have passed through their hands.

“According to state health officials, between five and nine cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, have been reported in Immokalee. But even if that number can be trusted, given the lack of testing, it is almost certain to rise in the coming days and weeks. Immokalee is like ‘dry kindling,’ says Nely Rodriguez, a former farmworker who is now an organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights organization. 

“On April 3, the community spoke up. Greg Asbed, a founder of the Immokalee Coalition, published an op-ed in The New York Times in which he was blunt about what this lack of protection will mean: ‘[I]f something isn’t done — now — to address their unique vulnerability, the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery in a matter of weeks, if not days,’ he wrote. 

“That same day, the coalition sent a petition to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urging him to provide farmworkers with gloves and face masks, economic assistance for sick workers, free virus testing and a field hospital — there is not a single hospital bed in Immokalee and the closest facility is 40 minutes away. Many residents do not own cars.”