New study adds to mounting evidence that farmworkers suffer higher rates of Covid-19

The rate of Covid-19 infection among farmworkers in California’s Salinas Valley was four times higher than in the rest of the local population, according to a new study published by JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.

Based on a survey of more than a thousand workers done between July and November 2020, the study described a strong correlation between high rates of infection and the conditions farmworkers face in their day-to-day lives, including overcrowded housing and a lack of workplace benefits like paid medical leave. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed said they had worked alongside someone with Covid symptoms or who was known to be infected.

In many ways, the study’s findings confirm what labor advocates have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic. In June 2020, leaders of the United Farm Workers, the largest union for agricultural workers, issued a statement calling for paid sick leave, saying farmworkers were uniquely vulnerable “because they often must live, commute, and work in cramped, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions.”

The findings might also help explain earlier research that found food and agricultural workers in California had the highest rate of “excess mortality” during the peak of the pandemic, with a 39 percent increase in mortality compared to past years. Among Latino food and agricultural workers, the rate was even higher, at 59 percent. According to FERN’s own data analysis, there have been nearly 14,000 cases of Covid-19 among farmworkers. However, because this population tends to be migratory and because a large percentage of farmworkers are undocumented, many cases have gone unreported and the true number is likely much higher.

Interestingly, the JAMA study also found that people who worked outside in the fields had a greater risk of infection than those in other agricultural work settings, like a packing house. While indoor exposure is still thought to carry a greater risk of transmission, the study’s authors point to the lower socioeconomic status of field workers as a likely explanation. This may also explain why infection rates were especially high among workers with little formal education and who spoke Indigenous languages.

As new variants of the virus continue to spread, findings from the study could inform best practices for employers. Almost all the workers surveyed reported wearing masks at work and having access to sanitation supplies, and said their employers shared information on the virus. However, only about half said they were screened for symptoms, including temperature checks, each day. The study found that workers who were screened had a 21 percent lower risk of infection.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based worker advocacy group Farmworker Justice, many states still have not issued effective and enforceable Covid-19 safety standards, like daily screenings, that can protect farmworkers.

The study urged rapid vaccinations for all farmworkers. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prioritized this population in early 2021, farmworkers may still face such obstacles as transportation, language barriers and concerns about immigration status, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health.