Carrots are picked near Arvin, Calif., Aug. 20, 2020. (Brian L. Frank/The New York Times)
Date: December 23, 2020
The impacts of the COVID-19 virus have deepened disparities, worsened health outcomes, and sacrificed the safety of the farmworkers that grow our food in the US. Policies that have been put in place are not often enforceable and rely on employers and the state to implement safety measures that address health holistically including measures for housing, transportation, and working conditions. Farmworkers have to continue to go to work despite fears of infection in order to retain their jobs, avoid evictions, and keep dinner on their own table. The impacts of COVID-19 are compounded by exposure to dangerous air quality from wildfires in places like California where 90% of farmworkers are immigrants that produce 1/3 of our vegetables and 2/3 of our fruits and nuts.
The COVID-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) has put together a social media campaign after conducting surveys among farmworkers across three states– California, Oregon, and Washington. This campaign raises awareness of the multitude of issues facing migrant farmworkers from access to sanitation materials to support for child-care. See some of the key issues this in-depth qualitative study has raised in addition to the work of many other scholars, advocates, and practitioners.
Safety Infrastructure. There are inadequate safety measures in place for farmworkers including the ability to social distance, access to hygiene stations, access to personal protective equipment (PPE), and lack of safety instructions given in Indigenous languages or with visuals. A study from University of California, Berkeley found that those that spoke only an Indigenous language had much higher infection rates that those that spoke only Spanish or some English. The study also found that due to communal living, on-farm inability to distance, and the high rate of infected farmworkers continuing to go to work with and without symptoms due to fear of job loss, farmworkers have much higher rates of infection.
Impacts on Families. There are many negative impacts to families. Childcare has become inaccessible and women have to leave work to fill this gap, resulting in less income for families. Furthermore, distanced learning is especially hard for families who may not have a computer or access to strong enough wifi for their children to engage in school like their peers. Even when there is access to the appropriate technology, there are language barriers for instructions all given in English online. Here in Washtenaw County, Southeast Michigan Migrant Resource Council (SEMMRC) and Washtenaw Solidarity with Farmworkers (WSF) are working to install internet at farmworker camps, which you can learn more about and support here. Additionally, food insecurity is rampant, wherein 70% of farmworkers report having difficulties paying for food for themselves and their families.
Compounding Financial & Health Burdens. Financial losses and stress have resulted as well, with 52% of farmworkers surveyed having lost work and income. Employers often do not provide paid sick leave, and many families have to choose between food and housing, then facing threat of eviction. Benfer et al. (2020) found that eviction can then lead to increased spread of COVID-19. This consequence of eviction and the longterm health impacts are recognized by the CDC, seen in their moratorium on evictions through the end of the year. However, it puts the burden on tenants to file paperwork and many landlords are able to bypass this recommendation. In addition, mental health issues arise from this copious amount of stress surrounding, health, safety, food insecurity, and finances.
Presence of fear and mistrust that make accessing healthcare and other social programs impossible. There is mistrust of employers because there is sparse communication about co-workers who have tested positive. You can see here where COVID-19 cases are arising. There is also a fear of the US government upon entry to hospitals, wherein 13% of farmworkers surveyed do utilize healthcare due to this fear.
The COFS campaign is also urging people to take a few minutes and call their congressional leaders to demand better working conditions. The COFS researchers hope this study will lead to more studies funded that tackle these issues and more resources for farmworkers. Though this campaign is garnering attention around this religious holiday season, this is an issue all year round.
The researchers of the study explain why these members of our society inordinately need our support now and into the future:
While all essential workers put themselves at risk when they show up for work during the COVID-19 pandemic, farmworkers face additional risks because they lack critical social safety net support afforded to other members of society. But farmworkers need us to do more than just identify disparities and risks. We must take action and allocate resources to keep farmworkers, their families, and our communities healthy so they are able to continue their frontline work.
This is a brief overview of many of the issues faced by those that grow our food every single day. You can read more about the COFS study here. For further reading, Disparity to Parity just launched this month and is a collective of practitioners and researchers working on issues affecting small-scale farmers and farmworkers. For a rich exploration of the identity transition from migrant farmworkers to farm owners in the US, The New American Farmer by Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern.