Earthbound Farms in San Juan Bautista recently started the first round of an ongoing COVID-19 vaccination campaign directed toward food and agriculture workers. The two-day drive vaccinated about 250 people on Feb. 25-26. Safeway Pharmacy handled inoculations, with help from employees of Earthbound Farms and the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.
Partnering with San Benito County, Grower-Shipper receives a list of people who have registered through the county’s vaccination interest portal and fit the criteria of essential farm and food workers.
“Where possible we work through the employer,” said Christopher Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association. “For example, Dobler & Sons has about 10 people working for them who qualify, so we asked them for their help to see if their employees were still interested and whether they had been vaccinated through another outlet. The employer can also identify people actively at risk. Then we work to get the individuals over here to get their appointment time.”
Employers are free to recommend both actively employed workers and those who may not be employed because their work is in the off-season. For Valadez, getting workers vaccinated as early as possible will be critical.
“We will be hitting our peak period starting around June,” Valadez said. “So for us, the priority—the only priority—is getting as many people vaccinated as we can before that time when there will be a greater agricultural intensity. The risk of getting the virus is a lot higher then, because of that intensity.”
COVID-19 has been of particular concern for Earthbound Farms and its parent company, Taylor Farms, ever since an employee reported testing positive on May 3. In a statement released at the time, a spokesperson reported that they had asked several employees who might have come into contact with the sick worker to self-quarantine, offering them paid sick leave.
Jerrett Stoffel, senior vice president of Taylor Farms, said he wants 100% of the agricultural workforce in the county vaccinated, which amounts to thousands of people.
“When this opportunity came, we were happy to help,” Stoffel said. “Our employees are the lifeblood of the food industry. This is a group that has worked through the entire pandemic and they deserve to be vaccinated as soon as it was possible. But to us, vaccinating 250 people is just the tip of the sword. We are trying to put the resources in place to facilitate more.”
Valadez said it was not only the right time for agricultural workers to join in the vaccination line, but that it was vital to put them at the front of the line.
“It’s about time for this to happen,” he said. “Here we are in the midst of this pandemic and we have asked folks in the essential sectors to keep their shops going, keep their restaurants open, and in the agriculture industry to keep on producing food. Yet we have struggled to put the appropriate resources in place to make sure they can remain as healthy as possible.”
For Valadez, the continuity of work and lack of disruption in the food supply are symbols of the importance of farm and agricultural workers.
“Outside of the first few weeks of the shutdown, when you had panic buying, you have never really seen shortages of produce and food,” Valadez said. “And that is because agricultural workers kept to their jobs. It raises the question to anyone who doesn’t see it, ‘What is it that you need to see before you realize how important they are?’”
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