On July 24, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an executive order aimed at helping workers in general and agricultural workers in particular with some of the tools they need to fight the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Measures include targeting high-risk workplaces to provide better worker education on personal safety measures, stronger guidance on workplace compliance to reduce worker risk, increased enforcement of state health mandates, a public awareness campaign to support breaking the spread of the disease, and a program which will provide temporary housing for workers who need to self-isolate.
As reported in a recent BenitoLink article, some of these measures have been moving through the legislative process. However, Newsom deemed these important enough to enact through executive order while the state Senate was still considering the bills.
Should the bills be enacted, they will replace or amplify the executive order.
The most far-reaching measure in the order is the “Housing for the Harvest” program, which will allow qualifying agricultural workers to self-isolate in hotel rooms booked by the state in participating counties for up to 14 days. It expands on an existing program, Project Roomkey, which provides shelter for homeless COVID-19 patients.
After verifying eligibility, the state will book the rooms, provide transportation, meals, and wellness checks, and collect data as required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. To qualify, applicants have to be working in California food processing or agriculture, have tested positive for the coronavirus or documented as having been exposed, and be unable to self-isolate at home.
Several recently proposed legislative bills to help with the immediate needs of farmworkers did not move forward, including State Assemblyman Robert Rivas’ AB-3155 with its provision for low-income housing, though parts were incorporated in other bills.
Rivas represents the 30th State Assembly District, which includes San Benito County.
“We have seen the industry become very proactive in workplace protection,” Rivas said. “I believe it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that the industry has options when it comes to alleviating these conditions.”
Chris Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, was encouraged by Newsom’s actions.
“I think the programs that the governor ordered will be of great benefit to farmworkers all over California,” he said.
The association had already put into place a similar program for self-isolating, which has been running for the last three and a half months.
“The governor specifically identified the effort on behalf of the farming community in this region as the model for what he is now planning on taking statewide,” Valadez said. “We decided early on that we would work where we could, to help address the problems of the pandemic because we don’t really have the luxury to wait for the government to respond.”
Newsom pledged to support plans like the Grower-Shipper program with the use of federal funds in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 among workers who live in overcrowded or multi-generational homes.
According to Valadez, one of the biggest issues besides housing is testing. Again, Grower-Shipper has taken action by partnering with Clinica de Salud de Salinas by providing farmworkers with free COVID-19 testing and a two-day turnaround for results.
Asked what problem they would address if they could issue their own executive orders, both Rivas and Valadez said they would focus on the lack of affordable housing for farmworkers, which became a perennial problem long before the pandemic.
“At the moment there is no bill that further involves housing, but we are working on ways to address it because it is a dire problem,” Rivas said. “In Monterey County and San Benito County combined, one in 10 households is considered overcrowded and has an essential worker. That is the highest rate in California.”
Valadez believes the lack of housing cannot be separated from the ongoing challenges of COVID-19.
“The reason why we have our self-isolating housing program is that many of these workers live in crowded living conditions, so they can’t just go home without a chance of spreading the virus to family or a housemate,” he said. “The pandemic has made it clearer that additional attention needs to be placed onto housing and we should use this to work even harder to address the problem.”
Rivas believes the increasing awareness of farmworkers as endangered essential workers is leading to better treatment and might result in a call for legislative action. He cited a recent look at the agriculture industry, the PBS “Frontline” documentary “COVID’s Hidden Toll,” which he participated in.
“A lot of people in this country don’t understand how food is brought from field to market or understand how these people live or how they have had to endure under COVID-19,” Rivas said. “It gave us a chance to talk about what we were doing legislatively, but to also highlight some of these stories that are happening in our own backyard. I hope the message that gets taken away is that we need to do something and that it lights a fire under some of my colleagues.”
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