Farmworkers in San Juan Bautista. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Farmworkers in San Juan Bautista. Photo by Robert Eliason.

State Assemblyman Robert Rivas gave a recent joint press conference with District 56 Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia that focused on farmworker vulnerabilities and called for immediate action on their COVID-19 Farmworker Relief Package awaiting a vote in the state Senate.

“I wish I could say that the situation for farmworkers had improved in this pandemic since we introduced this package, but it hasn’t,” said Rivas, who represents the 30th State Assembly District that includes San Benito County. “It seems like every day there is a new story about outbreaks across our state. It is absolutely clear that more must be done.”

The legislation, as discussed in a recent Benitolink report, addresses agricultural workplace health and safety, expansion of farmworker housing assistance credits, and increased access to electronic legal and health services.

The package was later expanded to include a revival of Assembly Bill 1248, which hopes to address the current overall loss in sales of produce. It calls for state-owned or state-run institutions to purchase California-grown agricultural products when they are offered as the lowest bid or within 5% of the lowest bid.  

Farmworker housing remains a critical issue as well. As part of the package, Rivas and Garcia have also called for a $25 million expansion of the California farmworker housing assistance tax credit.

Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, director of Cal Ag Roots who also participated in the press conference, introduced a just completed study showing how critical the issues have become. Cal Ag Roots is a project of the California Institute for Rural Studies.

Carlisle-Cummins called the loss of wages or jobs one of the greatest negative side effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We found that some of the longstanding vulnerabilities as far as health and housing are really being exacerbated by COVID-19,” she said. “For example, 46% of workers we talked to reported decreased farm work time, related in part to the collapse of retail and foodservice industries and decreased demand.”

According to the study, those factors led to an overall decrease of 23% in agricultural employment in California—over 111,000 jobs lost—and a 39% decrease in local employment, centering around Monterey County.

Besides facing unemployment, the study showed that farmworkers are three times more likely to become infected with the virus than non-agricultural workers, with around 46% of worksites still not providing proper personal protective equipment.

Farmworkers in need of healthcare is one of the issues the bill package is working to address.

“In the study, we report that 54% of the people we talked to reported costs, lack of insurance, and lack of sick pay as major barriers to getting health care,” said Carlisle-Cummins. “Twenty-four percent of the workers cited fear as a reason they did not seek healthcare. And when you dig into that number, it’s not fear of being diagnosed with COVID infection, but fear of the government.”

In California, the study points out, as many as 60% of farmworkers are undocumented and subject to deportation.  

On a positive note, the study reported that farmworkers have a strong awareness of personal hygiene as it relates to the virus.

“We found that 90% of workers are telling us they are taking every precaution before going home to not bring COVID-19 into their households,” said Carlisle-Cummins. “They are observing social distancing, not going to family gatherings, not sending their children to daycare or school. While we have heard some narratives about the spread of the virus, farmworkers at this moment are doing everything they can, including providing their own personal protective equipment.”

While the study concludes that 93% of farmworkers are using masks on the job, only 54% of job sites provide any kind of masks or face coverings. To make matters worse, some workers travel in vans and buses or carpool with other workers to get to and from job sites, not only breaking social distancing protocols but allowing the virus to migrate with them.

The study was based on phone surveys of over 900 farmworkers conducted by six different community organizations. While focused primarily on the San Joaquin Valley, roughly 20% of the workers were in regions in or near San Benito County.   

With increasing unemployment, the higher likelihood of ag workers becoming infected, fewer choices in health care, and overcrowded living conditions pushing the agriculture industry to the breaking point, Rivas said the time to act has come.

“These workers keep food on our tables,” Rivas said. “They keep our grocery stores stocked.  And the urgency of this crisis increases every single day.”


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