Over the next three months, tens of thousands of migrant farmworkers will converge on the Central Coast to do something deemed essential in the time of COVID-19, harvest our food. The speciality crops farmed locally, like strawberries and leafy greens, require a lot of hand labor. But the dramatic increase in population could trigger a surge in COVID-19 cases.
COVID-19 Cases Among Farmworkers Are Increasing
COVID-19 cases among farmworkers are already on the rise in Monterey County. As of May 9, agricultural workers made up 110 of the 279 positive cases in the county.
They are particularly susceptible to getting the coronavirus because of the conditions they live in. Some live in worker housing provided by employers for legal guest workers. But many others do not qualify.
“It is deplorable the way farmworkers live,” said California Assemblymember Robert Rivas. He represents the Central Coast.
“When you look at the living conditions of farmworkers here in the Salinas Valley, in San Benito, on the Pajaro Valley, families living in garages, tents, cars, abandoned buildings,” Rivas said.
Rivas is acutely aware of how ag workers live, because for the first 10 years of his life he lived in farmworker housing. He’s trying to push through legislation that will fast track temporary housing for workers.
The ag industry is responsible for about one out of every five jobs on the Central Coast, according to Henry Gonzales. He’s the Agricultural Commissioner for Monterey County.
“The one big dilemma that both the ag industry and the county has had is in not knowing how many farmworkers are going to get sick,” said Gonzales.
Monterey County Prepares For A Potential Surge
To prepare for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases, the county has set up four alternative housing sites. Each site could house up to 200 people with mild COVID-19 symptoms that can’t isolate themselves, like farm workers.
Currently, the county is using hotel rooms and trailers for quarantine and isolation for this population. The alternative housing sites are on standby for when they’re needed.
An alternative care site, different from the housing sites, is also being set up in a hanger at the Marina Airport. This location could house 350 hospital patients. It will act as an extension of local hospitals, after they have reached capacity.
However, some of those farmworkers are hard pressed to seek out this help. Especially those who are undocumented.
“And so they are reluctant to say anything about…anything. But in particular their health. They fear that they will end up being deported for having spoken to the government,” said Gonzales.
The agriculture workforce here in Monterey County is made up of different kinds of laborers. Those who live in the area year-round; H-2A visa holders or legal guest workers; and migrant farm workers.
The California Immigrant Policy Center estimates more than half of all ag workers on the Central Coast are undocumented.
These workers also don’t have the luxury to take time off if they fall ill.
“They may not have, not only medical benefits, but they may not have vacation pay. They may not have sick leave. And so the wages that they earn would be negatively impacted if they had to take time off,” said Gonzales.
So Gonzales and others are concerned that these workers might try to toughen it out and go to work, further spreading the virus to other farm workers.
Monterey County and ag industry groups released an advisory at the start of the coronavirus pandemic on ways to better protect workers. It included suggestions like social distancing, hand washing stations, and checking workers for symptoms. But this is all voluntary.
Gonzales says he’s been out to the fields to inspect what’s being followed.
“I have seen that they've adopted the practice of transporting the workers 10 per bus trip, which the buses can carry about 34 riders,” said Gonzales.
He’s also seen social distancing being practiced in the fields. The county also announced recently it will be handing out 750,000 face coverings to farm workers over the next few weeks. Even so, Gonzales says many workers have covered their faces for years.
"Workers have worn those bandanas for decades to cover their faces from the sun, from the dust. Any pesticide residues that might be floating in the air,” said Gonzales.
The local Grower-Shipper Association has partnered with local hospitals to educate farmworkers about the coronavirus. But to make things worse for some of these workers, their hours are being reduced right now.
“We have farms that have had to scale back, you know, where they don't have a buyer,” said Christopher Valadez, President of the Grower-Shipper Association.
He says retail demand is steady or increasing, but the industry is continuing to see a decline in food service business. Growers have had to make tough decisions about the crops in their fields.
“They've had to either leave it and disk it in, reincorporate it back into the soil,” said Valadez.
Peak Ag Season Is Still Around The Corner
The precarious situation farmworkers currently find themselves in is about to get a lot more crowded.
Henry Gonzales, the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner, says by July there will be around 60,000 ag workers on the Central Coast, peak season for the farming industry.
“We probably have more farmworkers per acre than any other county in the nation,” said Gonzales.
About half of those laborers will come from outside the county.
“That is when we will be most concerned because there's going to be the most people in that same amount of space that we have in housing units and in the fields,” Gonzales said.
And in the packing houses, in the processing units, and on the buses to and from work.
“Because of their living situation, because of some of their apprehensions, it could lead to a surge. And that's what we've been anticipating,” said Gonzales.
Will all these precautions and planning be enough to prevent a surge among these vulnerable and essential workers? That will be put to the test over the next few months.