COVID-19 and America’s Hired Farmworkers
United Church of Christ – Wider Church Ministries
Humanitarian Development Team
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Daily Briefing
Barbara T. Baylor, MPH – Temporary Health Liaison
COVID-19 and America’s Hired Farmworkers
Advocacy Action Opportunity Below: Protect Immokalee, Fla., Farmworkers
America’s 2.5 million hired farmworkers – the people who harvest the food that goes on our tables – constitute yet another group of mostly brown or Black people considered “essential workers” yet treated as expendable by state and federal officials in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Take Florida, for example. Florida is among states where daily caseloads of coronavirus are increasing sharply. Florida’s Phase 1 reopening of the state began May 18, followed by more openings in Phase 2, which began June 5. On Thursday, June 25, the Florida Department of Health reported 5,004 new cases of COVID-19 (5,508 on Wednesday). Of the nearly 110,000 COVID-19 cases confirmed since March, nearly 30 percent have been reported in the last 10 days, the Miami Herald reported Thursday.
Whom has Florida Governor Ron DeSantis singled out for driving the increase? Farmworkers! During a June 16 press conference, he described farmworkers’ poor working conditions and close quarters. He went on:
“Once one (farmworker) gets it (COVID-19), it tends to spread very rapidly throughout those areas,” DeSantis has said. “You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public if you have an outbreak.”
This mindset is shameful! It strips farmworkers of human dignity, promotes poor health and reduces social well-being. Florida’s Department of Agriculture said DeSantis was wrong, and that the state’s upsurge in COVID-19 cases is evident in multiple populations.
Not to diminish the particular danger of COVID-19 to farmworker communities. While farmworkers are not mostly responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak in Florida, they are unjustly highly vulnerable.
Let’s look at COVID-19 through the eyes of hired farmworkers.
“Hired farmworkers” include migrant, seasonal, year-round and guest program workers and those from the federal H2A visa program, according to the Migrant Clinicians Network. Roughly half of hired crop farmworkers lack legal immigration status, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most come from Mexico and Latin America through key entry points such as southern California, and go further by bus, often for hours, sometimes for days.
There are approximately 25,000 farmworkers based in Immokalee, Fla., and other farmworker communities around the state of Florida. They are designated as essential workers, but they can’t afford to get sick by going to work, and they can’t afford to lose their jobs by not working. They toil, protected by little more than hope. Sources report a sizeable cluster of cases in the agricultural community of Immokalee.
These farmworkers’ dilemma is simple. They have historically endured overcrowded living and working conditions for generations – ideal conditions for the rapid and devastating spread of the COVID-19 virus. Two of the most promising measures for protecting oneself from the virus and preventing its spread – social distancing and self-isolation – are effectively impossible in farmworker communities.
Farmworkers have never had adequate access to healthcare. Even before COVID-19, there were no hospital beds in Immokalee: no ventilators, no intensive care units, no medical professionals trained to staff them.
Worker groups say state officials and growers were slow to respond to the COVID-19 threat and did not move until fairly recently to ramp up testing. It wasn’t until May 3 – a full month after the urgent The New York Times op-ed that launched the campaign – that testing started in Immokalee. And even then, it was only a three-day burst of testing, not the steady, committed, accessible process necessary to get a true measure of the virus’s grip on the community.
Kristine Hollingsworth, spokeswoman for the county’s health department, said officials have had problems in ramping up testing and contacting workers with their test results – in part because many workers don’t have primary healthcare providers. Others are undocumented and fearful of giving out contact details, despite assurances from county officials they won’t be deported.
Sandra Murillo, media relations director for the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, says that language barriers, transportation problems and long workdays have stymied some workers from getting tested. Further, she says many can’t afford to take a day off to visit a clinic.
Farmworkers’ dilemma is similar to that of workers in meatpacking plants. When the virus spread among America’s meat workers, plants were forced to shutter as infections rates topped 50 percent in some facilities. Both meat and produce workers often work shoulder to shoulder. They may be transported to and from job sites in crowded buses or vans. They often come from low-income families and can’t afford to call in sick or are afraid of losing their jobs, so they end up showing up to work even if they have symptoms.
The U.S. must urgently create rules to protect farmworkers. Democratic Representative Jimmy Panetta of California and 71 other members of Congress have urged in a May 22 letter that the next coronavirus relief package include funding dedicated to combating spread of the virus among farmworkers.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has questioned why the response by state and local political leaders and public health officials to the novel coronavirus in Immokalee has been so slow, and passive. The final story of the COVID-19 pandemic in Immokalee remains to be written.
The fall will bring the return to Immokalee of farmworkers from the summer season up north, swelling the town’s population again and filling its overcrowded housing and buses with essential workers tasked with keeping fresh fruits and vegetables on our tables. What is needed now is ACTION!
The petition urges Florida’s Governor DeSantis to take immediate steps direct testing resources and health services, including establishment of a field hospital, in Immokalee, before it is too late. The logic is simple: If we as a society are demanding that farmworkers continue to work during the pandemic, the least we can do for farmworkers is help ensure they can protect themselves – and that they have the necessary medical support for those who fall ill.
Please add your voice – and that of every friend, family member, and colleague you can muster – to send a clear message to Governor DeSantis that you stand with farmworkers as this terrible crisis looms.
Editor’s Note: Next week, this column will go from its current three to two times a week to make way for more work on racial and ethnic disparities and resources for emotional and spiritual care during the pandemic.