farmworkers pick crops in a field

Essential Workers Are Being Treated as Expendable

Farmworkers risk their lives so Americans can eat, but they receive little protection from the virus.

When Luis went to work in the fields of California’s Salinas Valley over the past few weeks, he noticed a clear divide: His supervisors and crew leaders were wearing masks; his fellow farmworkers were not.

Luis, who requested I not use his real name, is one of the nearly 2.5 million farmworkers in the United States—and one of about 400,000 in California. Without the work that Luis and others do in fields, packing houses, warehouses, and processing plants all over this country, the American food system would collapse. Luis and other farmworkers know they are essential workers. But with little protection from the federal government and employers, many of them feel that they’re treated as expendable.

Farmworkers, top, pick, sort, and pack broccoli along a conveyor system at a farm in the Salinas Valley, California. The United Farm Workers union says that many companies are not providing protection for their workers during the pandemic, despite state health guidelines.
March and April is peak harvesting season in the Salinas Valley.

Farmworkers in the U.S. were struggling long before the COVID-19 crisis, and the pandemic has heightened the paradoxes of their lives. The federal government needs them to keep working; it is peak harvest season in places such as the Salinas Valley, and strawberries and broccoli must be picked, packaged, and shipped. (These photos were taken at different farms across the region.) The State Department has even loosened visa restrictions to bring in more seasonal labor.

However, maintaining social distancing on the job is near-impossible for farmworkers, especially in packing houses and the shared buses and carpools that many must take to the fields—and most farmworkers are not given personal protective gear. Luis works under a United Farm Workers union contract for D’Arrigo Brothers, a large vegetable grower known for its Andy Boy–brand broccoli. He said that, before this week, the company was only giving masks to supervisors. When he recently asked a boss if he and his fellow farmworkers could get masks too, the man told him he would have to buy them himself.

Many farmworkers wore bandanas to protect themselves from dust, pesticides, and the sun before the pandemic. These coverings have taken on another purpose now.

His supervisor’s response was especially frustrating because the company had already donated protective equipment and food to other organizations. “But they can’t even spend a few cents on a mask for their own workers,” Luis told me through a translator last weekend. (In a follow-up conversation on Wednesday, after I contacted D’Arrigo Brothers to ask about the masks, Luis said that the company had finally given them masks and was encouraging social distancing.)

In an email, a representative for D’Arrigo Brothers did not respond to questions about whether workers had been given personal protective gear, but said that the company works closely with the UFW union to “protect the health and well-being of our valued employees.” A union representative said that the masks D’Arrigo Brothers donated were N95s intended for medical workers, and that the company had ordered thousands of masks for its workers. He added, though, that most companies had taken no steps toward providing protective equipment, and that some were even requiring workers to bring their own masks or risk being sent home.

A man in Watsonville, California, left, waits to be called into the field during berry season. Workers pick strawberries in Salinas, right.
Farmworkers work closely together in the strawberry fields, making social distancing practically impossible.

The federal relief bill passed in late March allocated as much as $23.5 billion to the agricultural industry, after lobbying from big corporate farmers. The Agriculture Department has broad discretion to decide how to allocate the funds, and—according to Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of California’s nonprofit UFW Foundation, a sister organization of the UFW union—no part of those funds was promised to workers. “Given that they are the backbone of the industry, that is completely unacceptable,” she told me. “That funding should be utilized to make sure that farmworkers aren’t being furloughed, that farmworkers are being provided sick leave, that they are getting the hazard pay they deserve given that they are putting their lives out there. They do not have the luxury to shelter in place.”

Farmworker advocates say that most workers will never receive a $1,200 relief check from the government because many are undocumented, or in the U.S. on specialized visas. Even those covered by union contracts may not get hazard pay. And although California mandated paid sick leave for food-sector workers last week, many other states have not.

The Department of Labor has found that about 50 percent of farmworkers are undocumented—although some estimates are closer to 70 percent—and that 65 percent have no health insurance. Many farms also rely on temporary agricultural workers who enter the country on H-2A visas, seasonal permits that tether laborers to their employers, must be renewed every year, and offer no path to residency or citizenship. H-2A recipients now make up about 10 percent of farmworkers and have become so crucial to American food systems that federal officials waived the interview requirement for some applicants last month, after agricultural-industry representatives complained that the closure of U.S. consulates in Mexico, due to the coronavirus, was creating a bottleneck in processing visas that would result in labor shortages.

A sign, featuring a worker carrying an irrigation line, boasts of this area’s contributions to the country. Nearly 400,000 people work in California’s farms.

Although Trump tweeted on Monday night that he would issue an executive order temporarily suspending immigration, it is not expected to keep out farmworkers; in fact, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed earlier this week that it would continue fast-tracking H-2A applicants to keep migrant farmworkers in the United States.

Stay-at-home orders forced some farmworkers to quit their jobs to care for their children. This economic hardship makes paying rent and buying groceries difficult, so some have turned to food banks, left, in Seaside, California, as well as free meals from school, right.
More than 50 percent of the country’s farmworkers are undocumented, which disqualifies them from government assistance. An undocumented farmworker picks up food from the United Farm Workers Foundation food bank in Salinas Valley.

Many farmworkers already live precarious lives and are more vulnerable to mental-health issues and injury, Dr. Pedro Moreno, a family physician in Salinas who has been working with farmworkers for decades, told me. He has seen how hard labor and often crowded, unstable living conditions saddle his patients with back pain, hypertension, and lung disease, among many other chronic conditions. Anxiety and depression are rampant, and the current situation is making it worse. “There are three pandemics right now,” said Moreno. “The pandemic of COVID-19, the pandemic of poverty, and the pandemic of fear.”

A mother, along with her three children and partner, lives in company-owned affordable housing, but is now facing eviction.
“The contradiction here with both state government and federal government historically is that farmworkers are excluded from many of the protections that other workers have,” said Torres of the UFW Foundation. “And yet, they are the individuals who provide our food security in this country. That irony is being exacerbated now.”

Luis has been a farmworker in California for more than 30 years. He knows that the country needs his labor, and that the labor farmworkers do makes millions of dollars for big growers. He wants all companies to take care of their employees by giving them proper masks. More than anything, though, he wants his undocumented colleagues and those on H-2A visas to have the same protections as others. They deserve stability, he said, and a path to residency.

“We do a very difficult job,” he said about all farmworkers. “We’re bringing regular people vegetables that they get to enjoy with their families—while we work hard, risking our lives.”