Undocumented Farmworkers Are Refusing Covid Tests for Fear of Losing Their Jobs

Michelle Fawcett and Arun Gupta June 19, 2020

Migrant farmworkers in Greenfield, Calif., where Fresh Harvest has been implementing safety precautions to protect against Covid-19 infections. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

As states reopen for busi­ness, the coro­n­avirus is explod­ing among Amer­i­ca’s 2.5 mil­lion farm­work­ers, imper­il­ing efforts to con­tain the spread of the dis­ease and keep food on the shelves just as peak har­vest gets underway.

The fig­ures are stark. The num­ber of Covid-19 cas­es tripled in Lanier Coun­ty, Ga., after one day of test­ing farm­work­ers. All 200 work­ers on a sin­gle farm in Evensville, Tenn., test­ed pos­i­tive. Yaki­ma Coun­ty, Wash., the site of recent farm­work­er strikes at apple-pack­ing facil­i­ties, now boasts the high­est per capi­ta infec­tion rate on the West Coast. Among migrant work­ers in Immokalee, Fla.—who just fin­ished pick­ing toma­toes and are on their way north to har­vest oth­er crops — 1,000 peo­ple are infected.

The grow­ing num­bers reflect the lack of safe­ty guide­lines for work­ers who labor shoul­der to shoul­der in the fields, trav­el side by side in vans, and sleep by the dozens in bunks and bar­racks. On June 2, the CDC and OSHA announced rec­om­men­da­tions to help pro­tect agri­cul­tur­al work­ers, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia. But there is still no nation­al­ly coor­di­nat­ed, manda­to­ry response or track­ing of the dis­ease among farmworkers. 

The spike in cas­es is, in part, a result of increased test­ing. But that points to a new dan­ger emerg­ing that could make out­breaks even hard­er to con­tain: Some farm­work­ers are refus­ing to be test­ed for Covid-19.

Eva Galvez is a physi­cian at the Vir­ginia Gar­cia Memo­r­i­al Health Cen­ter, a clin­ic that serves 52,000 most­ly Lati­no patients in the agri­cul­tur­al regions that cra­dle Port­land, Ore. When the clin­ic dis­cov­ered in April that Lati­nos were test­ing pos­i­tive for Covid-19 at twen­ty times the rate of oth­er patients, Galvez pin­point­ed farm­work­er com­mu­ni­ties as one of the hotspots. So she worked with the Ore­gon Law Cen­ter to secure statewide hygiene and social dis­tanc­ing rules. (The rules are set to expire Octo­ber 24.) Pro­vi­sions include enhanc­ing safe­ty in employ­er-pro­vid­ed hous­ing, which In These Times has found is fuel­ing out­breaks among farm­work­ers nationwide. 

But Galvez has oth­er wor­ries now. Although our clin­ic has plen­ty of capac­i­ty to test, many peo­ple won’t want to be test­ed,” she says. Because if they’re pos­i­tive they can’t go to work.”

The virus is a scar­let let­ter,” says Rey­na Lopez, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste (PCUN). The 7,000-member farm­work­er union is based in Mar­i­on Coun­ty, Ore., which ranks third in the state for coro­n­avirus cas­es per capita.

Not only is there no paid leave [if you can’t work], but no job,” Lopez says. That tells farm­work­ers they don’t have an incen­tive to tell peo­ple that they are feel­ing sick. The biggest fear is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the virus itself; it’s [not] being able to pro­vide for family.” 

It is an unde­ni­able cri­sis. But Amer­i­ca is reap­ing what it has sown. Decades of anti-immi­grant poli­cies will make the coro­n­avirus extra­or­di­nar­i­ly dif­fi­cult to con­tain for a vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion which has been forced deep in the shadows. 

As work­ers in an indus­try with few unions, a lack of basic work­er pro­tec­tions, and a work­force that is esti­mat­ed to be at least 48% undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, farm­work­ers have many rea­sons to fear los­ing their jobs. Most lack health insur­ance, sick leave, unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, and legal sta­tus, and they sup­port extend­ed fam­i­lies here and abroad on pover­ty wages. Test­ing and social dis­tanc­ing guide­lines may help pre­vent ill­ness, but can­not pre­vent job loss. Per­son­al pro­tec­tion is no sub­sti­tute for social protections.

Trump admin­is­tra­tion poli­cies have exac­er­bat­ed the sit­u­a­tion. Irene de Bar­raicua of Líderes Campesinas, a Cal­i­for­nia-based farm­work­er orga­ni­za­tion for women, says some farm­work­ers are not seek­ing health care because of the pub­lic charge” rule that threat­ens to deny green cards to those who rely on pub­lic ser­vices. H2A work­ers, who com­prise over a quar­ter mil­lion work­ers whose tem­po­rary visas are tied to their employ­ers, could be deport­ed if they lose their jobs. Even the essen­tial work­er” let­ters that some farm­ers pro­vid­ed to undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers to show ICE in the hope of pre­vent­ing arrests dur­ing the pan­dem­ic have back­fired, Irene says.Workers inter­pret­ed the let­ter as a sign that raids would increase.

Now the coro­n­avirus has upend­ed agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion in ways that fur­ther threat­en jobs. 

The Sali­nas Val­ley in Cal­i­for­nia is nick­named America’s Sal­ad Bowl” for its 1.4 mil­lion acres of farm­land that grow every­thing from arti­chokes to zuc­chi­ni. But this year let­tuce, straw­ber­ries, cau­li­flower, and spinach are rot­ting in fields as agribusi­ness­es unable to piv­ot from insti­tu­tion­al to con­sumer sales cut their loss­es by cut­ting workers.

Sinthia, 40, whose last name is being with­held to pro­tect her­self, her fam­i­ly and her job, is from Gua­na­ju­a­to, Mex­i­co, and sup­ports two chil­dren, her moth­er, a quadraplegic sis­ter, and a broth­er who is deaf, mute and blind. Before Covid-19, Sinthia, who is a mem­ber of Líderes Campesinas, packed box­es of broc­coli for up to 62 hours a week in Mon­terey Coun­ty. Now her hours have been sliced in half. The restau­rants and schools that pur­chased pro­duce from her employ­er, PGM Pack­ing, are shut­tered due to the coro­n­avirus. There is no mar­ket, no place to sell, no orders,” Sinthia says.

One hun­dred miles to the south­east, it is the work­force that has been halved at a vine­yard in Kern Coun­ty, where Pao­la, 30, works. Twen­ty of 40 work­ers were fired in order to meet social dis­tanc­ing guide­lines. There is more pres­sure to get the work done now,” Pao­la says. A for­mer teacher from Sinaloa, Mex­i­co, Pao­la says her pay is the same but her expens­es have increased. Her two school-aged chil­dren eat all their meals at home now and she has to sup­port her recent­ly unem­ployed par­ents. Out of fear of infect­ing them, Pao­la quit her sec­ond, night-shift job at a pis­ta­chio pack­ing facil­i­ty when a co-work­er test­ed pos­i­tive. It was wor­ri­some, scary, stress­ful,” Pao­la says.

It’s a very des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion. They don’t have food. Many are being laid off,” says de Bar­raicua . Farm­ers are decid­ing to let their crops rot. They’re also let­ting the work­ers rot.”

Farm­work­ers also fear they could be stig­ma­tized by co-work­ers and that boss­es could fire their entire crew, which often includes fam­i­ly and friends from their hometown. 

We are hear­ing from advo­cates that work­ers would enter death pacts’ where if they become sick they keep it to them­selves because the entire camp will shut down,” says Lori John­son, man­ag­ing attor­ney at the farm­work­er unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina. 

Rebe­ca Velazquez is a for­mer farm­work­er and an orga­niz­er with Mujeres Luchadores Pro­gre­sis­tas, an orga­ni­za­tion for women farm­work­ers based in Wood­burn, Ore. One mem­ber, she says, was hav­ing a cough­ing fit at work when the own­er of the farm walked by and told her to leave. Her super­vi­sor said she need­ed to get test­ed for Covid-19. Two days lat­er he told her not to both­er: the entire crew of 30 work­ers had been laid off because of her. Anoth­er woman, Rebe­ca says, was shunned by co-work­ers upon return­ing to the work­place after being very ill with Covid-19. She left to work else­where and is keep­ing her ill­ness a secret out of fear of discrimination.

Luis Jimenez, 38, a dairy work­er in Avon, New York, says work­ers are in a bind. They have been told if they get sick and don’t say any­thing they will get fired. But if they do say some­thing they may still lose their job. The [boss­es] don’t have a plan if work­ers get infect­ed,” says Luis. No plan to quar­an­tine, no plan to feed them, no plan to take them to the hospital.” 

An explo­sion in cas­es among vul­ner­a­ble farm­work­ers could over­whelm rur­al health­care facil­i­ties and threat­en the nation­al food sup­ply. The thin plas­tic line now sep­a­rat­ing work­ers in the fields is not enough to halt a pan­dem­ic or cure a dis­eased sys­tem. Increased pro­tec­tions for work­ers — includ­ing paid sick leave, unem­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion, and afford­able hous­ing and health­care — are essen­tial if the spread of Covid-19 is to be curbed.

We don’t want to be called essen­tial.” Sinthia says. Show us with proof that we are essen­tial. We need bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions, a bet­ter life.”

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