Maricruz Ladino spends long nights in a freezing lettuce cooler, inspecting and packaging pre-washed salad mixes. She usually starts her shift around 4 p.m., after the pickers are done in the fields, working until at least 2 or 3 in the morning.
“Imagine, what happens if one of us gets sick and we still have to work?” asked Ladino in Spanish. She worries about getting exposed to the coronavirus at the packing plant where she stands on a line only about a foot apart from other workers. They come into even closer contact when passing off packages.
Although farming and food production are considered “essential businesses” exempt from California’s statewide shelter-in-place order, agricultural employers are having a hard time navigating guidance from public health officials on how to keep workers safe.
Ladino said her boss held a meeting recently to remind workers to wash their hands more frequently. They need to wear gloves and a hair net as usual, but now they’re also wearing masks over their noses and mouths. Ladino said the truck drivers who transport the produce can’t come into the plant directly anymore but must wait outside in their trucks.
‘If They Get Sick ... The Whole Country’s Going to Suffer’
California’s farm belt pumps out more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts every year. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, employers who manage the state’s orchards, packing sheds and fields of row crops are faced with a dilemma: continue operating and hope that workers don’t get sick or shutter their doors, forcing workers to file for unemployment and putting the country’s food supply at risk.
The Food and Drug Administration is reassuring consumers that there’s no evidence of COVID-19 transmission through food or food packaging. Another question, however, is how to keep farmworkers safe from exposure on the job when social distancing is often difficult.