Farmworkers Can’t Pick Crops Remotely. How Can They Stay Safe?

Maricruz Ladino in a Salinas lettuce field when she appeared in the Frontline film “Rape in the Fields.”  (Andres Cediel/Frontline)

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.


Lupe Sandoval, managing director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, said guidelines released by agencies like the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the California Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so far have been generic and lack the specific guidance agricultural employers need.

“How many industries do you see where the employer provides group transportation?” Sandoval said. “Ag is a little different. A lot of workers will get together in vans to drive to the job site. Or an employer will be registered with the federal government to bus workers to the job site. When you have 20-25 workers in a bus, or fewer in a van, it makes it difficult for social distancing and would entail more extensive disinfecting of common surfaces in vehicles before and after rides.”

Workers also often share drinking water dispensers in the fields and sometimes work in close proximity to one another, which can make social distancing a challenge.

Frank Polizzi, a spokesperson for the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), said the agency recently began working on industry-specific guidance for agricultural workers, after receiving questions from employers. DIR plans to publish the guidance in English this week and in Spanish soon after, Polizzi said.

Erica Rosasco, an agricultural employment attorney in Roseville, said she has received a flood of calls from employers with questions about how to comply with labor laws during the coronavirus outbreak.

“They want to know how to deal with the virus and how to deal with sick employees. I have had some clients whose employees are sick and they believe they do have the virus,” Rosasco said. “So, what are their responsibilities, what are their obligations, what’s best practice?”

Farmworkers harvest strawberries at a farm in Carlsbad, California, in April 2006.
Farmworkers harvest strawberries at a farm in Carlsbad, California, in April 2006. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

At least workers are unlikely to be laid off, Rosasco said. She said she is advising employers to move forward with agricultural work and give workers assurance they will continue to have a job during the pandemic.

“Because [workers are] nervous about the idea of the shelter-in-place orders, what’s going to happen to them? They live paycheck to paycheck. They’re worried about it,” Rosasco said.

“It’s part of the supply chain. If our ag workers don’t keep working, we’re not going to have fruits and veggies in the markets,” she added.

In fact, Fresno City Council President Miguel Arias said he’s worried about undocumented farmworkers who lack health care coverage and might wait as long as possible before seeking treatment.

“My biggest concern with the undocumented residents is that they’re going to be scared to come in and be checked and ask for a test, even though we know that they’re sick,” Arias said. “They’re so used to going to work, irrespective of their health conditions or whether they’re under the weather and running a fever, that once they begin to use our health care system for the coronavirus, our health care system will be overwhelmed.”

Last week, Fresno City Councilman Luis Chavez sent a letter to Democratic Fresno congressman Jim Costa requesting additional federal funding for protective gear for health workers and support for rural clinics to help treat a “potential overflow of patients.”

“That needs to be a part of this conversation as we’re preparing a response — to have [farmworkers] be prioritized," Chavez said. "Because if they get sick and they’re not there, the whole country’s going to suffer.”

more coronavirus coverage

Workplace Benefits

State labor officials said they are committed to enforcing California law when it comes to protections for low-wage workers, including farmworkers who may be undocumented.

“The current public health crisis has really highlighted the differences between those workers who have ‘Cadillac’ operations and have protections and paid benefits, versus the majority of workers in California who do not have those protections or privileges,” said Lilia Garcia-Brower, California’s labor commissioner. Her staff of 700 investigates and adjudicates workplace violations ranging from unpaid wages to retaliation.

Garcia-Brower said her office is trying to “ensure that we reach the most vulnerable workers, those workers providing critical services, and that everyone understands that regardless of your immigration status, you do have basic protections for unpaid time, for paid sick leave and other protections in the labor code.

California law mandates three days of sick leave. Beyond that, workers can also apply for disability and paid family leave.

But undocumented workers cannot collect unemployment. To qualify, workers must show legal work authorization and immigration status, said a spokesperson for California's Economic Development Department (EDD) in an email. EDD also confirmed that it verifies immigration status with the Department of Homeland Security.

A Facebook poll conducted in early March by the United Farm Workers union found over 90% of roughly 270 respondents — the majority from California, Washington and Oregon — said they had not received any information about the coronavirus from their employer.

The UFW has called on employers to extend worker sick pay to 40 hours or more and to eliminate the 90-day waiting period for new employees to be eligible for sick pay, among other changes.

‘I’ll Pay for the Test’

Whether farmworkers get sick, have to stay home and care for children or can’t get a visa to work in the U.S., the coronavirus could threaten the country’s supply of farm labor.

U.S. farms have become increasingly reliant on the H-2A program over the years, which allows workers to come to the U.S. to plant, prune and harvest crops on a seasonal basis.

Last week, U.S. consulates in Mexico announced they would scale back their operations to maintain social distancing while prioritizing applications for returning H-2A guest workers who are eligible for an interview waiver.

Sponsored

In a statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the agency is “directly engaged with the State Department and working diligently to ensure minimal disruption in H-2A visa applications,” and that the Trump administration is “doing everything possible” to keep the program going.

“We’re all scared to death,” said Ileana Arvizu, a farm labor contractor and president of ISA Contracting Services based in Firebaugh, west of Fresno. “We need those workers.”

Arvizu said she would be willing to pay for H-2A workers to be tested for the coronavirus if it meant the workers would arrive in the U.S. in time for the season.

“If they decide that they want to make sure that they’re clear and safe, [that] they’re not coming in with the virus, I’ll pay for the test. Whether it’s in Mexico, before they actually depart, or at any point,” Arvizu said.

A worker harvests cantaloupes on a farm near Firebaugh, California, on August 22, 2014.
A worker harvests cantaloupes on a farm near Firebaugh, California, on Aug. 22, 2014. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The degree of impact a loss of workers will have depends on how long the current restrictions stay in place, said Daniel Costa (no relation to Rep. Jim Costa), director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in a Washington, D.C.

In a report out Tuesday, Costa and UC Davis professor Philip Martin project that if only returning H-2A workers are processed for the next two months, the impact will likely be minor because farm employment in March and April is typically low.

“But if this practice stays in place for six months or more, during which no new applicants for H-2A visas can enter the United States," Costa and Martin write, “the impact could be significant.”

If fewer guest workers are allowed into the U.S. and domestic farm workers get sick or have to stay home to care for children, farms will either have to pay overtime or recruit new workers. That means U.S.-born workers could be recruited to work in agriculture, Daniel Costa said.

“That’s obviously the big question,” he said. “In California, there’s about to be 1.6 million unemployed workers. Will those workers take those jobs? It’s an experiment that’s about to happen.”

But farm labor contractor Jasmine Quintanilla said she thinks that’s unlikely, even if many people are out of a job due to the coronavirus.

Quintanilla said she tried hiring U.S.-born workers during past labor shortages, but they quit on their own after just a couple of hours. Workers who are new to agriculture lack experience, which presents a problem for labor contractors under pressure to work quickly and meet the expectations of growers, Quintanilla said.

“We can’t really afford new people ... inexperienced people,” Quintanilla said. “People that have never worked in the field, they won’t even come out there. They’ll be like, ‘Heck no, this is too hard.’ ”

Uncertainty in the Fields

While many farms are scrambling to send more produce to supermarkets these days, farmworker Maricruz Ladino says her shifts at the packing house have become more irregular over the last week. Sometimes, there’s only a few hours of work, or workers are told to stand by to see if there will be shifts at all.

“We do see some hiccups ... given the restaurant shutdowns across the country. Those orders have suddenly stopped,” said Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers, representing fresh produce growers in California and Arizona.

“You would think that we could simply redirect those fresh produce crops into the retail sector, especially because we have shortages in stores. But it unfortunately isn't that simple,” Puglia said.

That’s because farms have to work out new contracts, Puglia said, and figure out the capacity of shipping companies.

Maricruz Ladino inspecting lettuce at a Salinas packing plant.
Maricruz Ladino inspecting lettuce at a Salinas packing plant. (Andres Cediel/KQED)

Ladino earns about $16 an hour as a supervisor in the packing cooler. Her rent on the one-bedroom she shares with her daughter in Salinas is $1,600. Every hour she’s not paid to work, she’s farther from making rent.

“It could get really tough. Work is how we feed our families. If things change, it’s so uncertain. How will we ever get ahead?” Ladino said.

A formerly undocumented immigrant, Ladino is also worried that the coronavirus will stall immigration reform.

“This crisis is going to touch all of us,” Ladino said. “It’s a time for reflecting, re-evaluating what’s important."

KQED’s The California Report first profiled Ladino in 2013 for “Rape in the Fields,” a Frontline film and radio series about farmworkers facing sexual harassment and assault, which was produced in collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and the Center for Investigative Reporting.