Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the vaccine: Farmworkers face difficulties getting vaccinated, despite high death rates

Filed Under: Costs, Patients

Farmworkers have continued to put food on Americans’ tables across the country during the coronavirus pandemic. And yet, they feel forgotten. 

In a now year-long pandemic, and under a new presidency in 2021, the United States has been trying to figure out how to distribute the relatively new coronavirus vaccine. But even with a recent study that showed farmworkers are among those most likely to die from Covid-19, it remains a waiting game before they are prioritized for a shot. 

It’s hard to take precautions 

In Sonoma County, Margarita Garcia works in a vineyard during grape season from August to October each year. Nothing changed when the pandemic hit. Depending on the demand for grapes at the winery, there were times she had 12-hour work days. 

“By nature, grape-picking keeps workers fairly distanced,” Garcia said in a phone interview, adding that there are typically three to four crates to fill in between workers within every furrow.

Courtesy of Margarita Garcia

Still, she is aware of the risks she and other farmworkers are exposed to while harvesting the country’s food. Although she and her co-workers try not to mix closely, it can be hard to avoid because of the group efforts required when they need to work faster. This could involve emptying out the heavy crates once they are filled with grapes or simply touching much of the same equipment. 

Garcia spoke on condition that the company where she works not be named, because she felt it would endanger her job. She says the company does not provide face masks or any other type of protective gear, but does require workers to wear a face covering, though not necessarily a mask. However, the rule is not enforced. “Picking grapes is a job of adrenaline. With the speed and long hours, next thing you know, your face cover is off because you’re in the action,” she said. 

In the harvesting of other fruits and vegetables, remaining distanced is even harder.

Martha Martinez manages workers and strawberry production out of Santa Maria, Calif., in Santa Barbara County, for Veg-Fresh Farms. She worries about how close the furrows in the fields are, and how, when picking strawberries, workers are rarely six feet apart. 

“There are no company regulations to keep workers distanced,” she said during a phone interview. And while she said she does her best to keep people apart when there is not much fruit, come harvesting season there are “workers filling every furrow.” 

From June to November of 2020, Brenda Eskenazi, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at UC Berkeley, helped spearhead a research project that looked into the infection rates among farmworkers in Monterey County, Calif., with a sample size of 1,115 workers. 

Data from Eskenazi’s study within that county alone was alarming, finding that 42% of the farmworkers tested had an active Covid-19 infection with no symptoms and 57% had symptoms, but still went to work. “Our study is now an underestimate of what it is like,” she said in a phone interview, “It ended on November 30th, so it’s not counting significant surges from Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Who is prioritized?

Statistics from the California Department of Food and Agriculture show that the state relies heavily on this sector, which generates over 400 commodities including lettuce, tomatoes, almonds, grapes and strawberries. This produces billions of dollars in revenue yearly, meaning farmworkers are also essential to its economy. Yet, the Golden State has changed who it will prioritize for the Covid-19 vaccine several times, only recently announcing agriculture workers may become eligible during a “Phase 1B vaccination tier.”

Eskenazi admits that it is tricky to determine who will access the vaccine first. “Do you prioritize [farmworkers] ahead of a 90-year-old who can safeguard themselves by being isolated?,” she asked, concluding that “I think we absolutely need to prioritize farmworkers if we want to make sure they are able to give us our food when they start working again.” She pointed out that some of the state’s counties have also advocated this. 

“Slowly, some related positions are gaining access, like the food processors, but farmworkers always get things last…We contribute so much to the economy, and we are forgotten.”  Margarita Garcia

On February, 17, 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom visited Coachella, in Riverside County, and praised the desert city for its efforts to turn packinghouses, ranches and farms into vaccination sites, with plans to inoculate about 2,300 agricultural workers.

During a press conference, held at Sea View Packing, Governor Newsom said: “What this county has done, no other county in the state had done. You were first to advance the cause of equity,” adding that the program needed to be replicated “up and down the state of California.”

In a phone interview, Riverside County Supervisor Victor Manuel Perez said the reason why this particular area prioritized farmworkers in this safety measure is “personal.” 

While “political will“ was the biggest mobilizer, Perez said, it stems from the fact that he, as supervisor, as well as state assembly member Eduardo Garcia and congressman Raul Ruiz are the children of farmworkers and all grew up in the Coachella Valley. 

A lot of local individuals that are elected have the same story. They’re sons and daughters of farmworkers, sons and daughters of immigrants. I think that has something to do with it,” he said.

Days later, on Feb. 22, 2021, Governor Newsom announced that 34,000 doses would be made available to vaccinate food and agricultural workers through mobile teams in the Central Valley’s Kern County. 

A press release from the governor’s office stated that the latest criteria for vaccine distribution “weights age 65+ at 70% and employment sectors at 30%, which increases allocations to the Central Valley due to its heavy concentration of food and agricultural workers.”

Accessing the vaccine, one way or another

Vaccine misinformation, conspiracy theories about chips placed inside people’s arms and fears about resulting symptoms or, in the case of undocumented workers, possible deportation linger within the farmworker community. But the UC Berkeley report Eskenazi helped author revealed that about half of the over 1,000 farmworkers surveyed felt they would be extremely likely to get a Covid-19 vaccine if granted access. 

Garcia expects to get the vaccine at the end of March, but it’s not through her work in the fields. She is currently doing Covid-19 outreach with Lideres Campesinas, an organization that advocates for women farmworkers’ rights, to help inform other farmworkers in the counties of Sonoma and Napa. Her job as a community health worker makes her eligible for the vaccine. 

She said: “Farmworkers are getting vaccinated through other jobs. Slowly, some related positions are gaining access, like the food processors, but farmworkers always get things last…We contribute so much to the economy, and we are forgotten.”

Martinez agrees that farmworkers often have more than one job, or work in different fields, in order to make ends meet. Low wages in farm work create another high risk during a pandemic, as workers can most likely not afford to quarantine and not work for two weeks even if they experience coronavirus symptoms. 

“There are times that a farmworker could be infected and say, ‘I have to obey the quarantine order at this company, but I don’t feel so bad or have severe symptoms,’ and go find work with another company that doesn’t know they tested positive for Covid,” Martinez said. 

everyday dangers in farm work

For agriculture workers, the danger lies not only in going to work, but also in the housing and living conditions that they are likely to experience. 

We have around 50,000 farmers in our county that come back [to work] from other counties or countries. Some of those places have experienced a surge in Covid. Other farmworkers simply can’t isolate because they live in crowded houses,” Eskenazi said.

During his trip to Riverside County, Governor Newsom briefly discussed funding by way of $24 million for a program that will provide temporary hotel stays for farm and food processing workers who may need to isolate because of exposure to coronavirus. 

Supervisor Perez talked about the Coachella Valley also being the first to offer similar aid to farmworkers, before, through the Housing for the Harvest program. “That’s not the kicker since others were beginning to do that,” he said. “The kicker was the $2,000 stipend that we provided [farmworkers] so that they would be willing. Otherwise, they would go out there because they had no choice.”

For food and farm workers in other states, including New York, lack of prioritization seems to be no different, as Lissa Harris, at The River, wrote in February. Just as essential, farmworkers in the east coast are less in numbers, but have also faced large Covid-19 outbreaks at greenhouses and meat processing facilities.

Although agriculture workers are included in California’s next vaccine distribution phase, on March 8, the advocacy group that Martinez is a part of, Lideres Campesinas, sent a letter to the governor regarding assistance. The letter emphasized, “After careful and statewide assessment of current vaccine efforts…we write to urgently request that you provide statewide guidance, standards, oversight and regulations for the implementation of workplace vaccination programs and clinics.”

This is despite the fact that during his visit to Coachella, Governor Newsom admitted, “Frankly, we haven’t done enough,” he said. “We have to own that. We have to recognize we haven’t delivered on equity as we should.” At the time, Newsom concluded that lack of equity for the farmworker community was a pre-existing condition, ahead of the pandemic.