COVID-19 is Disproportionately Affecting Farmworkers in California

“[Farmworkers] are feeding everybody. If not for farmworkers, the people who were fighting over toilet paper and paper towels would be fighting over the last sack of oranges in the store. Farmworkers kept everyone fed and yet, we don’t bother to consider them essential workers.”

COVID-19 is Disproportionately Affecting Farmworkers in California
(National Farm Worker Ministry / Flickr)

In the state of California, filmmaking and farming are two of the foremost economic industries. While both have continued in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, only one actually provides financial support for the workers that sustain it in the increasingly likely event of infection. 

(Spoiler alert: It isn’t farming.)

It goes without question that farmworkers are among the most essential workers—not only in California but in the United States as a whole. Because of their continued labor during this time, Americans have not gone without the groceries they’re accustomed to. Crops have still been planted, tended and harvested so that all can enjoy their daily meals. But at what—or whose—cost? 

A recent report, conducted by the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA revealed that farmworkers—who are predominantly Latinx, 265,000 of them being women—are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, due to unfavorable transportation and housing conditions and a lack of access health insurance.

Dr. David Hayes Bautista, distinguished professor of medicine and the director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture (CESLAC) at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, has spent 40 years working to improve public understanding of Latinos and their health, history, culture and contributions to California and the nation. 

Since the start of the coronavirus in March, Hayes-Bautista and a team of doctors and researchers have led this reporting, specifically examining who’s been able to afford care; and how farmworkers are managing, when they are made entirely responsible for their own safety.

In short, farmworkers are not doing well. 

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Slowing the spread for field workers has proven difficult, but according to Hayes-Bautista, packing plants have also posed innumerable issues for workers. 

“We have seen COVID just ripping through the meatpacking plants here in California because of the nature of the occupation,” said Hayes-Bautista. “And it just so happens that in California, these occupations are almost entirely filled by Latinos,  almost entirely by immigrants, and a very high percentage of undocumented people, anywhere from 40 to 80 percent, are the estimates.”

In a recent report, Hayes-Bautista looked critically at one potential treatment option for the coronavirus, Remdesivir, an experimental medicine being studied for use in treating conditions caused by the virus developed by the biopharmaceutical company, Gilead Sciences. Remdesivir has not yet been approved to treat coronavirus or COVID-19. However, if proven safe enough to be considered viable, the drug would be of exponential use to farmworkers. 

The course of treatment however, costs up to $3,120. Given that farmworkers rarely have health insurance, in order to pay for such a course of treatment, a California farmworker would have to go entirely without meals, housing and transportation for two months.

It’s also worth noting that the average monthly household income of all Latinos in the U.S. is just $5,441. The out-of-pocket cost for a course of Remdesivir is slightly more than half (57 percent) that amount. 

“It’s been very difficult,” Hayes-Bautista told Ms. “For people that work out in the field, either field crops or orchard crops, the way you get out there is usually by traveling in highly packed transportation. You have people going from Bakersfield over to the coast of Santa Barbara County to work in the vineyard and they commute daily. Whether out in the fields or at the packing houses, they’re working fairly close together. Shoulder to shoulder.

While Hayes-Bautista says Latinx households have more wage-earners that could cover the cost, this too, only increases risk of infection. 

“Latino households have about one whole more person than non-Latino households, particularly non-Latino white. Interestingly, Latinos have more wage earners per household and more children. So, you get probably the worst of all possible situations. You have more people in a household and more wage-earners who are adults going out and by their occupation, more exposed to Coronavirus. Then, they’re coming back into the household with kids and occasionally, grandparents. It’s a situation that Coronavirus loves.” 

Hayes-Bautista says women in particular are among the most fearful in these households given the nature of all professions available to them. 

Latinas are very active in the workforce, particularly in the food industry whether it’s checkout clerks, working as assistance in nursing homes, nannies etc. A lot of these occupations to be which females are over represented Latinas, in particular. And when you add to that fact that the age group is 40, 50 to 64, the group just right before retirement, that group generally has the highest labor force participation rate.”

When economic relief doesn’t look possible until after the election and a vaccine is nowhere in sight, what can be done on a policy level to alleviate these worries for Latinx communities? For Hayes-Bautista, the answer may be in what the state of California is already doing.

“California, I hate to say is the blueprint because we have a lot of holes in our blueprint, but for example, the state is now doing stimulus checks for undocumented or essential workers and has been expanding covers through Medicare, which is our state Medicaid program. Not perfect again, but at least the heart is moving in the right direction.” 

Either way, some form of aid is absolutely necessary. Sooner rather than later. 

“[Farmworkers] are feeding everybody. If not for farmworkers, the people who were fighting over toilet paper and paper towels would be fighting over the last sack of oranges in the store,” said Hayes-Bautista. “Farmworkers kept everyone fed and yet, we don’t bother to consider them essential workers.”

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Audra Heinrichs is a New York City-based writer, digital organizer and former staffer on Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign for president. A contributor to publications like Teen Vogue, Supermajority News and Mission magazine, she specializes in features about social justice, progressive politics and grassroots movements led by—and for—the most marginalized people worldwide.