During the pandemic, Californian farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to a double threat: the risk of COVID-19 infection and unemployment. The California Institute for Rural Studies found that agricultural workers in Monterey County were three times more likely to become infected than those working in non-agricultural industries. Due to a collapse of foodservice demand, the county also experienced a decrease of almost 40 percent in agricultural employment from April to June.
The COVID-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) Team, which included Cooperative Extension Specialist Susana Matias in the Department of Nutritional Sciences & Toxicology, surveyed over 900 farmworkers in California to better understand how the current pandemic has impacted farmworkers and their families as they continue frontline work.
Through partnerships with organizations such as Alianza Ecologista, Líderes Campesinas, and The Farmworker Care Coalition, the team directed study support and other resources to both grassroots movements and individual workers. Together, the collective of farmworker organizations, researchers, and advocates were able to highlight how the pandemic amplifies existing inequities that California farmworkers have faced for years.
“Farmworkers play an essential role in the California food system,” says Matias, who studies nutrition and health among farmworkers in California. “Protecting this vulnerable population during the COVID-19 pandemic is critical for all of us.”
The COVID-19 Farmworker Study uplifted voices of farmworkers through phone-based surveys. Six community-based organizations managed 60 surveyors in farmworker communities, inviting individuals in 21 counties to participate while ensuring that interviews were conducted in the language preferred by the respondent. Surveyors asked participants about COVID-19 prevention at the workplace, housing conditions, and transportation methods, among other topics.
The COFS Team published six preliminary findings from the surveys:
- Farmworkers experience dramatic loss of work and income during the COVID-19 pandemic. Forty-six percent of the respondents reported decreased work time and subsequent income loss. Reasons for lost work time included employer-based decisions given decreased market demand and worker concerns about health risks.
- Farmworkers lack healthcare access and experience fear about using medical services. Medical costs, lack of insurance, and lack of sick leave were reported to be significant barriers to accessing healthcare. Another reported factor was a mistrust of government agencies and the healthcare system.
- Farmworkers are vigilant about COVID-19 prevention practices outside of the workplace. Ninety percent take action to protect their families from the virus when they return home from work. In addition to washing hands, changing clothes, and showering, some farmworkers take the additional steps to physically distance themselves from family members and their community.
- Farmworkers report low numbers of employers providing masks and face coverings. Fifty-four percent of worksites provide face coverings, forcing many farmworkers to purchase or make their own to wear in the workplace.
- Farmworkers have valuable suggestions to improve workplace COVID-19 prevention efforts. Suggestions included improving workflow to maximize physical distancing, providing personal protective equipment, and disseminating useful information on COVID-19 to workers.
- Farmworkers are systematically excluded from important safety-net programs, which heightens their vulnerabilities and those of family members. Many are unable to meet basic needs including child care, food security, and financial assistance.
The collaboration with community-based organizers provided critical connections to farmworkers, as well as on the ground information that will be relevant in crafting local and regional policies. In close consultation with farmworkers and their communities, the team urges county and industry leaders to provide resources such as expanded income, health care access, and culturally-relevant education to farmworkers.