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California's 800,000 farmworkers are under siege from the coronavirus. Lawmakers urge relief

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 8/7/2020 By Kim Bojórquez, The Sacramento Bee

As farming communities in California’s Central Valley face serious spikes in COVID-19, California’s estimated 800,000 farmworkers are among the most exposed.

Crowded housing conditions and packed transport buses make social distancing especially difficult for those workers, who often lack health insurance and the ability to quarantine when they are sick.

To help them weather the pandemic, Assemblymen Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, and Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, are urging the state Legislature to move forward on four bills they say would provide some relief to those who help keep food on California tables.

“I wish I could say that the situation for farm workers in this pandemic has improved,” Rivas said during a virtual press conference on Thursday. “It hasn’t. It seems like every day there is a new story of an outbreak among our farmworkers.”

Rivas said COVID-19 outbreaks linked to meat packaging plants and farms make it clear that “more has to be done” to stop the spread of the virus.

The package of bills, introduced in April, now includes a $25 million expansion of the California Farmworker Housing Assistance Tax Credit.

The “marquee” bill, AB 2043, would fund an outreach campaign to inform farmworkers on best practices to prevent COVID-19 infection, as well as information on paid sick leave, workers’ compensation and other coronavirus-related services.

Other measures would expand telehealth services in rural and community health centers and require that state institutions purchase agricultural products grown in California when available.

If a farmworker gets sick, it can be difficult for them to isolate if they live in a house with multiple families, according to Dr. Max Cuevas, CEO of Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas.

“Housing is a huge issue,” Cuevas said.

“These workers keep food on our tables, they keep our grocery store shelves stocked, the urgency to this public health crisis increases every single day, he said. “If these outbreaks persist or worsen, our food supply will be impacted.”

Farmworkers in California are overwhelmingly Latino, according to a COVID-19 farmworker research brief. About 90% are from Mexico, and 60% are unauthorized to work in the U.S.

As the virus surges, Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infections and deaths. State data from August 6 shows Latinos, who make up 39% of the state population, account for 58% of all cases in California.

Health advocates have said Latino essential workers have been especially vulnerable to the coronavirus for multiple reasons, including not being able to work from home or socially distance at work.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to send three coronavirus strike teams and $52 million in federal money to the hard-hit Central Valley region, an agricultural region home to a large Latino population.

“We deem these workers as essential because we know that they are. We treat them more like they’re sacrificial.” said Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose. “We don’t give them the health care they deserve. We don’t protect their families and their children. We don’t protect them at job sites.”

Garcia said more intervention is needed in the Coachella region and Imperial and Monterey counties to protect field workers from the virus.

“We know that our underserved, agricultural communities are experiencing the most acute surges and economic ramifications of COVID-19,” Garcia said.

More than half of workers cite cost, no insurance and a lack of sick time as major barriers to access health care, according to Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies.

About 90% of workers reported that they are taking precautions to protect their families from COVID-9 when they arrive home, such as washing their hands, changing their clothes and showering.

“Only with a broad approach can we be sure that that our essential workforce ... are afforded the broad relief that they need,” Rivas said.


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