Is protecting farmworkers a national security issue? Fresno-area farmers say yes

2020-04-19 | The Fresno Bee

April 18-- Apr. 18--Protecting farmworkers during a health crisis is an issue of national security, according to farmers, industry advocates and public health professors who say outbreaks on the industry's front lines could jeopardize the nation's food supply chain.

Industry experts have said the supply chain remains "strong and healthy," and the waves of panicked shoppers clearing grocery store shelves have receded. Still, they also say more protections and wider testing for farmworkers are essential to avoid any disruptions in the coming weeks and months.

Speaking at a public meeting earlier this week, Tania Pacheco-Werner, co-assistant director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, said farmworkers are "tied to our national security, and they should be seen in that manner."

"Food is tied to security," Pacheco-Werner said.

Cannon Michael, president of the family-owned Bowles Family Farming Company in Merced County, agreed.

"You can't do anything without a healthy workforce," Michael said. "I don't know any farmer that would take a chance to have any people with the virus."

At the peak of the harvest season, Bowles Family Farming employs about 500 people on about 10,000 acres. Their produce lands in local restaurants, farmers markets and grocery stores.

The coronavirus pandemic, he said, caught the industry off guard.

The national Environmental Working Group on Thursday warned that a rash of sickened food industry workers could trigger soaring food costs, making it more difficult for families to put food on the table.

Farmworkers report lack of testing

Valley-wide, the number of positive coronavirus cases has climbed past 1,000, according to health authorities.

Testing has been in short supply nationwide, including among food workers, according to farmers who spoke to The Bee.

The situation is made more complicated since many farmworkers don't have health access and are among the lowest-paid, according to organizations like the National Farmworker Ministry.

Their daily activity is also harder to track since many carpool or live in multi-generational households. Many are undocumented workers who have become an essential part of the state's $50 billion agriculture industry but are left out of economic safety net programs.

No offers have come to Michael to have his workers tested, he said. Currently, the company is operating with about 50 workers with the harvest season around the corner.

Lack of testing is a common theme across different farms, workers and farmers have said. Michael said his company follows distancing guidelines and screens workers for any symptoms.

He said he fears crops will go to waste if workers fall ill.

"It would be smart if people would prioritize getting additional testing for farmworkers. If (the virus) spread in the farmworker community, it has the potential for it to spread far," Micheal said.

Many needs of ag workforce

As farmers brace for financial pain in the coming months, the federal government has approved millions of dollars in assistance. Some legislators are now also pushing for increased workforce protections.

Congressman Jim Costa, D-Fresno, along with the United States House of Representatives' Hispanic Caucus this week sent a letter to the Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for an emergency relief package to address the needs of farmworkers and food producers.

Costa told The Bee the emergency measure should address the legal status of workers, similar to a bill that passed last year, shielding them from deportation and granted work permits.

The letter sent to Pelosi also called for the federal government to address nutrition and healthcare for workers and their families.

"I'm hopeful that there will be a number of good (outcomes) that will come out of this severe health situation ... under the category of lessons learned," Costa said.

Red flags in guest worker program

This week the government also signaled it might lower the pay for foreign workers under the H-2A visa program to aid farmers' financial strain.

Costa said the idea "makes no sense," and said the proposal would push workers away at a time when they're needed most.

Maria Peralez Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc., said that while the U.S. has tripled its reliance on guest workers in the last decade, it hasn't always provided adequate conditions for them. In some cases, they were not compensated appropriately, the report found.

Sanchez said about 45% of workers lived in overcrowded and unsanitary homes, a worry for health officials trying to stem the pandemic.

California is the fourth largest user of guest workers, with more than 23,000 in the state, according to Sanchez.

The interviews with workers occurred before the COVID-19 outbreak. Sanchez said the reports show conditions need to be improved for farmworkers, especially when they face increased risk of sickness.

"We need enforced safety," Sanchez said. "They're definitely essential, but that doesn't' mean they're expendable, and they should be putting their lives at risk and their family's."

'Food is tied to security'

Although issues were present before the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving vulnerable food workers exposed could have dire consequences, according to Fresno medical anthropologist Dvera Saxton.

She said it might be essential to provide incentives to farmers to ensure they are correctly guiding workers and overseeing their safety. She said coordinated communication could help farmworkers understand and follow health guidelines.

"Are they going to blow it off as la gripa (the flu)? That's another thing about the pressure to work and the need to work," Saxton said. "Workers are often pressured to blow off their illnesses."

Pacheco-Werner said health disparities often spread in farmworker communities.

On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom extended sick pay for food service workers, including farmworkers. The governor also established millions in funding for undocumented workers who were left out of federal stimulus funding.

Pacheco-Werner, speaking at a public meeting earlier this week, said exempting farmworkers from benefits casts them as "secondary citizens."

Fresno County organic farmer and artist Nikiko Masumoto said farmworkers have never been able to have a say in their work conditions due to structural barriers and the nation's historical reliance on immigrant labor.

"We have, in this country, constructed a food system that depends on the labor of a lot of people who are not empowered agents of our political system," Masumoto said.

"Part of that has to do with the history of our country relying on immigrant labor for food and not coupling with that (the) essential important value -- the rights that everyone deserves who lives and contributes to our country."