Farmworkers have always been essential | Pesticide Action Network
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Farmworkers have always been essential

Medha Chandra's picture
Farmworker working

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but especially for essential workers. Farmworkers have been some of the hardest hit of these workers, having to cope with the pandemic on top of the systemic injustices already embedded in our food and farming system. Before the pandemic hit, farmworkers routinely dealt with hazardous working conditions — limited personal protective equipment when applying pesticides, hard labor in the hot sun with limited access to shade and drinking water, and crowded living quarters often far away from family. 

COVID-19 has just added another layer of hardship — including lack of protective gear like masks and hand sanitizers or hand-washing facilities, crowded transportation to fields, and other situations in which social distancing is hard to maintain. Farmworker families have had to manage remote schoolwork without adequate access to the internet and other technology like laptops. Often, many farmworkers are also reluctant or unable to get medical help or take time off of work to protect themselves and their community in case they fall sick.

Demanding emergency support

PAN and partners like Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR) have shifted our work since the beginning of the pandemic to provide support to farmworker groups across California, a key agricultural state in which our farmworker advocacy campaigns are focused. We have contacted key legislative committees and policymakers in the state administration asking that funding be allocated to farmworker communities to address the following needs:

  • Adequate personal protective equipment, from providing gloves and masks to farmworkers, to providing access to adequate facilities for hand-washing and water in the fields.
  • Social distancing in the fields and transportation: Farmers and contractors should be required to enable social distancing in the fields. Many farmworkers report that they are forced to continue to work in large groups of 20 or more with minimal focus on maintaining necessary distance. Carpools that provide transportation to farmworkers are also not able to provide the adequate prescribed social distancing.
  • Expanded healthcare access and testing for COVID-19. Due to their immigration status, many farmworkers are hesitant or unable to access healthcare or COVID-19 testing. The state should ensure better communication with farmworker communities to make sure they’re covered for healthcare related to COVID-19 and associated testing and treatment.
  • Safe, stable and affordable housing for farmworkers that allows for social distancing. Crowded housing conditions with multiple families residing in close proximity to each other can exacerbate the spread of COVID-19. Adequate safe, stable and affordable housing should be provided which allows farmworker families to maintain social distancing guidelines. There should be a statewide halt on evictions of farmworker families.
  • Stable access to key utilities (water, electricity, internet) and prohibition of late fees, charges and liens. Farmworker families need low cost, stable access to key utilities at a time of economic uncertainty and increased burden on families due to school closures due to COVID-19. The state should focus on making these utilities available to farmworker families for free or at a subsidized cost for the duration of the pandemic.

In addition, CPR and other partners have been at the forefront of direct assistance to farmworker families in the Central Valley and Central Coast. The Sierra Health Foundation — through its San Joaquin Valley Health Fund (SJVHF) program — has raised $4 million in assistance to distribute to folks in the San Joaquin Valley. Angel Garcia, a CPR organizer in Tulare County, and a number of young community leaders have been working directly with farmworkers and families in Tulare to distribute approximately $36,500 of this emergency assistance. 

Nationally, groups like United Farm Workers have been taking the lead on advocating for farmworker protections during the pandemic, and the Migrant Clinicians Network has released comprehensive information on farmworker challenges and recommendations for protecting farmworker health and wellbeing during the pandemic. 

Steps taken by the administration and allies

Meanwhile, California Governor Gavin Newsom and state government departments have taken some steps to protect farmworkers and food sector workers, along with other workers in California. Some highlights:

  • Paid Sick Leave for Food Sector Workers: The Governor took action to afford two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave to certain food workers, including farmworkers, restaurant employees, and grocery store workers to allow them to quarantine or isolate. 
  • Cal/OSHA Guidance: The Administration provided Cal/OSHA guidance to help protect agricultural, grocery, and healthcare workers. 
  • An executive order to protect renters and homeowners during the COVID-19 pandemic was enacted.
  • Governor Newsom announced an expansion of the farm-to-family program and new initiatives to combat food insecurity.
  • The state has committed $125 million to assist workers not covered by the CARES Act during COVID-19, including immigrant workers and undocumented Californians. Seventy-five million dollars will come from the state and the other $50 million comes from private sources. 
  • California has created a COVID-19 guide for immigrants, with information on treatment, testing and disaster relief assistance.
  • Twelve organizations around the state have been designated by the government to distribute disaster relief assistance to immigrants, including our partners at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF). 

We are hopeful that with the joint efforts of the state government, civil society groups, community leaders and farmworker leaders, the economic and health impacts of COVID-19 will be less severe for communities across the state.

Medha Chandra
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Medha Chandra's picture

Medha Chandra is PAN's Organizer & Policy Advocate. Her work focuses on pesticide impacts on maternal and children’s health as well as international pesticide campaigns. She works closely with network members from other PAN regional centers around the world. Follow @ChandraMedha