Workers in the agricultural and food production fields have been hit especially hard by COVID-19.
Thanks to pre-existing factors in both living and working conditions, along with the fact that agricultural workers are obviously classified as essential, farmworkers and food production workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at rates far higher than average. In Washington state, for example, no group other than actual healthcare workers has a higher COVID-19 positive test rate than agricultural workers.
In response, with multiple vaccines seemingly progressing, a coalition of farmworker groups in California, the country’s most important agricultural state, penned a letter asking for prioritization for farmworkers. Those groups include the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, the United Farmworkers Foundation, and Líderes Campesinas.
California dramatically outstrips any other state in the number of farmworkers employed; measurements are tricky due to the high number of undocumented workers, but it could be as many as 800,000. And California’s farmworkers are at increased level of risk even than other farmworkers. For one thing, the vast majority of California’s farmworkers are Latino, who are at very high risk. California Latinos make up over 59 percent of COVID-19 cases and over 48 percent of deaths in the state, while Latinos make up only 38.9 percent of California’s population.
A large percentage of California’s agricultural workforce is also undocumented, which presents further concern for COVID-19. More than half of the state’s agricultural workers don’t qualify for California’s low-cost healthcare plan, and in a survey, according to this letter, 24 percent of farmworkers said they were fearful of using American healthcare for legal status reasons.
Farmworkers in California often work much more closely together than in other states, owing to the particular nature of the food grown in the state. More of the country’s fruits and vegetables, which often require manual harvesting, are grown in California than anywhere else in the country. And, of course, farmworkers were immediately declared essential, and have been working straight through the pandemic, often living in the same cramped, employer-provided housing they lived in before.
As a result, this letter makes recommendations for farmworkers to be at the front of the line to receive a vaccine, once it is eventually available. But it isn’t as simple as making farmworkers the first to get the vaccine; the letter also makes it clear that there needs to be a hefty community outreach program, to ensure that the vaccine gets to workers—even the undocumented workers who are suspicious of government employees. You can read the full letter here.