Coronavirus: America’s ‘essential’ farmworkers fearful as Covid-19 infections rise

Andrew Buncombe travels to Yakima Valley in Washington state to meet the farmers and immigrant labourers risking their lives to keep America fed during the pandemic

Andrew Buncombe
Monday 27 April 2020 16:49 BST
Farm worker Mando Zapato says he's more worried about visiting the shops than going to work

Standing amid lines of wire fencing that soon should be laden with hazelnuts, Jose Louis Jimenez was careful to keep some distance from his fellow workers.

The company had provided them gloves and masks, but while standing at such a distance from other people, he did not feel the need to wear one now.

Not that he was taking the threat of coronavirus lightly. Officials recently revealed at least 70 farmworkers in Yakima County had tested positive for the disease, and the 56-year-old knew two people who had died – both of them men who owned stores in the valley.

“Our community is very important,” says Mr Jimenez, who came to the US from Mexico 20 years ago. “Agriculture is very important. If we don’t do this, who will grow the food?”

The plight of Mr Jimenez is not unique. As the federal government has officially recognised farm labourers as “essential workers”, at least for now sparing most from the scrutiny of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, so it has cast them into a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.

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Unions and organisers warn that many of these workers are operating in conditions that leave them exposed to infection – crowded buses that carry them to the fields, cramped lodgings for those travelling from outside the region, and insufficient facilities for washing their hands. Some employers provide only the most basic equipment.

The campaigners point out that many states do not provide paid sick leave for farm workers. As a result, people who do fall ill with the virus may feel they have little option financially but to carry on working, endangering themselves and others.

“The social distancing that’s required and necessary to curtail the spread of the virus at least in the housing and transportation area, is very difficult to really enforce,” says Edgar Franks, campaign director of Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, an independent farmworker union based in Washington state.

The union recently joined others to sue the state government, accusing it of failing to provide clear guidance to farm owners and calling for tougher regulations. “Lack of enforceable rules regarding social distancing, protective face masks, access to soap and water, and to environmental cleaning allows conditions to continue in which virus can spread easily and quickly,” says the lawsuit.

Washington governor Jay Inslee’s spokeperson told Bloomberg News: “We are aware of this issue and the office has been working with stakeholders on it before the suit was filed.”

Washington’s Yakima Valley is famed around the world. Around 180 miles southeast of Seattle and adverting itself as as the “Palm Springs of Washington state”, it is the nation’s largest producer of apples, cherries, grapes and pears. It also raises livestock, and produces wheat, nuts and herbs. It is America’s largest producer of mint oil, which alone is worth $80m (£65m) to the valley.

Social dynamics are made more complicated by the demographics and the pattern of land ownership, which includes Latino, Anglo, and Native American. While many of the farmworkers are long-term residents, every year the valley’s numbers are boosted by up 100,000 migrant labourers, mainly from Mexico, who arrive in the spring under the H2A visa scheme, and leave in November. As in California, everybody agrees that without the migrant labourers, Washington’s valuable and vital harvest would not be produced.

As the pandemic has dragged on, triggering bouts of intermittent panic buying, and raising questions about the safety and viability of the US’s food supply, so the agricultural labourers – for so long, vital but under-appreciated – are being viewed differently.

Earlier this month, California governor Gavin Newsom ordered companies to provide an additional 80-hours of sick pay for farmworkers amid the crisis. “I want you to know you are not disposable; you are essential, and you are valued,” Mr Newsom says.

Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer of the United Farm Workers Union, says many farmworkers – half of whom are said to be undocumented – were initially surprised when they were labelled as essential. Some wondered if they would still be able to work.

He says some started to become fearful they would be sent to work without adequate protection or equipment.

“Some workers started asking themselves, but how are we immune to this virus,” he says. “Because they didn’t see the employers making any adjustments that are really important. They saw the employers basically behaving the same way, as if nothing will happen.”

Coronavirus in numbers

He says some employers were better than others at providing equipment, usually those where workers were members of unions. Others failed to provide things like masks or gloves, or use disinfectant to clean accommodation facilities, or items such as fruit ladders. “Our members are doing very well,” he says, but added that only 10,000 out of an estimated 1 million farm workers were members of unions.

Alma Dagdagan’s family has owned farms in the valley since 1940. This week she was wearing a face mask, as she was serving customers at her shop in the village of Wapato. She says a number of her workers – usually she had employed up to 25 – had failed to return this spring, apparently out of fear of the virus.

“I don’t know. There are others farmers here. They go over and see if they can work,” she says. Asked about the fear factor of the virus, she says: “I think [some are scared to come to work] or they have other jobs, or they are staying home with their kids.”

Most of the workers interviewed by The Independent say they were concerned about the virus, but trying not to become too frightened. A 41-year man called Diego, whose family originally came from Mexico, says he had suffered from the flu three weeks ago.

Now he was back on his tractors, preparing fields to be sown with hops, another of the valley’s main products. “I had the fever and so I stayed at home with my family,” he added. He says his employer had provided him a mask but that he felt little need to use one while working by himself.

Mando Zapato felt the same way. The 23-year-old was zipping around the fields of a mint farm on an electric golf cart, a mask in his pocket but not feeling the need to wear it while driving through the field.

“There are only about five or six of us working here. And when we arrive, we all go off on our separate ways,” he says.

Yet the young man, who has two children, says he was taking precautions when he went to the grocery store. He says the reality of the potential danger of the virus struck home when the owner of a store and bar in the town of Harrah, died from the disease.

“I still have to go and out buy stuff. I am not worried about getting it here, but going out in public,” says Mr Zapato. “Before all this, I would go and buy a taco from there and it makes you wonder if you touched something he touched and there’s any way I could have it.”

Dennis Longtimesleeping Jr says Native Americans have survived many 'viruses from European people'

This week in Harrah, a wooden cross and flowers formed a makeshift memorial outside of the bar and store, the Spur Tavern, which was shuttered. On a vase of flowers, someone had written the word: “With our deepest sympathies.”

Efforts to contact the family of the man were not successful. Officials from Yakima County health department failed to respond to repeated enquiries. At least 1,000 people have tested positive for the disease and the death toll stands at 53.

Some of the residents of the valley have been there longer than others. Parts of it make up the Yakama Nation Indian Reservation.

Dennis Longtimesleeping Jr works as a maintenance man for the tribe and says he had also been listed as an essential. Leaning on the bonnet of a truck he and friends were working on, he says people from the reservation kept to themselves.

“We native American have been targeted by many viruses from the European people. We love them, they love us, we’ve lived in peace with them with them for a long time. With this virus, we just do our own thing,” he says.

“We’re quarantined. We’re not doing as much business as before. We’re pretty much staying to ourselves and not getting sick. That’s a pretty good thing.”

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