Earlier this month, Mayor Eric Garcetti assured worried Angelenos that food would still be arriving at stores and restaurants during the pandemic. “Supply chains are completely uninterrupted, and there’s no shortage of food,” he said. That assurance is possible thanks in part to the ceaseless efforts of California’s agricultural workers, tens of thousands of whom are still on the job in local fields.
In Ventura County, where farms continue to harvest strawberries, broccoli, and other in-demand produce, an estimated 36,000 workers are still on the job. Statewide, that number could be 400,000.
“Our food supply is critical, and agriculture and agricultural workers are a critical component of that. We are looking at the work that is being done by farmers, farmworkers, transportation, and packinghouses as essential functions,” Ventura County agricultural commissioner Ed Williams told the Ventura County Star.
Many farm workers lack sick leave, health insurance, workplace protections, or access to unemployment benefits should their jobs be eliminated. Designated as “essential” staff, some are now under even greater pressure to show up to work than ever.
“Farm workers can’t digitally pick an apple,” Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America told the Sacramento Bee.
The UFW has asked companies to offer 40 hours of sick pay for workers and suspend policies including making workers wait 90 days to receive sick time or demanding a doctor’s note to qualify. The union has also suggested farms offer administrative leave for workers with ill family members and on-site child care for parents.
Individual farms are making some efforts keep their workers healthy. One Oxnard-based farm has set up a company health care clinic offering telemedicine appointments with doctors, on-site flu shots, and education about preventing COVID-19. Other farms are adapting practices to keep workers six feet apart from each other while in the fields, alternating schedules to avoid large gatherings of employees, and doubling down on personal hygiene and regularly disinfecting equipment.
“The goal we all have is to keep our workers safe and keep them coming to work, unless they are ill or need to be home for childcare or because somebody else is ill,” Ellen Brokaw, president of Brokaw Ranch Co., told the Star.
Nonetheless, she noted, not all farms are taking the same precautions. “There is an uncertainty about consistent action on the part of farming companies in terms of providing extra paid time off for not only being ill but needing to be home for childcare, that may not be something that a lot of farming companies can do,” she said.
That inconsistency can put agricultural workers at risk, and has local and national government bodies scrambling to establish more universal guidelines. However, even if new regulations are codified, not all farm managers may follow the rules.
“The laws on the books are not the laws in the field,” the UFW’s Elenes said to the Bee.
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