The label of “essential worker” in the United States is often expressed as a badge of honour, especially in the COVID-19 pandemic-mired lead up to the American general election in November.
In the earlier days of the pandemic, across American cities, people would collectively cheer out of their windows at 8 pm local time each night in gratitude for those working in frontline jobs. Billboards line Hollywood Boulevard and other major arteries of Los Angeles in thanks to these workers. Countless social media posts praise workers for their service during this time. Doctors, nurses, Uber drivers, and grocery store clerks–their employment, in spite of locked-down cities, rising COVID-19 infection rates, and failing businesses, has helped maintain a baseline of normal for the people who didn’t have to do those jobs.
But for Veronica Pérez, who works as a sortadora, separating good pistachios from bad pistachios at Primex Farms in Kern County, California, being an essential worker has meant feeling used and disrespected.
“Without rights to healthcare and safety, we are very used,” she says on the phone, through an interpreter.
Without public health mandates early on, Primex Farms did not initially require workers to wear masks or socially distance. On June 23rd, after several weeks of no masks being worn, even in crowded areas of the farm, Veronica and her coworkers found out that 31 of the company’s 400 employees had tested positive for COVID-19. They say the company didn’t tell them; they found out through a local news report.
Pérez and her coworkers organized a protest, putting their employment at risk to demand PPE, a sanitized workplace, and paid sick leave. Despite their demands, as July rolled into August, the rate of infection had increased more than fourfold: 150 employees tested positive for the virus. They protested again. OSHA opened an inspection into Primex Farms. It is ongoing.
Operations were temporarily suspended by Primex, with new measures introduced. The Chief Operating Officer told a local news outlet they were, "reducing our capacity down to comply with social distancing, installing dividers and provide masks and protective face shield to our employees."
But the situation facing Perez is not isolated. Reports have emerged from across the United States that Latino communities, like African Americans, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
It’s estimated half of US farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. They can’t access relief measures.
Formed this summer, the COVID-19 Farmworker Study aims to track the spread of the virus among farmworkers. The study has released its first phase of findings, which suggest that PPE is not nearly enough.
“We found that folks are being vigilant about COVID-19 precautions,” said Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, executive director for the California Institute for Rural Studies, in a livestreamed press conference for the farmworker study. “What they need is for the long-standing vulnerabilities of their lives to be addressed in a real way.”
Pérez, who has found an empowered voice through her involvement with community-based organization Lideres Campesinas, refuses to stay quiet.
“They call me into the office,” she says. “But I won’t let my voice shake.”
In California, where farmworkers harvest two-thirds of all the fruits and nuts in the US, ongoing wildfires and record-setting heat waves have made working during the pandemic even more dangerous. Almost all farmworkers in California are Hispanic (99 per cent), and the majority were born outside of the US (95 per cent), according to a 2018 study by the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that half of the country’s 2.5 million farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. Despite being “essential” and classified as employees in what the Department of Homeland Security called a “critical infrastructure industry,” these undocumented workers cannot benefit from federal coronavirus relief measures or vote on state and federal policy changes that might improve their lives.
“They pay into the system, but don’t get anything back,” says Irene de Barraicua, public relations manager for Lideres Campesinas.
Farmworkers are in a vulnerable position–needing to work in a safe environment while not necessarily having the leverage to confront employers.
Oxnard-based Lideres Campesinas, along with other organizations including the United Farm Workers, has mobilized individuals and institutions to provide healthcare and mutual aid to California farmworkers at a time when state and federal governments are failing to meet their needs. This groundswell of support is something that de Barricua hadn’t seen in her years of community organizing until now.
“To me it means that there’s a huge rise in consciousness,” she says. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Building awareness through social media
Are farmworker rights a major election issue? De Barraicua sees it as a human rights concern that may impact voter behaviour this November. Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy, says that farmworkers rights are often overshadowed by large, perennial election issues like education and healthcare. Even when classified as “essential workers,” she says, farmworkers do not loom large in the American imagination.
“I think we’ve seen an established connection by corporate America and by others saying ‘thanks’ to essential workers… we’re talking healthcare workers and police and grocery store clerks,” Romero said. “You’re not hearing a whole lot about the farmworkers who are putting the food, eventually, on our plates. That’s nothing new, unfortunately.”
Pérez said she hopes that California Latinos, in particular, will choose to vote because of the challenges faced by farmworkers. Though a recent poll shows that 63 per cent of Latinos in the state prefer Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, American Latinos are not a monolith. Thirty-seven per cent identify as politically liberal, 32 per cent say they are moderate, and 31 per cent say they are conservative. It’s more liberal than recent years, says Dean Bonner, associate survey director and research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “It used to be a third, a third, and a third,” he said, pointing to socially conservative political stances tied to Catholicism among Latinos.
“Not every Latino has a connection to the farmworker community,” says Romero, “Many don’t.”
But de Barraicua and others are aiming to change that. During the pandemic, mobilizing voters and engaging them with issues has gone online. Social media users have found aesthetically pleasing ways to spread awareness, mobilize voters, and promote grassroots community initiatives at a safe distance.
De Barraicua, who manages Lideres Campasinas’ Instagram page, said she sees a lot of support from young people, ”A lot of artists,” she says. “And people with big followings who are into graphic design.”
“The way so many of us naturally connect with others was taken away,” says Beth Mathews, who has gained notoriety among social impact circles for The Mom Bag, a project she started in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, to connect refugee women with self-care items. “That was difficult, not being able to help when there’s so much need.”
Mathews, who moved to Los Angeles to work as a graphic designer for Califia Farms, a beverage company known for its nut milks, was searching for a new way to give back. She learned about Lideres Campesinas through “an Instagram hole I went down,” she says, laughing. She partnered with the organization to adapt The Mom Bag project for farmworkers.
“I feel like so many of us creative types, we have these skill sets to be able to amplify voices or get people interested and involved,” she says. “Personal stories create empathy… I want to show how great and essential immigrants are to the US.”