Farmworker bills aim to protect against COVID-19 but may not go far enough
Filemon Ruiz Rodriguez harvests jalapenos at George Chiala Farms in Morgan Hill. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

In a fragrant field of dew-drenched leaves, an uneven row of farmworkers labored before sunrise at a farm in Morgan Hill.

These men and women, as well as hundreds of thousands of other farmworkers across California, could benefit from a suite of Assembly bills that will likely be passed by the end of this month. But the state legislation still leaves many workers vulnerable to the threat of poverty, as well as a higher rate of coronavirus infection.

“Our entire purpose was seeking to strengthen the health, safety and economic security of our most vulnerable workers, our ag workers… to assure that we prevent the destruction of our food supply,” said Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), who co-authored the legislation.

Rivas said farmworkers have the highest case rates of novel coronavirus in neighboring Monterey County, the main part of his legislative district. Rivas said Latinos in his county constitute 90% of COVID-19 cases while constituting 61% of the population — and farmworkers in the county are three times more likely than the general population to contract the virus.

“That’s a problem,” Rivas said. “The governor understands how important that this issue is for the district I represent, how important it is for farmworkers, how important it is for Latinos in this state — how important it is for all of us who are so dependent on this low-wage, incredibly dangerous work that our essential workers are doing to ensure that we have food at the grocery store.”

Three Assembly bills — AB 2043, AB 2164 and AB 2165 — expand essential services to farmworkers, including telehealth and electronic filing of court documents.

AB 2043 amends California’s occupational health and safety code to distribute information on COVID-19 prevention to farmworkers, including adding new pages to the Department of Public Health and the Department of Food and Agriculture.

The information will be available in both English and Spanish, the most commonly spoken languages in the state. However, many of the state’s farmworkers do not speak either language, according to Gervacio Peña Lopez, executive director and cultural advisor for Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena (MCUI), a nonprofit serving indigenous communities in Northern California.

Peña Lopez said through a translator that MCUI helps interpret information to indigenous-language speakers, as well as to people who understand spoken Spanish but can’t read it. While the nonprofit is based in Napa County, he said their interpreters are still able to translate for farmworkers across the state through video calls.

“There’s definitely going to be a need to interpret information,” Peña Lopez said.

There’s a lack of data on the number of indigenous farmworkers in the state, as well as the number of indigenous people who have been infected with COVID-19.

“A lot of indigenous people are being classified as Hispanic, or Spanish, or Latinx people,” said Xulio Soriano, also with MCUI. “We don’t really know how many indigenous people got COVID because the reports say ‘Hispanic.'”

Lauren Ornelas, founder of the social justice nonprofit Food Empowerment Project, said the new legislation does not change the low wages paid to farmworkers across the state, which makes it difficult for workers with COVID-19 symptoms to protect themselves and their communities.

“For them to take time off, it’s a fear of losing income; it’s a fear of not having food to put on the table, or a roof over their families’ heads,” Ornelas said. In addition, many workers live in densely-packed homes with several other family members, making the rate of transmission much higher.

The average farmworker wage was roughly $15 an hour in 2016, according to Rural Migration News. This estimate does not include workers who are paid under the table or paid per pound of produce.

According to the Center for Farmworker Families, a services and advocacy group, there are 500,000 to 800,000 farmworkers in California. About 75% of them are undocumented immigrants, according to the Center for Farmworker Families.

The bills are awaiting the governor’s signature but will likely be passed unless the governor formally vetoes them via a legislative maneuver commonly called a pocket signature.

Ornelas said while the new legislation helps, the fundamental problems facing farmworkers won’t improve until employers pay higher wages.

“These growers, these wineries, need to be paying these farmworkers better,” Ornelas said. “These are people who are doing everything for their families to survive… and yet we don’t provide them the decency of living wages.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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