“You can’t pick strawberries over Zoom.”
In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers will be leaving Mexico and Central America to come north to hand harvest the fruits and vegetables destined for our tables. The huge role they play in our vital food chain and in sustaining a critical industry generating billions of dollars per year is so central to life and the economy in the United States that, along with nurses and doctors, first responders and ambulance drivers, they have been designated as essential workers who are not subject to the work and travel restrictions affecting most other workers.
They will travel north for 30 or 40 hours, crowded close together on cramped buses, to be deposited in labor camps. If the camp conditions comply with law, they may sleep in dormitory-style bunk beds no more than three feet apart. Commonly, in my experience, those camps are overcrowded, and two workers may have to share a single bunk. Often workers will be taken in overcrowded buses to the fields each day and to stores on the weekends to buy food. Cooking facilities are shared, and quite rudimentary. The jobs farm workers do often require them to work in close proximity to other workers. Hand washing and sanitary facilities are very limited, and often far from where workers are laboring. Days beginning in the very early morning, and long, exhausting hours of work are not particularly conducive to disease resistance.
While daily life of a farm worker is mostly segregated from the rest of the community, interaction with permanent farm staff and the need to buy food and other necessities will bring workers into contact with others, exposing them to the pandemic spreading through the United States.
Coming from isolated communities, workers may have little information about COVID-19 or how to protect themselves. Access to health care may be impossible. Fear of firing will make workers extremely reluctant to miss work due to feeling sick, or to complain of symptoms. Even having a place to isolate oneself to avoid infecting co-workers will often be impossible. Although we have created important relief programs for other workers who become ill or are otherwise hurt by the COVID crisis, most farm workers are not even eligible for those programs or even for subsidized health insurance for medical treatment.
Worker advocates have appealed to the federal agencies responsible for regulating temporary worker programs to adopt emergency rules to address this impending public health disaster—so far, to no avail. Oregon OSHA has been pressed for temporary rules to address this situation, but is only considering whether to initiate a rule-making procedure.
But the buses are already rolling, now. Rolling to a foreseeable, tragic and unworthy debacle. Workers who are heroically performing work that is so essential to the community deserve better.
These are extraordinary times. This is just one example of the extraordinary hazards that low wage workers are imminently confronting. As a community we face awesome challenges. Even though we are dislocated, disrupted, working at home--communicating by Zoom--every one of us has a responsibility to reach deep to find what we can do to help. Lives are at stake.
NWJP staff is working overtime to do everything we can to advocate for safe, healthful and fair working and living conditions for those workers who are required to keep working in spite of the risks. Please join us, in whatever ways you can in your realm of possibility. Write to your governmental representatives, demand better of public enforcement and support agencies, donate to farm worker clinics, help with food banks, make face masks. Please do whatever you can.
It will take all of us to get through this.
 Farm worker advocate Lucas Zucker. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-04-01/california-farmworkers-coronavirus