“We are in trouble”: Essential, but not documented, agricultural workers cannot receive help


While millions of Americans will soon benefit from the $ 2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package and agriculture expects to receive up to $ 23.5 billion in aid, Undocumented farm workers like Jesús Zuniga receive nothing despite their vital role in growing and harvesting plants sold in US grocery stores.

Zuniga is from Hidalgo, Mexico. She is 45 years old, lives in California, and has worked in state agriculture for 20 years. He has picked onions and tomatoes and is currently harvesting grapes.

“We are in very difficult times and are in trouble as farm workers,” Zuniga told CBS News in Spanish. “We are important workers, we pay taxes, so we hope so.” [the government] would help us as they plan with others who have the documentation, “he said.

Jesús Zuniga in the field with grapes that he cultivates.

Courtesy of Jesús Zuniga

Zuniga fears that if he becomes infected with the highly contagious virus, he will not be able to support his children, who still live in Mexico.

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“I have a son who has had a car accident. He has a broken arm that needs surgery. I am afraid that we cannot work and I have no money to pay for the operation. He is 20 years old and my other son is 19 years old. They rely on me. “

Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers (UFW), said she and the union continue to fight for workers to see what the state and the federal government can do.

“You know, the irony: they are essential, but they have no essential rights. And they are the ones that feed us all,” she said.

The United Farm Workers sent two open letters to agricultural employers in March asking for extended sick leave and easy access for unions farm workers to medical services.

“”We need their employers to come to the table and find out how we can As a farm worker, help those farm workers who are the backbone of the industry, “said Romero.

When UFW surveyed workers on March 27, 77% said that their non-union employers had not provided best practices or made any changes to COVID-19.

Elvira, who only wanted to use her first name, is 27 years old and has been working in the fields where tangerines and citrus fruits are grown for four years. She says the company she works for “has not given us information about precautions or changed anything in response to the pandemic,” has not provided masks and gloves, and continues to hold morning meetings with everyone.

Courtesy of Elvira.jpg
Elvira in the fields of California during her shift.

Courtesy of Elvira

“They didn’t tell us anything about the virus at all,” said Elvira. “They don’t take us into account. They don’t worry about us, they just worry about their production going well.”

Elvira, mother of four, ages 4 to 12, said she felt more pressured financially because her children were out of school. She pays about $ 200 a week to leave her with a caretaker, whereas previously she only paid $ 60 a week for her youngest.

“My children are just as concerned,” she said. “You see the news and ask why we don’t quarantine like the others – and I have to explain if I am not working, who will bring the necessary things home?”

Marta Acevedo is a 56-year-old farm worker living in Santa Rosa, California. She works in the fields and moves, builds and processes grapes for a vineyard. Although she is also concerned about the virus, she believes that “the company is doing everything it can to help us.”

“The company gave us papers explaining what the virus is, how to protect ourselves, and how to proceed in this situation. They told us to wash our hands, stay at least one meter apart, and in our cars eat when we prefer to. “

In the Salinas Valley, a company that is making significant efforts to protect its 1,500 union agricultural workers during the outbreak is D’Arrigo Brothers, which grows, packs and ships broccoli, cauliflower and other Andy Boy products.

CEO John D’Arrigo told CBS News that the company now has “quite an inspection process”. When farm workers come to work that day, they need to be checked for fever, dry cough, and other symptoms associated with coronavirus.

He said extreme disinfection measures are being taken, along with efforts to educate workers about correct protocols to make sure everything is clean. He said portable hand sanitizers were installed all over the place, and devices, transport buses, and sanitation were disinfected all day.

“”We’re just trying to make sure that the entire workforce, both here and when you go home, is safe for your whole family, “said D’Arrigo. He added that the buses that take farm workers to the field are now require social distance and assigned places.

“Let’s say you’re a broccoli crew and bus 34. Well, that’s your bus. And that seat on that bus is now your permanent seat,” he said. “This is a place you step on, and this is a place you step out of – and nobody gets in your place. We want one person per place, and now we want every second place to be empty.“”

Agricultural workers from the D’Arrigo Brothers Company practice social distancing in transport buses to the field.

D’Arrigo Brothers Company

Armando Elenes, treasurer at United Farm Workers, said D’Arrigo Brothers is the only company to “make great strides” with such comprehensive food safety and coronavirus prevention measures.

However, Jesús Zuniga and Elvira feel that their non-union employers have completely ignored the coronavirus pandemic. They are afraid and hope for change.

“We are upset because the company should have done something to keep us informed and protected,” said Zuniga.

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