Farmworkers 'harvesting America's food supply' amid coronavirus pandemic fight for safety

"Everyone that works here works to survive," says a farm laborer in California. "All I ask is for a little help to feel safe."

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By Nicole Acevedo and Nirma Hasty

California has ordered all residents to stay home because of the threat of COVID-19, but thousands of farmworkers like Mariana are still showing up at work — despite worries that their employers are not doing enough to protect or support them.

Mariana, who wanted to use her first name only for fear of any possible employer retribution, is in the state's eastern Coachella Valley and has been working in the fields for 12 years. She is one of the many essential workers in the nation's biggest agricultural state, supplying food to the nation even though many businesses and institutions have been ordered closed.

"But we still have to go to work," she told NBC News in Spanish. "So it would be good to implement some measures to protect us, like sick days. I think we have like three sick days, but I think that's not enough."

Recovering from the coronavirus and other flu-like diseases can take two to six weeks, according to the World Health Organization.

Mariana has picked different crops over the years, and most recently was harvesting peppers.

Employment on farms tends to grow during spring season and peak in July — but this year, jobs could be fewer because of the pandemic. Against this backdrop, farmworkers are advocating for their safety as they continue "harvesting America's food supply," according to Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer at United Farm Workers.

UFW, the nation's largest farmworkers' labor union, is urging growers to take "proactive steps and implement best practices" to provide some basic information about the coronavirus and "extend certain rights and benefits so that workers can feel comfortable and safe in preventing the spread of the virus," Elenes told NBC News.

The Economic Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to promoting the interests of workers in economic policy debates, recommends that farm employers "provide adequate safety equipment" such as masks and gloves as well as "ways to disinfect their hands, tools, clothing and machinery."

They also suggest farmers use social distancing measures to keep workers safe, "even if some safety measures reduce productivity."

"We need to care about these workers that are doing that hard work, heavy work, dignified work, professional work," said Elenes. "They're the backbone of the food supply chain."

The latest Economic Policy Institute report suggests growers "should also provide health insurance and paid sick days."

While Mariana's employer told her and her colleagues to "keep distance between each other" in the fields and wash their hands, she said she would feel safer going to work if her bosses would openly address how the virus affects her daily tasks and what specific precautions agricultural workers should be taking to avoid infection.

Jaime Lopez, who helps grow vegetables in a field in Bakersfield, California, admitted that he's not well informed about the coronavirus — "and who knows if anyone else here is informed, but based on what I've heard, I don't think they are."

Mariana and Lopez are not alone. According to Elenes, an overwhelming majority of farmworkers have also not heard from their employers. "That's really discouraging," he said. "It's not costing them anything except a little bit of care, a little bit of time."

Workers use news or social media to fill information gaps left by lack of official information, according to Elenes and Mariana.

"We're mostly scared of getting sick or spreading it to our kids," Mariana said. "But at work no one talks about it. It's like everything is still running as normal. We show up, we do our job and that's it."

The coronavirus crisis prompted renewed attention to farmworkers’ critical role as residents often find empty supermarket shelves cleaned out by people stockpiling food supplies and sheltering in place.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the threat of contracting COVID-19 from food or food packaging is low. But farmworkers are mostly concerned about passing it to each other or their loved ones, especially those who care for elders in their families.

Elenes said he knows of several farms in multiple states that have been making efforts to take sanitary precautions, give farmworkers basic coronavirus information and enough sick days, among other resources. The benefits, however, are not universal — meaning workers need to negotiate directly with growers to get better conditions.

"We're asking the grower community to step up and advocate for your workers and take care of your workers," he said, "so that they can protect themselves, so that they can protect the American food supply and ultimately the consumer."

Another concern is the status of foreign workers in the U.S. on temporary agricultural visas, known as H-2As, as the demand for farmworkers increases in the coming months. Workers under this visa program make up at least 10 percent of the nation's crop farmworkers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

But changes in visa processing policies, put in place in response to the coronavirus, will likely decrease the number of temporary agricultural workers who can work on U.S. farms by as much as 60,000.

Employers are responsible for housing H-2A workers and providing them with transportation to work. Workers often live in close quarters, sometimes in bunk-style beds or in motels, and commute together in vans and buses. This means there are additional health and safety issues employers need to consider when hiring during the pandemic.

A Labor Department spokesman said this week that there were no announcements that working conditions for H-2A workers had changed, The Associated Press reported.

Lawmakers signed a $3 trillion stimulus package last week to combat the coronavirus. While the aid will help many families, it excludes many farmworkers.

At least 50 percent of all farmworkers are undocumented, according to United Farm Workers. Even though the government considers them essential workers, they will most likely be ineligible for the relief payment most U.S. households will receive.

"I think more should be done to protect us better. With this new disease going around, I wish for better safety measures, getting paid if I can't show up for work," Mariana said. "As farmworkers, we live paycheck to paycheck. Everyone that works here works to survive, and all I ask is for a little help to feel safe."

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