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California's undocumented food workers face grim dilemma: health or wages

"People are scared to go to the doctor. They're scared to go to the clinic," said the executive director of a farmworker nonprofit group.
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This is the first article in a new collaboration: "NBC News x Noticias Telemundo Reports," which will feature reports by correspondents from both news organizations — in English, on NBC News platforms, and in Spanish for Telemundo readers.

McFARLAND, Calif. — Xiomara Valderrama usually spends her days picking grapes in California's Central Valley, where one-quarter of the U.S. food supply is produced. But she has been unable to work since she learned that her 5-year-old son may have been exposed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at his day care center.

Valderrama will need to wait up to two weeks for the boy's test results — which means two weeks without income to cover the rent and pay for other basic necessities.

"It's going to be a stress to get that money," Valderrama said.

The chief executive of California Grapery is trying to make sure workers get paid for missed hours. But for thousands of vulnerable, predominantly Latino undocumented workers across this sprawling agricultural region, there is immense fear and reluctance to self-report possible COVID-19 infection — even with some doctors promising confidentiality.

The United Farm Workers union estimates up to 70 percent of farmworkers in this region are in the U.S. illegally, which means they do not have access to federal or state unemployment benefits, and they cannot risk losing their livelihoods. The pressure to work is forcing some laborers to potentially ignore their exposure to COVID-19.

"People are scared to go to the doctor. They're scared to go to the clinic. They're not going to their monthly doctor visits because they fear that the outcome is going to be COVID-19," said Hernan Hernandez, the executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides services and resources to farmworkers.

The infection rate among Latinos has outpaced the rest of the U.S., and the community has also been disproportionately hurt by the economic downturn associated with the pandemic, the Pew Research Center reported Tuesday.

Salvador, a father of four who works in the fields, believes he might have been exposed to the coronavirus three weeks ago, around the time somebody who later tested positive visited his home. Salvador decided not to get tested because he was scared a positive result would mean being sidelined from work, unable to make money for his family.

The roughly $500 Salvador and his wife bring home every week barely covers their bills, so he kept working. He said he did not inform his boss of his possible infection because he was not showing symptoms. Instead, he and other workers who thought they might be infected quietly warned one another to keep their distance.

Ernestina, who works alongside hundreds of others at a pistachio packing plant, said she became infected with the coronavirus and stayed at home for a month, missing out on two weeks of pay. But before getting sick, she said, she witnessed other workers hiding symptoms, holding in coughing fits for as long as they could.

Dr. Harjeet Brar, the president of the Good Samaritan Hospital in Bakersfield, told NBC News that his medical staff are not asking patients about their immigration status.

"That is not the intent at all. We're here to help," Dr. Brar said, adding: "We just want you guys to get tested so we can protect your family." (Good Samaritan, through a partnership involving the California Farmworker Foundation and Kern County, has worked to provide a mobile testing unit to farm communities in the state.)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has pledged $52 million to the Central Valley to help with coronavirus testing and contact tracing, with the broad goal of slowing the spread of the virus in the region. In mid-April, Newsom said the state would partner with philanthropic groups to provide disaster relief to undocumented immigrants grappling with the coronavirus who are not eligible for other pandemic assistance programs.

“We feel a deep sense of gratitude for people who are in fear of deportation but are still addressing the essential needs of tens of millions of Californians,” Newsom said at the time, adding that many undocumented immigrants work in essential sectors such as health care, agriculture and food services.

Newsom has signed an order providing two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave for essential workers, including farmworkers. The state has also partnered with county agriculture commissioners to help distribute 12.6 million surgical masks to agricultural workers, in addition to other personal protective equipment.