August 3, 2020 by Gary Quackenbush
With the 2020 grape harvest approaching, growers and farmworker support groups face new evidence that agriculture workers are being hit hard by the coronavirus.
The California Institute for Rural Studies, in collaboration with community groups, said in a recent study that the Latino community is the most vulnerable group for the virus, disproportionately represented by about 56% of the state’s COVID-19 cases and 49% of deaths, but account for only 39% of the total California population. Latinos make up 92% of the state’s farmworkers.
The results are based on phone interviews with 900 individuals from May to July. Survey data showed that farmworkers are at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than those in other industry categories.
The survey area included the North, South and Central coastal areas, desert regions, and the San Joaquin Valley. It comes as the industry in Wine Country is dealing with housing issues and caring for the safety of its workers.
Workers face a double threat
In Sonoma County, 134 local agriculture workers account for 11% of the adults with known employment who have tested positive for COVID-19 through July 21, according to county statistics. In all, there were 6,200 ag workers in Sonoma County in June, part of a civilian workforce of 224,400 people, according to state employment data. As of July 30, there were 2,748 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 32 deaths, with 1,437 recoveries.
Trade groups Sonoma County Winegrowers and the Farm Bureau of Sonoma County provide COVID-19 prevention education, information and training opportunities through webinars, websites, printed materials and videos.
“Agricultural workers in California now face a double threat: the COVID-19 virus and loss of employment owing to the collapse of foodservice demand,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. “Sonoma County’s wine community has been facing a labor shortage for the past decade. Jobs here are sustainable because the crop must be harvested and crushed and since the end product is bottled and can be aged, meaning there is opportunity to navigate marketplace dynamics.”
She said the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation purchased 6,000 KN95 masks and distributed them to all vineyard workers.
“We partnered with St. Joseph Health to provide free fabric masks for any farm operation and farmworker who needed them,” Kruse said. “In addition, we have provided regular updates on appropriate protocols and safety measures as we get them and published them on our websites in English and Spanish.”
Kruse said a partnership between the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Winegrowers has been convening Ag Stakeholder communications and outreach meetings and together are filming videos in Spanish of farmworkers talking about protocols to stay safe that can be shared peer to peer.
The Grape Growers Foundation has established two farmworker resiliency funds, one supporting employees if workers have a spouse who recently lost a job or wages as a result of COVID-19, and another fund available to employees if they had to miss work due to COVID-19 reasons (testing, potential exposure, etc.).
Another effort involves the purchase of washers and dryers to limit trips off the ranch and growers have secured additional housing in the event that a worker has to be quarantined.
Kruse said her team schedules weekly Ag calls with Sonoma County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase to get updates and share concerns. Currently the biggest issue many are facing is the long delay in getting test results.
More than 20,000 masks distributed
In Napa County, there are more than 21,000 vineyard workers and family members. As of July 30, there were 865 cases of COVID-19 — with 466 active cases and eight confirmed deaths, based on county statistics.
Napa County Housing Authority owns and operates three dorm-style farmworker centers for local workforce. The wine industry provides financial support through a local assessment to provide living accommodations, three meals per day and access to support services.
“Like any congregate living environment where the risk is higher, guidance from the CDC was implemented and regular screenings have occurred,” said Molly Rattigan, deputy county executive officer.
Officials in early July attributed a spike in infections due to a cluster of cases in one of the county’s farmworker housing centers where at least 30 residents tested positive. Infected residents of that center were placed into quarantine, either in a motel or emergency isolation trailers provided by the state, effectively ending the outbreak according to a Napa Valley Register report.
Residents at all three centers have been tested with industry support and positive cases have been responded to by providing isolation and quarantine housing. The industry has offered 10 days of paid sick leave and has worked to link impacted individuals with direct financial assistance programs operated by the Napa Valley Community Foundation.
“All center residents have recovered or are completing their quarantine and isolation period. We continue to closely monitor the situation at the housing centers so we can act swiftly to support residents. We are working with the industry on developing programs to provide additional testing and financial support programs for impacted farmworkers utilizing CARES Act funding and local contributions from industry groups,” she added.
Rattigan said the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation have provide over 20,000 masks to farmworkers and their families as well as PPE and ongoing educational materials
Napa Valley Farm Worker Foundation and Napa Valley Grapegrowers have announced a partnership with St. Helena Hospital Foundation to increase access to COVID-19 testing for farmworkers using the hospital’s mobile van that can travel to vineyard sites and test up to 100 vineyard workers per day, according to the St. Helena Star.
Napa County Farm Bureau has embarked on hosting a continuing series of Napa Valley industry-wide educational webinars addressing COVID-19 during the harvest and how Ag employers and employees can best respond to the pandemic and handle outbreaks in the workplace.
Funds from these entities have secured an initial order of 3,000 tests to be made available throughout the harvest to vineyard workers per day. Since March, the local foundation and Napa Valley Grapegrowers have dedicated over $200,000 to provide comprehensive safety resources in Spanish and English, social distancing signs, and cloth face masks to more than 10,000 farmworkers.
“We’re not just working locally,” said Molly Williams, industry and community relations director for Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “Recently, Napa County Grape Growers became part of a statewide bilingual community education campaign via the COVID-19 Task Force Coalition to achieve compliance through education to ensure public health and safety of the county’s residents, employees and visitors.”
Pandemic continues in the state
Don Villarejo, founder of the California Institute for Rural Studies, said farmworkers continue to be at higher risk as the cases mount.
“When looking at data from Monterey County alone, farm workers there were three times as likely to get COVID-19 as workers in other industries,” he said. “How can you target specific populations if you can’t determine the pathways of infection? We need to see data from each county based on race and industry employment. There is a fundamental lack of transparency in California when it comes to obtaining information from government sources, meaning we have to rely on local contacts to determine companies affected by virus outbreaks and where COVID-19 cases have occurred in the workplace.”
Of the state’s 58 counties, only four have employment statistics by industry and specific groups heavily impacted by the virus, Villarejo said on a CIRS survey feedback webinar.
Survey data also revealed that agricultural workers lack health care access combined with fear of using medical services, while being vigilant about using virus prevention practices outside of the workplace. At the same time, they report low numbers of employers are providing masks and face coverings.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS), less than one-third of California crop workers have health insurance.