Business & Economy

Deemed essential by US gov’t, farmworkers say coronavirus protections lacking

Oxnard, California, Mar 31 (efe-epa).- Farm work has been deemed essential by the United States federal government during the coronavirus crisis, but laborers in that sector say they are not being protected from infection even as they help ensure a regular supply of fresh food to markets.

“When I go to work, in danger of getting sick, I feel like my life doesn’t mean anything,” Celso Guevara, a 33-year-old strawberry picker in this city on California’s South Coast. “It’s like the president is sending us off to war without protection.”

On March 19, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a memo on the identification of “essential critical infrastructure workers” who should remain at their jobs in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The list was headed by health care workers, while the third industry to be mentioned was food and agriculture.

US President Donald Trump was quoted as saying in the guidance that every person working in a critical infrastructure industry has “a special responsibility to maintain (their) normal work schedule.”

In Guevara’s case, he said that schedule begins “before the rooster crows.”

This native of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero works alongside around 160 other farmworkers, many of whom have been wearing latex gloves and cloth handkerchiefs covering their mouths and noses to shield themselves from infection.

Farmworkers maintain social distancing by staying at least two meters (6.6 feet) away from one another in the fields, while foremen ensure their workers have enough soap and water to wash their hands regularly.

“We’re grateful to have a job, but we work with the fear of going home with a headache, cough and fever,” Guevara said, insisting on the same protections offered to other essential workers such as “first responders and nurses.”

Guevara also said it is disappointing to see that, even as farmworkers put themselves at risk to ensure sufficient supplies of food at supermarkets, some “irresponsible” people are taking walks or going to the beach in defiance of authorities’ orders to stay at home.

Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer of the United Farm Workers, a union founded in 1962 by the late legendary civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, told Efe that there are currently more than 1 million farm workers in the United States, of which “95 percent are Latino and 50 of every 100 … are undocumented immigrants.”

“They can’t stop working because more than half can’t apply for unemployment benefits since they don’t have papers,” he said.

Elenes also noted that undocumented farm workers are ineligible to receive direct cash payments (up to $1,200 per individual and $3,400 for a family of four) under a recently approved $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at mitigating the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To promote the economic and mental stability of at-risk farmworkers, the UFW is proposing hazard pay raises of “at least $2 per hour,” as well as extended sick leave and other measures to protect these laborers in the event of a health emergency.

If farmworkers “are essential workers, according to the government, they should receive essential benefits for their families,” Elenes said.

For his part, Dionisio, a 29-year-farmworker from Mexico, told Efe that the government needs to understand the importance of the farmworkers’ contribution.

“If we don’t work, the economy will completely collapse,” he said.

Dionisio said the best way the president could compensate farmworkers for putting themselves at risk of catching the coronavirus would be to support the granting of permanent residency status “to these essential laborers.”

Speaking on behalf of UFW, Elenes said the awarding of green cards “to all undocumented persons would resolve many of the labor security problems of these essential workers.”

The pandemic, meanwhile, also is sparking other concerns within California’s $50 billion agricultural industry.

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