As pandemic rages, farmworkers say employers are 'prioritizing production over...lives’ By Jessica Myers | Luce Foundation: Southwest Stories Fellowship
Bertha spent 17 days in her bedroom after testing positive for COVID-19.
There, she made the soup and the “hot, hot tea” that helped her endure the headaches and coughing fits associated with the contagious respiratory disease. Bertha, an agricultural worker, said she couldn’t risk going to the kitchen or other parts of the house and infecting her 18-year-old daughter.
The two-plus weeks of isolation seem to have paid off: Her doctor recently cleared her to resume normal activities, Bertha said, and her daughter was never infected. But Bertha worries that if she returns to work processing pistachios for Primex Farms LLC – a California-based grower and exporter of nuts and dried fruits – she will bring the virus home again.
Bertha, who agreed to speak on the condition her last name not be published for fear of retaliation, said she doesn’t know whether she can trust the company’s attempts at disinfecting the space and implementing safety measures. Even before she tested positive, she thought the farm’s safety precautions were insufficient.
From a lack of social distancing in dining areas to employees handling pistachios without gloves, she estimates “many pounds” of pistachios passed through the hands of workers infected with COVID-19.
As of early July, 87 workers and 58 family members, 23 of them children, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, according to data compiled by United Farm Workers, a labor union. Many more are awaiting results.
“I don’t want to go back,” Bertha said. She feels she has only two options: Accept the working conditions, or quit.
The pandemic has forced agricultural workers throughout the Southwest to make a similar choice between their health and their incomes. Though industry representatives say farms are doing everything they can do to protect their employees, worker advocates argue a lack of industry protections – and the “invisibility” of much of the work done by day laborers – have made farmworkers especially vulnerable to exploitation.
“It just shows the contradiction in calling somebody an ‘essential worker’ but only for what you need them for, not to care for them as human beings that also are afraid of getting sick,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, a migrant-rights advocate in Texas.
Workers kept in the dark
Primex Farms, which manages 5,000-plus acres of pistachio orchards and processes millions of pounds of nuts each year, did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment about its handling of COVID-19 cases.
But Armando Elenes, United Farm Workers’ secretary treasurer, detailed some of the stories shared by Primex’s roughly 400 workers.
Employees first heard about positive COVID-19 cases in passing, he said. Co-workers would say, “Oh, did you hear? So-and-so tested positive.”
As more and more stories of people not showing up to work started to circulate, a few workers went to human resources in early June. But officials dismissed their concerns as rumors, he said.
Elenes said the supervisor of one employee who reported COVID-19 symptoms suggested the worker only had the flu and was too important to take time off.
Bertha also said she was shooed away when she sought more information on possible COVID-19 cases, saying she received no clear explanation for management’s silence.
Workers officially found out about the scope of the virus at work when Primex confirmed 31 positive cases on June 23, Elenes said.
“They felt betrayed. They felt lied to,” he said. “They felt there should have been communication.”
Within two days, about 50 workers had gone on a one-day strike, demanding more transparency, better sanitation, free face coverings, gloves and more.
A day later, Primex closed its facility to conduct a deep cleaning. It reopened at partial capacity July 2, with plans to resume full operations July 6, Elenes said.
At first, workers were not given masks and were told they had to buy them for $8.
Primex also tested workers for the coronavirus, insisting that even those who’d recently tested positive be present, Elenes said.
“Some of them went out of fear that they would lose their jobs if they didn't,” he said.
On July 1, Primex announced employees 65 and older who did not want to continue working could stay home and get paid for the time they took off, Elenes said. Those with symptoms and who tested positive would also be paid for their time off.
But later, Elenes said, workers received paychecks that reflected only the time they’d worked. Workers also reported staff had told them if they didn’t like the company, they could leave, he said.
“The company has always consistently told them that it's really important that they keep production going,” Elenes said. “From the worker's perspective, they're prioritizing production over the employee's lives.”
Roxana, a sanitation worker at Primex, similarly said the company’s lack of transparency put lives at risk. It took away workers’ ability to “make the choice for ourselves to continue working and expose our families,” she said.
On June 16, she began feeling extreme body aches and had a fever. The next day, she got a COVID-19 test at a community health clinic. Seven days later, she was told she’d had tested positive for the virus.
Her 9-month-old son also tested positive.
“It was very difficult,” Roxana said in Spanish. She also agreed to speak on the condition her last name not be published for fear of retaliation. “It was very hard to see your kids unwell and not be able to help them in a timely way.”
Each day, Roxana’s family has “been getting better with fewer symptoms than we had,” and she plans to return to work once she gets the green light to do so. But she’s not confident the company is taking adequate precautions to protect their workers, despite masks now being provided free of charge.
“I still feel scared because they haven’t hired a business specialized in coronavirus disinfection but instead have used the sanitation crews to clean,” Roxana said. “If it isn’t disinfected properly, if they haven’t sanitized it well everywhere, the majority of the plant is metal, and scientists say that the virus can live up to 72 hours on metal.”
Workers also “don’t know if this virus can re-infect those of us who’ve had it already, and that exposes us and our families, too,” she said.
On July 6, dozens of workers again protested Primex’s management of the outbreak, Elenes said, slamming the company for calling COVID-positive employees back to work before they’d received medical clearance, among other things.
‘On the margins of society’
Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said the “frenzy” of Americans stocking up on groceries at the beginning of the pandemic due to fear of food insecurity should be reflected in support for agricultural workers like Bertha and Roxana.
“If you're concerned about food security, you better be concerned about the workers who are providing that food to you,” he said. “If you don't take necessary steps to preserve their health, that itself will be a threat to food security.”
He said more people in power need to care about safe housing, work conditions, access to sick leave and a living wage for those in agriculture.
Federal labor law does not protect farmworkers’ right to organize, “making it difficult for them to band together to bargain for better pay and working conditions,” according to the Center for American Progress.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found farming, fishing and forestry to be among the occupations with the lowest unionization rates in 2019, at 2.1%. Primex Farms workers are not unionized, but United Farm Workers is assisting workers there at no cost.
“When you take workers who are on the margins of society and further marginalize them by diminishing their protections, it leads to a vicious cycle,” Jawetz said.
Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of south Texas-based organization La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, also argued workers without legal immigration status have been treated as expendable despite being called “essential workers” during the pandemic.
“They are ‘essential workers,’ but only for how this country needs them,” Valdex-Cox said.
When she visited a farm while Texas had a stay-at-home order in place, for instance, workers did not have masks. In a watermelon field, she said, workers had no choice but to work side by side.
“The farmer isn't going to space you out, because that's more land that he's going to lose by not being able to plant closer together,” Valdez-Cox said. “There’s no such thing as social distancing in the fields.”
And laborers feel pressure to accept unsafe conditions to protect their incomes: “If you want to feed your family, you have to go out and work, even though you're at risk,” she said.
Industry argues owners are ‘doing their best’
Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation, argued agricultural laborers who work outside can more easily practice social distancing than those employed in other settings.
He disputed the idea owners and managers have placed profits above all else, saying many have implemented guidance from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
“Based on the conversations I'm having with farm employers, and phone calls and emails and everything else you can imagine, I certainly have a very strong impression that they're doing their best to do everything they can do to protect their employees,” said Little, who also serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service.
Farmers have revamped certain job requirements to facilitate physical distancing, made sanitizer and additional hand-washing stations available and provided more space for meal and rest periods, Little said. Though he acknowledged workers have struggled to access testing, he pointed to broader testing issues throughout the state.
Little also said employers can only protect their employees during their shifts, which “leaves the other two-thirds of the day when an employer has absolutely no influence on what those employees are doing.”
He said the California Farm Bureau Federation has run public service announcements in English and Spanish requesting employees cover their faces, practice social distancing and stay home when ill.
“To the extent that you are doing things at work to protect yourself, you should be doing them while you're not at work,” Little said.
‘They have always been essential’
Some undocumented workers have lost their jobs entirely during the pandemic, according to Valdez-Cox, who grew up in a family of farmworkers herself.
LUPE is helping pay rent and mortgages for migrants who are out of work and struggling financially.
Laborers in south Texas not able to make their typical summer moves north to find work have taken on small jobs to get by, such as minor home repairs or yard work. Women who would typically help clean homes have lost work due to homeowners’ fears of exposure, she said.
“The eviction notices are going up, because they can't pay right now,” Valdez-Cox said. “So, you're having to move in with other family members, and that in itself is a very difficult situation, because you're crowded. And with the (need for) social distancing, it's just a terrible situation.”
Emma Torres, executive director of Arizona nonprofit Campesinos Sin Fronteras, echoed Valdez-Cox’s concerns, describing undocumented farmworkers as an almost “invisible group” to much of the public.
“They have always been critical to our economy,” Torres said. “They have always been essential in that respect, but they have been the least protected, the least covered, the least insured.”
Other members of the public feel undocumented workers take advantage of U.S. resources, she said, even though such workers are largely ineligible to receive government aid despite paying into the system.
“Now being considered ‘essential,’ it's an excellent opportunity to see who they are, the contribution that they do for the country,” Torres said.
“Hopefully, something good out of this (recent spotlight) may come where they will get equal protection.”
Arizona dairy farms pivot from restaurants to food banks as COVID-19 shifts demand By Sarandon Raboin | Luce Foundation: Southwest Stories Fellowship
Thousands of gallons of wasted milk. Unpredictable, zig-zagging prices. Abrupt dips and surges in demand.
The last four months have been a rollercoaster for Arizona dairy farms, as the coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed the way some of their biggest clients did business.
The ride isn’t over yet: Arizona is grappling with one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country, meaning impacts on school and restaurant operations — and their respective dairy needs — remain uncertain.
Food banks find themselves overwhelmed with community demand, yet some struggle to safely store and distribute the flood of milk being donated in response.
And, beyond Arizona’s borders, foreign dairy markets continue to evolve.
“In 46 years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Keith Murfield, United Dairymen of Arizona CEO.
School, restaurant closures hit industry hard
The majority of dairy products — such as butter, cheese, sour cream and even milk — don't go to grocery stores.
Instead, they end up at restaurants and schools, according to Tammy Baker, general manager of Arizona Milk Producers.
That demand disappeared in a matter of days after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as state officials shut down spaces where large groups tend to gather to slow the spread of the virus.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order March 16 closing all K-12 schools for two weeks. He later extended the closure through the rest of the school year.
On March 19, Ducey ordered restaurants to halt dine-in service. Restaurants that shifted to takeout and delivery used, at best, half the dairy supply they’d needed before, Baker said.
Farmers were stuck with thousands of gallons of milk and nowhere to send it, according to Jim Boyle, manager of Casa Grande Dairy Company.
The lack of demand forced farmers to limit their production — not an easy feat in the spring months, when more milk is naturally produced. For nearly two weeks, Boyle said, farmers dumped thousands of gallons of milk.
To adjust production, some farms fed their cows differently, changed from milking three times a day to just two, or made their cows stop producing milk.
In May, governments began easing pandemic-related restrictions. Restaurants in Arizona and other parts of the country started accepting dine-in patrons. Little by little, restaurant demand for dairy products started coming back.
But it was still lower than normal, according to Baker.
Arizona Milk Producers have focused on giving more dairy products to schools around the state now that school's out, according to Baker.
"We’ve been spending a lot of time working with school food service directors that now have summer feeding programs going and alternative programs so those kids can get the food they need,” said Baker.
Food banks struggle to keep up with dairy donations
Arizona Milk Producers started looking at other possible destinations for dairy products.
One of their bigger targets: food banks, which had begun seeing an increase in patrons and demand, according to Angie Rodgers, CEO of the Arizona Food Bank Network.
Some of the larger food banks that normally saw 700 or 800 people a day were now seeing up to 2,000 people, she said, while smaller food banks run out of churches or community centers saw at least double the demand.
“I do think that (dairy) is a valuable and wanted commodity by consumers,” she said.
Rodgers said food banks are now receiving “a significant amount” of milk and other dairy products through local farms and the federal government. But ensuring those larger quantities make it safely to everyone who needs them comes with its own set of obstacles.
“The handling, the short shelf life, how it needs to be stored at certain temperatures, how quickly it needs to be distributed is a challenge,” said Rodgers. “It’s a challenge for all food banks.”
Smaller food banks, especially those in rural areas, don’t necessarily have the refrigeration capacity needed to store the influx of dairy products, she said.
To combat this problem, the Arizona Food Bank Network issued about $1.4 million in infrastructure grants. The funding will help cover new refrigerators, electric bills and mileage for volunteers who will drive the milk across the state, Rodgers said.
Some foreign demand ‘could take years’ to return
Locally, dairy farmers said they’ve seen demand for their products skyrocket in recent weeks. On June 20, for instance, cheese prices hit an all-time high after dropping to a 20-year low back in April.
The strength of the prices will allow dairy producers to recoup some of their losses, said Murfield, the United Dairymen of Arizona leader.
But not all of them, according to Boyle, the Casa Grande farmer. Demand for foreign exports remains “very weak” in some parts of the globe, he said.
“Because of where we are located in Phoenix or Tempe, we export a lot of products to Mexico,” he said. Right now, Boyle said, it’s just too expensive for some Mexicans to buy Arizona products because the Mexican peso is too weak.
“That could take years to fix,” he said.
With Arizona’s current surge in COVID-19 cases, dairy farmers are keeping an eye out for new
slumps or spikes in demand.
But having gone through it once, they feel more equipped to change course if needed, said Boyle.
“For right now, we’re fine,” he said. “But we are prepared ... to cut back.”