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Coronavirus: Work continues for county’s 36,000 farmworkers, who are considered essential

Source: VCSTAR.COM | March 26, 2020

Freddy Urbano, a farmworker at Underwood Family Farms, thinks about the coronavirus a lot. He follows all the recommended precautions and worries that if a lot of people get infected, his work could be impacted.

In the fields, farmworkers now practice social distancing, staying six feet apart while harvesting strawberries, broccoli and other produce. But at home, social distancing is more difficult. Urbano’s family of four lives in one room of a four-bedroom home shared with three other families, in overcrowded housing conditions that many farmworkers experience.

“The worry is about all the people in the house, because if one person even not in my family got sick it could infect us,” he said in Spanish.

As movie theaters, gyms and bars close due to the coronavirus, Urbano and Ventura County’s approximately 36,000 other farmworkers are still in the fields. Farming is considered an essential industry, and farm companies are quickly adopting precautions to keep workers safe.

“Our food supply is critical, and agriculture and agricultural workers are a critical component of that. We are looking at the work that is being done by farmers, farmworkers, transportation and packinghouses as essential functions,” said Ventura County agricultural commissioner Ed Williams.

Williams recommends that growers help workers socially distance and provide sanitation measures. At Underwood Family Farms and Underwood Ranches, this means workers spread out in the fields and use hand sanitizer.

“We’ve been doing everything that’s been required or suggested as far as handling products, having hand sanitizers, and being careful about distance,” said Craig Underwood, owner of Underwood Family Farms and Underwood Ranches. “But if workers don’t follow those rules at home, we don’t have any control over that.”

Other growers are adopting similar practices. Reiter Affiliated Cos., which grows berries in Oxnard, is using reduced crew sizes or split crews and alternating lunch breaks to avoid large groups of people at once. In the strawberry fields, harvesters work on every other bed to maintain social distancing. Virtual medical visits, flu vaccines and medical care are also available at the company’s health care clinic, and COVID-19 prevention fliers are posted on ranches.

ason Tamai of Tamai Family Farms in Oxnard says many of the recommendations are already standard practice: wearing gloves, practicing personal hygiene, and cleaning equipment regularly.

Ellen Brokaw, president of the Brokaw Ranch Co., says the company is restructuring work so people are always six feet apart.

“The goal we all have is to keep our workers safe and keep them coming to work, unless they are ill or need to be home for childcare or because somebody else is ill,” she said.

Brokaw added that she’s been in regular discussions with other growers, with groups that work with farmworkers and with the county about best practices.

“One of the things we discussed was the need to extend breaks and lunchtime so people have time to wash their hands appropriately, as well as giving illustrated instructions on how to do that,” she said. “We haven’t adopted that yet. There’s just a lot of small things that can make a big difference in keeping people safe, and I’m sure there’ll be many more ideas as things go on.”

Blanca Moreno is grateful that both she and her husband work at Underwood Family Farms in essential jobs, because she isn’t as worried about losing income during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Other places are shutting down work, and a lot of restaurants are closed, but I’m thankful that this job isn’t shutting down,” she said in Spanish. “I don’t want to lose my job, because if I lose this job there’s no other jobs to do.”

While Urbano is still working, his wife’s job at a flower packing warehouse was suspended indefinitely, leaving him worried about the family’s finances.

“It is a big problem,” he said. “You have to pay the rent every month, and buy food, and buy gas, and if you’re not working the money’s not coming.”

Urbano is aware of the eviction moratoriums that protect people from eviction due to coronavirus-related nonpayment of rent, but still worries about paying back-owed rent later.

According to Williams, some of the county’s farmworkers are also worried about whether missing work due to the coronavirus will hurt their future employment chances.

“Some of the farmworkers are very concerned about taking time off and how that’s going to be viewed,” he said. “Most of the work that’s done in the county goes through farm labor contractors who manage the crews. Some may be concerned about how much work they’re going to be given in the future.”

In an open letter to agricultural employers last week, United Farm Workers called for employers to provide 40 hours or more of sick pay, and for workers to be placed on paid administrative leave for the duration of the illness if they or an immediate family member contracts COVID-19. Under state law, employers must give employees at least three sick days a year.

Some local growers say extending paid sick leave is currently not financially feasible and are closely following the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which passed last week. The new federal law will require small businesses to provide two weeks of paid sick leave if employees can’t work due to COVID-19. Employers will receive tax credits equal to the amount of sick pay they paid employees to offset the cost.

At Tamai Farms, employees currently get three sick days per year, but that could be extended under the new law.

“We know that Congress just passed the federal law. If there’s more to be offered we’d extend it to two weeks,” he said. “Especially for small businesses like us, that help would be necessary just because two weeks for a company our size would be really hard to do.”

Urbano also gets three days of sick leave currently.

“With this virus, I don’t know what would happen after three days if I get sick,” he said.

At this point, any additional time off for illness would be unpaid, according to Underwood.

“I think for small businesses right now it’s pretty much all the same. We’re worried about keeping our business healthy and our people healthy,” he said.

Brokaw Ranch Co. is increasing sick leave for its employees, but Ellen Brokaw notes that this isn’t possible for all farming companies.

“There is an uncertainty about consistent action on the part of farming companies in terms of providing extra paid time off for not only being ill but needing to be home for childcare, that may not be something that a lot of farming companies can do, especially the smaller ones and we have a lot of small farmers,” she said.

She added that details of the Family First Coronavirus Response Act will also clarify what farmers are required to do.

Williams says his office, growers and advocacy groups are working to determine additional recommendations.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t really think of agriculture as being a critical function, but I think it is ultimately critical for every one of us so we need to keep it strong,” he said.