Berry News

Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic

Source: NYTIMES.COM | April 3, 2020

LOS ANGELES — Like legions of immigrant farmworkers, Nancy Silva for years has done the grueling work of picking fresh fruit that Americans savor, all the while afraid that one day she could lose her livelihood because she is in the country illegally.

But the widening coronavirus pandemic has brought an unusual kind of recognition: Her job as a field worker has been deemed by the federal government as “essential” to the country.

Ms. Silva, who has spent much of her life in the United States evading law enforcement, now carries a letter from her employer in her wallet, declaring that the Department of Homeland Security considers her “critical to the food supply chain.”

“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” said Ms. Silva, a 43-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has been working in the clementine groves south of Bakersfield, Calif.

It is an open secret that the vast majority of people who harvest America’s food are undocumented immigrants, mainly from Mexico, many of them decades-long residents of the United States. Often the parents of American-born children, they have lived for years with the cloud of deportation hanging over their households.

The “essential work” letters that many now carry are not a free pass from immigration authorities, who could still deport Ms. Silva and other undocumented field workers at any time.

But local law enforcement authorities said the letters might give immigrant workers a sense of security that they will not be arrested for violating stay-at-home orders.

“If you have people who perceive that they may be stopped and questioned or deported because of their status, under these circumstances, having that letter makes them feel comfortable,” said Eric Buschow, a captain with the sheriff’s office in Ventura County, where thousands of farmworkers labor in strawberry, lemon and avocado operations. “They can go to work. And their work is essential now.”

The pandemic has also put many of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s operations on hold. On March 18, the agency said it would “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture” to focus not on ordinary undocumented immigrants, but on those who pose a public safety or criminal threat.

The agency said it would not carry out enforcement actions near health care facilities “except in the most extraordinary of circumstances” and would instead focus its efforts on human trafficking, gangs and drug enforcement.

“Those of us without papers live in fear that immigration will pick us up,” Ms. Silva said. “Now we are feeling more relaxed.”

Across the country, farmworkers have been struggling to understand what the coronavirus outbreak will mean for their safety and livelihoods. Even if they face a lower risk of deportation, many worry that the close working conditions in fields and packing facilities put them at risk for contracting the virus, and some warehouse workers are seeing their hours cut as employers adjust to the shifting market.

For many workers, the fact that they are now considered both illegal and essential is an irony that is not lost on them, nor is it for employers who have long had to navigate a legal thicket to maintain a work force in the fields.

“It’s sad that it takes a health crisis like this to highlight the farmworkers’ importance,” said Hector Lujan, chief executive of Reiter Brothers, a large family-owned berry grower based in Oxnard, Calif., that also has operations in Florida and the Pacific Northwest.

Mr. Lujan, whose company employs thousands of field workers, described them as unsung heroes for guaranteeing that Americans have food security.

“Maybe one of the benefits of this crisis is that they are recognized and come out of the shadows,” said Mr. Lujan, whose company has been lobbying Congress to pass a bill that would legalize immigrant farmworkers.

About half of all crop hands in the United States, more than one million, are undocumented immigrants, according to the Agriculture Department. Growers and labor contractors estimate that the share is closer to 75 percent.

Despite increased mechanization, the agriculture sector has continued to struggle with a dearth of labor because many fruits and vegetables must be harvested by hand to avoid bruising.

In a 2017 survey of farmers by the California Farm Bureau, 55 percent reported labor shortages, and the figure was nearly 70 percent for those who depend on seasonal workers. Wage increases in recent years have not compensated for the shortfall, growers said.

Strawberry operations in California, apple orchards in Michigan and dairy farms in New York and Idaho are wrestling with a shrinking, aging work force, a crackdown at the border, and the failure of Congress to agree on an immigration overhaul that could provide a steady source of labor. A surge in deportations and the voluntary return of many Mexicans to their home country have aggravated the shortage.

As a result, growers increasingly have turned to a seasonal guest-worker program, officially known as the H-2A program, to fill gaps in their labor supply. The number of workers on the visa rocketed to 257,667 in the 2019 fiscal year, compared with 48,336 workers in the 2005 fiscal year.

Growers panicked after the State Department paused all visa processing in Mexico during the public health emergency. In response to an outcry, the department announced on March 26 that it would waive in-person interviews, enabling most applications to be vetted in time for the peak harvest.

American agriculture is at a critical juncture, with a massive volume of produce to be harvested between now and August. In California, citrus fruit is still being plucked off the trees, strawberries are getting underway, and many other crops will ripen in the summer. In Georgia, Vidalia onions and peaches will soon be mature. In Washington, apple trees are heavy with fruit in the summer.

Letters notifying undocumented workers that they are “essential,” when they still officially face potential deportation, are sending the same mixed signals that have long been at the root of American agricultural labor policy, according to many who work closely with the process.

“Some people are really confused by the message,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director of P.C.U.N., a union representing agricultural workers in Woodburn, Ore. “The government is telling them it needs them to go to work, but it hasn’t halted deportations.”

She and other advocates said employers are not doing enough to educate their workers, who often do not speak English, about the coronavirus. “When people don’t understand the risks, they don’t take necessary precautions,” Ms. Lopez said.

The pandemic carries particular risks for agricultural workers. Most do not receive sick pay if they fall ill, and they lack health insurance. The $2 trillion pandemic aid package that passed Congress last week does not offer any assistance to undocumented immigrants.

Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers, said that letters affirming that workers are “essential” do not substitute for “meaningful steps to stem the pandemic by protecting farmworkers with basic actions.” Those would include, he said, extending sick leave to 40 hours or more, making it easier for workers to claim sick days and providing more aggressive disinfection of work areas.

Some growers, like Reiter Brothers, have trained workers on how to stay healthy, including frequent handwashing and the proper techniques for coughing and sneezing. The company has increased the number of handwashing stations in the fields and spaced out workers who are picking strawberries. The company also offers medical care.

Jim Cochran, a grower of organic berries, artichokes, broccoli and other crops in Santa Cruz, Calif., told his workers that he would keep paying them if they contracted the virus and had to miss work, even for three weeks.

Agricultural workers in packing warehouses and poultry plants, who often work in close quarters, are both fearful of getting the virus and worried about recent cutbacks that have threatened their ability to work.

Maura Fabian, 48, packs grapes for schools and hospitals in a warehouse in the Central Valley near Fresno, where she said that about half the workers have been let go; the others, she said, including her, have had their hours drastically cut.

Since March 16, Ms. Fabian has worked four-hour shifts most days, and been told not to report at all on other days.

She assumes that her employer has thinned the packing lines because, with schools closed, demand for packed fruit is down. The company is also trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among workers, she said.

“We’re afraid of this illness. But we are more afraid that we won’t be able to make a living,” said Ms. Fabian, a single mother who bought a house in October, where she lives with her three children.

In Idaho, where a statewide stay-at-home order began on March 25, dairy owners are scrambling to ensure that the industry’s 8,000 workers, 90 percent of them undocumented, can keep working. Even before the virus, the industry, which needs workers year-round to milk the cows, had been grappling with a labor shortfall.

Rick Naerebout, chief executive of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said he had fielded calls from many dairy farmers worried that their workers may be unable to get to work if the authorities begin enforcing domestic travel restrictions. So he has been providing members with a template to print out on official letterhead and distribute to workers, stating that they are now considered essential workers, part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

“The fact that there is that cognitive recognition that we have to allow these individuals to travel to and from work because they are critical — that’s the complete opposite of what they’ve heard for nearly their entire lives, that they have taken away opportunities from Americans,” he said.

“At the highest level of government, now we’ve seen this be recognized. Whether it’s formal or informal, there’s this acknowledgment that, you’re OK.”