Eva Garcia’s nerves frayed after hearing false rumors that COVID-19 vaccines were dangerous. But the 35-year-old Californian farm worker, who herself tested positive and recovered from the virus earlier this year, decided getting the vaccine was the right thing to do.
The blow, she thought to herself, would protect her, her husband and their children. Garcia, undocumented and without access to health care in the United States, received a photo of Moderna on March 2 at a mobile clinic on the farm where she harvests parsley.
“I had COVID, I survived it and I am much happier knowing that I am protected,” she told Al Jazeera by phone via a translator.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that states prioritize farm workers in the first phase of their vaccination campaigns. This is exactly what California, the country’s first agricultural producing state, did, making Garcia one of the first agricultural workers in the United States to be vaccinated.
In late February, Governor Gavin Newsom traveled to Fresno in the Central Valley, one of the state’s main agricultural hubs, to announce new mobile clinics and outreach activities for farm workers.
“These are the people who never took a day off, these are the people who never complained, these are the people who wake up every day and [are] there for the rest of us so that we can live our lives, ”Newsom said, as the Associated Press news agency reported.
“It’s not just Californians who benefit, it’s people across the country and around the world.”
When COVID-19 spread across North America, farm workers were one of the hardest hit groups.
As of February 23, more than 387 farms and production facilities in the United States have confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of labor groups. In these workplaces, at least 12,857 farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and 43 have died.
But Jayson Lusk, professor and head of the agriculture department at Purdue University, told Al Jazeera that the actual number of cases is likely much higher: he estimates there have been 543,000 cases among agricultural workers l last year and 9,000 workers died.
Lusk’s data shows Texas and California have had the most cases due to their large population of farm workers. The Center for Farmworker Families advocacy group estimates that California is home to between 500,000 and 800,000 farm workers, about 75 percent of whom are undocumented.
Washington state followed California’s lead this week, opening up eligibility for farm workers. But other states are neglecting this high-risk population, even as the virus continues to spread in counties with high concentrations of farm workers. The CDC’s recommendations are not binding, leaving it to states to develop their own rules.
Texas has excluded farm workers from its phase one campaign. Florida also has a high number of cases among farm workers, but requires proof of residency for vaccination, denying access to undocumented people. New York, where 3,000 farm workers have tested positive, prioritized other food service workers but left out farm workers.
New York farm organizations and state officials have sent letters to Governor Andrew Cuomo asking that farm workers be prioritized, but have not received a response, according to the Documented NY news site.
Florida Agriculture Minister slammed Gov. Ron DeSantis for not including undocumented workers in vaccination efforts, and Texas Democrats called on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to include farm workers, but the rules remain the same.
Beyond the human effect of COVID-19, agricultural workers are vital to the security of the global food supply, Lusk told Al Jazeera. “Making sure we have the people available to plant and harvest the crops will help ensure our grocery stores aren’t empty or our food prices don’t go up,” he said.
Farm workers are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the nature of their work and lack of protection, said United Farm Workers (UFW) spokeswoman Elizabeth Strater. They move from farm to farm as the seasons change, live in crowded housing, commute to work in packed vans and buses, and work closely together in fields and packing facilities.
“Their lives are very common events,” Strater said.
They are also more likely to have severe cases of COVID-19 because the work is hard on their bodies; often they are exposed to pesticides, occupational accidents, extreme heat and smoke from forest fires. According to the Center for Farmworker Families, they are not protected under the national labor relations law and are exempt from many protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act. They are also less likely to have access to health care.
In Garcia’s case, she was bedridden with COVID-19 for 15 days with a dry throat, dizziness and pain in her bones. Because she is undocumented, she had no access to health care other than home remedies.
In California, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal / OSHA) has promised to meet COVID-19 guidelines, but a recent investigation by the California Institute for Rural Studies found the agency had failed to enforce the COVID-19 rules.
Farm workers said they continued to experience crowded commutes to work, and employers laughed at them when asking for masks. In response to the report, Cal / OSHA told Calmatters that it proactively reaches out to essential workers and that agriculture is the only industry where the number of inspections conducted by the agency exceeds the number of complaints.
But agricultural workers are paid per unit of production they harvest, which also encourages them to work in hazardous conditions. “If they’re not feeling well, there’s an economic desperation that can’t be overstated,” Strater said. “They will work.”
Hungry for vaccines
Despite Garcia’s reluctance, Strater said most farm workers want to be vaccinated.
The United Farm Workers Foundation surveyed more than 10,000 farm workers about the vaccine and found that 73% were ready to receive it, 22% were neutral and only 5% said they did not want it.
However, there are still barriers. Slater said filling out forms online can be difficult due to language barriers and undocumented people may not feel safe providing information to the government. To combat any remaining hesitation, UFW is calling and texting thousands of farm workers to sign them up for vaccination clinics.
The group also set up a vaccination clinic at the Forty Acres National Historic Landmark in Delano, California – the site of an international grape boycott and strike in the 1960s, and the land that the union leader Cesar Chavez has acquired as a spiritual center of the agricultural workers movement.
Slater said about 3,000 workers were vaccinated at the site last week.
On March 14, Baldomero Perez, 45, received his first and only injection of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Perez, who harvests blueberries, grapes and tangerines, felt reassured when he learned he would be vaccinated at The Forty Acres, which feels right at home for the farm workers.
He was so excited that he brought his sister-in-law and brother, also farm workers, to be vaccinated as well. “It was emotional to be there,” Perez said over the phone through a translator.
“I don’t have the legal right to be here, but I have a UFW union ID and it’s sufficient in Forty Acres,” he said. Other vaccination sites in California require photo ID (although it does not need to be government issued), proof that the person lives and works in the county, and proof that the person lives and works in the county. she is a farm worker.
Meanwhile, Garcia will receive his second dose on March 30. She and her husband, who had also tested positive for COVID-19, feel more comfortable now that they are vaccinated, but she said they would continue to take precautions, including wearing masks and avoid large groups.
“We’ve all been really scared,” she said, of the past year. Now she said, “I can’t wait to be safe with the vaccine.”