The Double Threat of Covid-19 and Wildfires on California’s Migrant Workers

Image taken from Unspalsh, by Marcus Kauffman; graphic by Rachael Millar

By Sarah Booher

That glass of wine, those strawberries in the morning, those grapes you eat as a snack; California’s central valley has been dubbed the ‘Salad Bowl of the World’ for the mass amount of produce that it provides not only to the US, but across the globe. The majority of agricultural work in California is done by migrant workers, primarily from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, half of whom are undocumented citizens. Already an incredibly vulnerable population, the double whammy of Covid-19 and wildfires have forced California’s migrant workers into unbearable conditions.

The spread of Covid across the United States prompted California to designate over 381,000 people in the state’s agriculture industry ‘essential workers,’ according to the University of California, Merced. The paradox is that despite being deemed ‘essential’ to the country’s workforce, those workers who are undocumented were ineligable for federal financial support. In communities that are already reliant on seasonal and output based work to make a living, the consequences proved dire. Forced to work while the pandemic surged, the agricultural community in Monterey County reported three times as many Covid cases compared to the rest of the county’s population. Often faced with the additional hindrance of language barriers, labourers were placed in a position in which they were not made unaware of their rights. ‘We felt like they would tell us. They would take precautions. But they didn’t,”  Marielos Cisneros said of the nut harvesting plant in which she worked. Following an outbreak in that same plant that resulted in over 151 covid cases, Roxana Alverado remarked, ‘they took away my right to choose whether to expose my family and myself to Covid when they didn’t inform us what was going on.’ Despite workers reporting taking precautions themselves at home, the subcontracted nature of the agriculture industry has created a system in which there is very little holding employers accountable. Workers need the money, and those who are undocumented fear speaking up for risk of deportation.

This was at the beginning of the summer. In August, wildfires began to spread rapidly across the state. Smoke blanketed the skies and people woke up to a layer of ash on their cars. In some areas, the air-quality index (the official designator of how much pollution is in the air) was determined to be the most unhealthy in the world, surpassing Delhi and Beijing. The state has mandated that employers provide workers with masks when the air quality reaches unhealthy levels. However, the reality is far more concerning. According to Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena, workers say they are more likely to ‘receive a mask from a nonprofit than their supervisor.’ Employers have also exploited loopholes that allow workers to stay in areas that have been evacuated due to fire risk. In Sonoma County, where much of California’s wine is produced, workers have been allowed to stay behind because they are deemed crucial to harvesting food for the rest of the country. 

Dependent on seasonal labour, workers typically rely on their earnings from the summer harvest to see them through the winter, thus the incentive to continue working in such conditions was high. Rosa Villegas who picks lettuce in California’s central valley said of working in the smoke, ‘our eyes were red and stinging, but we worked full days.’ The smoke has triggered asthma attacks, with some labourers even having ended up in the hospital as the result of working under prolonged smoke exposure. ‘There is often a culture where if you speak up or say you don’t want to work, you may be seen as someone who is lazy or doesn’t want to work and you may not be called back for the next harvest,’ according to Lucas Zucker of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. Forced into the impossible position of trying to provide for their families amidst the pandemic, migrant workers have been left with little choice but to keep working under such conditions. 

Responsible for providing the produce that makes up California’s forty-seven billion dollar agriculture industry, migrant workers are an integral part of the state’s workforce. Already struggling to survive under the pandemic economy, the wildfires that cut short the summer harvest forced workers to make unbearable choices. Faced with the added obstacles of language barriers and the fear of deportation, the plight of California’s migrant workers has been ignored for far too long. The next time you reach for a handful of almonds or a bottle of wine, take a moment to consider the people who have continued to work throughout the pandemic, under smoke filled skies, to provide your food. 

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