The first phase of a survey of California farmworkers about the impacts of COVID-19 found a community afraid to seek medical help, suffering financially more than most groups and missing out on information and guidance due to language barriers.
The study, undertaken on short notice by a consortium of groups, led to a series of recommendations to improve assistance to workers who survey representatives said are three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than those in other jobs.
Recommendations include providing more guidance in indigenous languages, increasing government collaboration with community organizations, erasing barriers to reporting COVID-19-related complaints and simplifying access to support services.
Results of the first phase of the study were outlined Monday in a virtual seminar titled “The COVID-19 Farmworker Study — Findings from California,” presented by the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at UC Davis.
“They are the people at the base of our food system,” said Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies and one of those involved in the survey. “They really lack protection.”
She added, “We really hope the study highlights ways to reach farmworkers.”
Carlisle-Cummins admitted the study didn’t look at a scientifically random sample of farmworkers because of the difficulty of reaching them but, rather, surveyed those who had built up a level of trust and communication with the community-based organizations collaborating in the survey.
But she said an analysis of the 915 farmworkers who participated in the survey of 70 questions closely mirrors what is known about California agriculture, Carlisle-Cummins said.
Among the finding were that 54% of workers said costs, lack of insurance and lack of sick leave were significant barriers preventing them from accessing health care, even when they are ill.
Fear was also an impediment to seeking care for 24% of respondents, with 6% afraid of contracting COVID-19, 6% distrusting the health-care system and 12% afraid the government would deport them.
The study recommended expanding access to health care regardless of documentation.
Communication with farmworkers also was found to be a problem.
About 18% of the respondents completed the survey in an indigenous language from Mexico — Zapoteco, Mixteco and Triqui — and the study recommended providing more guidance and information in Mexican indigenous, Asian and non-academic Spanish languages in culturally appropriate literacy levels.
Worry over the loss of income, where their next meals would come from, keeping a roof over their heads and caring for their children weighed heavily on farmworkers, the survey found.
More than half, or 51%, reported decreases in work time and a subsequent loss of income, which made it harder to meet such basic needs as child care, housing and food.
Employer-induced reasons for work time cutbacks included decreased demand for products, an increased need for sanitization and the need for employee testing, while employee-based reasons included a lack of child care and the fear of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.
But other factors also played a part, including hotel and restaurant workers who lost their jobs and had to work in the fields, which shortened the season and, thus, reduced income.
The study recommended expanding income and safety net support for farmworkers regardless of documentation status.
Regarding their jobs, 54% of respondents said their employers provided face coverings, but only 13% said employers improved cleaning and hygiene; just 18% said employers enforced compliance with guidelines, and 25% said they provided personal protective equipment and COVID-19 updates.
But about 90% of the workers said they took extra measures to protect their families when they got home from work.
The study recommended erasing the barriers to farmworkers reporting COVID-19-related complaints and simplifying access to support services.
Immediate needs noted by the study were getting N95 masks to workers and balancing the priority of preventing COVID-19 from spreading with protecting mental health, especially with regard to fatigue and exhaustion.
Oralia Maceda, co-executive director of Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, said they have seen some improvement in the distribution of personal protective equipment since the survey was conducted in May and June.
She said Fresno County gave her organization 7,000 masks, which it distributed directly to farmworkers in the fields.
“Other counties, they say they’re giving them to workers,” Maceda said. “When we go to the fields, we don’t see the farmworkers have those masks.”
Carlisle-Cummins admitted there are barriers to implementing the recommendations that must be overcome.
“Clearly, there is some trust that needs to be built or rebuilt between the farmworker community and state agencies that have not served them well for some time,” she said, adding those agencies should connect with community organizations that have built up networks.
“I think that’s going to require some big systemic changes,” she added.
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