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Fields of fear: Oregon farmworkers lack safety net as pandemic threatens jobs, health

Farmworkers are considered essential workers, but they don’t necessarily receive essential services such as health care and unemployment benefits
Credit: PCUN
A farmworker in an Oregon field harvests green onions. (Photo courtesy of PCUN)

Beatriz Tapia fears tomorrow.

So do billions of other people in a world caught in the grip of a deadly pandemic. Yet Tapia faces a different kind of fear. The virus scares her less than the neglect it breeds toward the day-to-day struggles of people already pushed to the edges of society.

“It’s hard for all of us right now, but especially for farmworkers,” Tapia told Street Roots as she is about to start another season in the fields of Oregon. “There’s no help, no support for us. We are totally alone.”

Tapia won’t get a $1,200 stimulus check. Neither will most of her fellow farmworkers. They won’t keep their distance either. They will continue to work next to each other in the fields.

“If you’re picking cabbage, you’re in a truck, people are throwing things at you, and it’s really difficult logistically to be 6 feet apart,” said Reyna Lopez, the executive director of the Woodburn-based farmworkers union PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or Northwest Farmworkers and Treeplanters United).

Tapia just hopes work is available. Many farmworkers traditionally find jobs on ranches until the berries and other crops are ready for picking. Those jobs are scarce this year because ranch owners fear hiring too many people might violate coronavirus restrictions.

Farmers and ranchers will have little choice but to hire farmworkers come the height of the agricultural season. Farmworkers are considered essential workers. Yet while they face similar risks to other people forced to work during the pandemic, they don’t receive similar protections or benefits.

“The farmworker community is one that seems to be left out, even though we know that immigrants and farmworkers in general are essential to our state, to our country,” said Ivan Hernandez, the communications director of Causa, an Oregon-based immigrant rights organization.

“When we talk about farm-to-table food, we know that an immigrant likely had a hand somewhere in that process,” Hernandez told Street Roots. “And yet, farmworkers don’t have the same rights, and they are under tougher working conditions. During this pandemic, we’re seeing the same thing.”

Tapia said she would like the right not to be torn away from her home and forced to return to the violence that killed much of her family before she fled to the United States five years ago with her son, who is now 14. 

“The idea of deportation terrorizes me,” Tapia said.

“In the five years that I’ve been here, I think I’ve been a good citizen,” she said. “I’ve paid my taxes. If they deport me to Mexico, I’ll be in danger. My son and I will be separated. I don’t know where I’ll live.”

Contracting COVID-19 ranks very low in her list of concerns at the moment, Tapia said. 

“My biggest fear right now is not having a job,” she said. “My second fear is having to leave the country.”

For legally unprotected and largely invisible workers, Lopez told Street Roots, employment is often a matter of life or death.

“If we know we’re not going to be eligible for unemployment, we want to work,” she said. “We want to get that paycheck, and it’s scary to think that we’re going to be laid off and then what are we going to do? We want to go to work because we want to get paid, not because we’re being reckless or careless. We’re afraid.”

Most people considered essential workers in the state are eligible for unemployment benefits. But many farmworkers are not.

In fact, statistics from Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank established in 2001, estimate as many as 74,000 immigrant workers in Oregon are ineligible for benefits. In addition to undocumented farmworkers, many immigrants who are caregivers, restaurant workers and day laborers, as well as people who are in Oregon as refugees, are also denied federal benefits.

Leaders of Causa, PCUN and more than 100 other nonprofit organizations are asking the Legislature to create the Oregon Worker Relief Fund to help. 

“It will be challenging, but we’re hopeful,” Lopez said about the proposal’s chances.

If passed, the fund would help replace lost wages for workers in culturally specific communities in the state. 

“The federal government really failed immigrants with the stimulus package,” Hernandez said. “They’ve been completely left out.”

That needs to change, said Adriana Miranda, executive director of Causa. In written testimony submitted March 18 to the Oregon Legislature’s Special Committee on Coronavirus Response, she urged lawmakers to take immediate action.

“We need to grant financial resources directly to community partners who can help our front-line communities,” she said in her testimony.

“We ask our state government to set up an emergency fund for nonprofit organizations of the state who serve immigrants, refugees, day laborers, farmworkers and people of color — all of whom will be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

Specifically, Miranda advocated:

• Unemployment benefits for people regardless of immigration status.

• Statewide rent and mortgage forgiveness.

• Free food and other essential resources to low-income families.

• Universal child care for those who continue working.

• Small-business assistance grants to child-care facility owners.

Some means for field workers to wash their hands would also be nice, Lopez said.

“It’s the most basic thing,” she said. “We’re over here asking for hand-washing stations and soap while everybody else is in this totally different conversation about stimulus money and getting $1,200 per household. That’s just not even our reality. We’re fighting for the basics.”

What they’re not fighting for is charity, she said. 

“Charitable spending can’t solve the crisis,” she said. “We need Oregon to invest in the economic stability of our families.”

Even before the pandemic, farmworkers worked in the shadow of their own mortality. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average life expectancy of migrant farmworkers is 49, compared with 73 for the general population.

Few people outside the farmworker community seem to notice or care, Gina Adrien told Street Roots. Adrien is the senior vice president of external affairs for Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.

“We’re experiencing employers who honestly don’t care about the health of their workers,” Adrien said. “We’re powerless to address these predatory employers who honestly don’t give a fig about their documented and undocumented workers.”

The coronavirus pandemic poses unique challenges not only among farmworkers, but in the larger Latinx culture, she said.

“We see the Latinx community of two different minds,” Adrien said. “We’re struggling a lot with our communities for the need to avoid groups. We’re running across a lot of cultural norms. It’s challenging. The idea you don’t get together for a family gathering is just very foreign.”

Yet people are also terrified by being forced to work without protective gear and without access to basic sanitation, she said. “They’re just packed in one by one.”

Yakima Valley Farm Worker Clinic operates 36 medical centers, dental clinics and child nutrition sites in Oregon and Washington. The dental offices closed because of the pandemic, freeing up some masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE, for other providers.

“Every single day, we look at our inventory and are asking for volunteers to make masks and donate hand sanitizer,” Adrien said. “We’re doing OK. Other community health centers have completely run out of the PPE.”

No guidance comes from the federal government, she said, “and we’re going really unfunded.”

Oregon’s U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, announced April 7 that they would introduce legislation to ensure immigrant workers have access to health care.

The legislation, the Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act, promises immigrant workers access to COVID-19 testing and treatment and other services provided in federal coronavirus relief legislation.

It would provide dedicated funding for CDC to conduct public outreach in multiple languages. The act would also temporarily modify immigration policies that deter immigrants from receiving medical care.

If federal policymakers would like additional advice on reaching farmworkers, Adrien suggested they contact her clinic and other migrant community health centers.

They understand, from a front-line perspective, how poverty is a chronic disease that compounds other illnesses, she said. 

“The comorbidity of the people living in poverty makes community health centers uniquely posed to address this,” Adrien said. “That’s exactly what we deal with every day.”

Curiously, she said, no one has called and asked for their advice.

In her written testimony to Oregon lawmakers, Miranda said COVID-19 testing and treatment should be free and accessible for immigrant patients. She also echoed Wyden and Merkley that the Trump administration’s public-charge rule should not be used to withhold treatment of immigrants.

The rule denies permission to enter and remain in the United States if people are likely to become a “public charge,” meaning likely to rely on public assistance.

Miranda said medical care should be “made available with clear messaging that accessing this care will not trigger the public-charge ground of inadmissibility and that no questions about immigration status will be asked of those who access treatment.”

She also advocates extending eligibility for Emergency Medical Care for Non-Citizens, a program that currently covers only emergency medical care, to include coverage for testing and treatment for COVID-19.

“We need to make sure no family will face adverse consequences related to their immigration status for getting the critical help they need, and that our immigrant and refugee populations know this and feel safe accessing and calling to ask the state for help,” she testified.

Anthony Veliz, a Woodburn activist who founded STORI Jobs to connect Latinx and other minority workers to employment, said farmworkers are being left out of too many policy discussions.

“We’re trying to organize ourselves, but that’s what we have always had to do,” Veliz said.

“People only have a few hundred bucks in their pockets, if that,” he said. “What are they going to do? It’s our moral responsibility to help them. If we don’t do it for ourselves, no one is going to do it for us. The struggle continues.”

It certainly does, Lopez said. 

“We’re essential workers, and I’m not hearing anything about a halt on deportations for the people who are the backbone of the food supply chain,” she said.

Nonetheless, she remains hopeful. 

“Our community is resilient,” she said. “Some of our families have seen this before in Mexico. It may be reminiscent of the lives that some of the folks lived there, but this is something new that we never have had to live through.”

PCUN can rise to the challenge, Lopez said.

“At the end of the day, the reason we were started was because the community needed us to be something in that moment, and now we’re going to continue to respond to meet the moment, whether it’s COVID-19 or farmworkers being exploited or passing policy that helps workers across the state have a voice,” she said.

Veliz said the coronavirus reveals a more subtle but no less devastating pandemic that has been infecting America for a long time.

“The big message is that farmworkers are considered essential workers, but they apparently aren’t entitled to essential benefits,” he said. “They need to work to put food on their tables, too. And not just their tables. They’re putting food on all of our tables. They’re feeding America.”

HOW TO HELP

The farmworkers union PCUN has a fund to provide emergency relief to farmworker families.

This article was originally published by Street Roots News, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.

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