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Farmworkers now tagged as 'essential,’ but often they’re not treated that way

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbates a historic problem. Workers and advocates say now is the time to improve their safety net.

RUSKIN — As she commuted to work at a blueberry field in Bartow, Bernarda thought about social distancing on a school bus crammed with 60 people.

Despite the barrage of coronavirus warnings everywhere, she saw no safety protocols in fieldwork. Pickers were given no gloves, no hand sanitizer, no space to avoid the spread of the disease.

“They weren’t taking it seriously,” said Bernarda, a 33-year-old Ruskin woman who asked to be identified by her first name because she is an undocumented immigrant and fears retaliation at work.

Blueberries by the bucket are headed to the scale for weighing at Starkey Blueberry Farms in Trinity. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The only notice the workers receive: If you’re sick, stay at home. But they all know the unspoken rule: If you stay at home, you lose your job.

“No one is going to want to say they’re sick."

Florida’s thousands of migrant farmworkers have been tagged as essential for their work keeping food supply chains running, but little is done to keep many of them safe during the pandemic.

“All farmworkers are essential but they don’t get any essentials,” said Margarita Romo, executive director of Farmworkers Self-Help, an advocacy group in Dade City.

For years, groups like Romo’s and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have pushed to win rights and protections for the state’s migrant farmworkers, most of whom get no paid time off, live in tight quarters, have no health insurance, and can’t rely on safety nets like unemployment checks and food stamps.

In Immokalee, the closest hospital for migrant farmworkers is a 45-minute drive, said Nely Rodriguez with the Immokalee coalition.

“If you test positive, you don’t have access to treatment,” Rodriguez said.

The pandemic has exacerbated a historic problem.

“It’s a critical condition across the country."

Some companies have stepped up to keep workers safe. They include Lipman Family Farms in Immokalee, which installed seven new hand-washing stations for workers; DiMare Fresh, which provided equipment such as masks; and Starkey Blueberry Farm in Trinity, which makes sure to practice social distancing in the field and keep workers informed.

But these are outliers, according to interviews with farmworkers and advocacy groups.

Emig De la Cruz, shown here at her home in Plant City, wears a bandana, cap and other layers when she works in the fields to prevent the spread of coronavirus . "We're scared, but we have to work," De la Cruz said. "Bills don't go away." [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Emig De la Cruz, 36, of Plant City, picks cucumbers and blueberries in Dover and Lakeland but gets no personal protection equipment. She makes do with her own bandana and does her best to clean herself when she gets home.

Little news and information were available in Spanish when the pandemic first broke, so workers like De la Cruz didn’t line up for supplies during the run of panic-buying, she said.

Her 5- and 8-year-old children worry each time she leaves the house. “Are we going to die?” they ask. “Why don’t we have any masks?”

Migrant farmworkers, like many others, rely on schools to care for their children while they clock long hours in the fields. Few have reliable internet service, making the new online learning model a struggle.

Bernarda, originally from Mexico, has lived in Ruskin for about 16 years. Her 13-year-old daughter visited neighbors’ homes early in the pandemic to help children set up devices borrowed from school for online classes. But Bernarda grew fearful that the girl would catch the coronavirus, so the neighbors are on their own now.

Charter schools run by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association for children of migrant workers had to close down as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. [ Times (2010) ]

Charter schools run by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association for children of migrant workers had to close down as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. The association is doing what it can to distribute food to families, said Lourdes Villanueva, director of farmworker advocacy.

But it can’t solve their larger financial problems. They rely on fieldwork to pay for everything and it’s not always steady.

“Migrant farmworkers do not have the luxury of saving up for a rainy day,” Villanueva said.

To complicate matters, as restaurants close to slow the spread of the virus, food supply chains are disrupted and many farms are forced to shut down, said Trey Starkey of Starkey Blueberry Farm.

Tomatoes were left to rot after DiMare Fresh closed its Homestead operations, said Tony DiMare, vice president.

What’s more, spring is a peak fruit and vegetable season in Florida.

All this leaves migrant farmworkers desperate to hold on to work they have, even if it means avoiding bathroom breaks because that’s where workers congregate and there’s no soap.

Many farmworkers also are stuck in a bureaucratic bottleneck blamed on the coronavirus.

On March 20, the State Department suspended routine visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates. Six days later, the agency announced it would lift the suspension for those seeking an H-2A agricultural visa, calling the program “essential to the economy and food security of the United States" and a "national security priority.”

But there still are long delays because operations now are closing down at the other end of the H-2A pipeline, in Mexican consulates, said Ric Hale of Farm Aid H-2A LLC in Anthony, who helps companies hire visa workers.

Bernarda spoke of a cousin who arrived with a visa in Ohio a few weeks ago and only learned about the pandemic when he turned on the news there. Little information had been shared back home in Mexico.

Advocacy groups are contacting local and state leaders to get farmworkers safety equipment, access to COVID-19 testing and treatment, and information in Spanish. The Redlands Christian Migrant Association even pushed growers to give workers signed letters identifying them as essential workers in case they come in contact with law enforcement.

Many farmworkers in Florida and across the country carry letters like this one from their employers, labelling them as essential workers. [ Courtesy of Bernarda ]

Bernarda got her own copy of the letter and learned for the first time that she, an undocumented immigrant, is considered an essential worker under federal and state law.

She has moved on from the blueberry fields and is feeling lucky in her new job, picking tomatoes in Ruskin. The employer provided her with gloves and sanitary wipes and routinely cleans her bus.

Still, the job came with a reminder from the boss that she and her co-workers are replaceable. She knows she can’t afford to lose it and has no recourse if she gets sick.

She thought of this as she read the words on the letter bearing her name — “critical infrastructure industry employee."

She laughed.

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