For employees of Sunrise Farm Labor, it’s business as unusual. Instead of working on every row of a field, laborers are picking fruits in alternate rows. Hand-washing all day, multiple times a day. Disinfecting surfaces three times daily. Employees are watching mindless webinars about hygiene that remind them to change their clothes after work.
“We’re doing a whole lot of different things than the norm,” said Chuck Herrin, owner of the Fresno-based farm labor contracting company that serves as a middleman between farmers and farm laborers. He paused, and then added as an afterthought, “which will probably become a part of the norm.”
Herrin is upbeat about his business, confident he will be able to survive this (yes, unprecedented) moment in history. While several industries have been brought to an abrupt halt by the coronavirus, farmers and farm workers were deemed as essential workers in March. California farmers grow over a third of the country’s vegetables, and two-third of the country’s fruits and nuts.
Herrin does not expect any impact from the pandemic on his business in the long run.
“I’m fortunate that I’m involved in agriculture,” he said. “People gotta eat.”
Not everyone shares his optimism. Agricultural services pose a catch-22 for lawmakers in Sacramento grappling with the lasting economic effects of the global pandemic. While farm workers are deemed essential employees, they are also at risk of coronavirus exposure or outbreaks at work.
Results from a recent poll of 8,800 registered California voters conducted by the Institute of Governmental Studies and California Initiative for Health Equity & Action found broad support for farmworker protections associated with COVID-19. A majority of voters polled supported equitable pay, medical and paid sick leave, regardless of legal status and employers providing full replacement wages for farmworkers to stay home if they fall sick with the disease.
Legislation crafted in the state capital could help Raquel Hernandez, who is a crew leader at Sunrise Farm Labor. Since the coronavirus changed day-to-day life, she has been working far fewer hours – down from 50 pre-pandemic to a little over 30, depending on the week. Her crew has shrunk from 25 farm workers to 14, she said in Spanish through a translator.
For Hernandez, 50, the implications of working fewer hours are very real. It means that she will have no medical coverage for herself or for her four children.
“You have to work 130 hours a month to qualify for the next month,” said Hernandez’s translator, an employee at Sunrise Farm Labor. “So let’s say if in this month of April, they don’t accumulate those 130 hours for the month, they don’t qualify for the month of May for medical coverage.”
Hernandez worries about getting sick with COVID-19, about infecting her children, and then having to take them to the doctor with no medical coverage. But Hernandez, who is originally from Jalisco, Mexico and has lived in California for the last 35 years, said she has no alternative.
Not coming in to work “is not an option,” said Hernandez’s translator. “She has to come to work because she provides for her family.”
Lawmakers returned to Sacramento this spring with people like Hernandez on their minds as they tackle major issues caused by the pandemic.
Assemblymember Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Hollister, wrote Assembly Bill 2043 (the Agricultural Workplace Health and Safety Act) to address some of the needs of agricultural laborers. The bill directs the CAL/OSHA Standards Board to consider adopting workplace standards like implementing better sanitation practices and social distancing requirements, and issuing personal protective equipment to employees. It also includes funding for a targeted outreach campaign for workplace signs in English and Spanish, and public service announcements on local Spanish radio stations.
A spokesperson for the assemblymember said that as soon as the pandemic was declared in early March, the office got to work reaching out to farmers, ranchers and farm workers to understand what they were going through, and quickly discovered that their needs ran across the board. There were concerns about exposure and outbreaks at work, exposure during commutes to and from work, and childcare options, which are already limited for farmers and farmworkers, the spokesperson said.
Barbara Mohondro, legislative aide to assemblymember Rivas, said the measure has passed out of the Assembly Labor Committee, and will need to pass both the Assembly and Senate next. It has been amended with an urgency clause, meaning it will go into effect immediately if and when signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The relationship between farmers and the state government has been fraught for years. California has one of the highest minimum wage rates in the country and also some of the most stringent laws on water and pesticide usage in the world. In many cases, the costs to meet the regulations have been staggering, and in some instances, driven farmers out of business.
Some are concerned the state’s latest initiatives to provide relief for farmers and farm workers will ultimately do more harm than good.
“In general, it’s very difficult to operate in the state of California because of the regulations and cost,” said William Bourdeau, vice president of Harris Farms, which is on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, a majority rural area in central California. “So [this bill] is going to make it even more difficult where our costs are going to go up, and I’m not sure that people are going to be buying [our produce], or that we will be regrowing.”
One of the crops Harris Farms grows is lettuce. Because of the decreased demand from restaurants, Bourdeau said his farmers were unable to harvest the lettuce this year. Instead, it was shredded and discarded.
Sunrise Farm Labor owner Chuck Herrin said that bills like AB-2043 can also ultimately lead to malpractices in farming.
“So now you start taking more money out of people that are trying to do everything right, and you create possibly an underground economy, because some people are going to do that,” he said. “They’ll start teaching their people one way or another and make sure they are able to [get around the requirements of the bill]. I just don’t think it’s needed at this time.”
Jennifer Beretta, a dairy farmer in Santa Rosa, said she is grateful for bills like AB-2043 that are geared toward people like her.
“I think it’s been great that they see the need for farmers right now during this pandemic, when people forget about us,” she said in a phone interview. However, she added that she is concerned for farmers in nearby vineyards having to scramble to build temporary housing for workers, spending money that they are unlikely to earn back any time soon, given the state of the economy.
“What people forget is that all these regulations could be great and these bills could be great, but if we’re not going to [make money through sales], we’re going to end up losing in the end,” said Beretta.
In theory, these concerns should be unfounded. According to the assemblymember Rivas’ spokesperson, the funding for these expenses should come from the government.
Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, a Democrat from Winters, in the western Sacramento Valley, said a previous budget submitted in the Assembly in January has been scrapped, and a new budget is being drawn up. However, with revenue from sources like sales and gas tax languishing in the current environment, things are not looking good.
“It breaks my heart,” Aguiar-Curry said, because in a conversation with Newsom, the governor “made it pretty clear that the budget is in a tough spot.”
“It didn't give me a lot of hope, after that conversation, quite frankly,” she said. “I think we'll get the things that we need to get through. But I think if [there is] funding affiliated with your policy, it may or may not make it through.”
Irena Asmundson, the chief economist at the California Department of Finance, said her department is actively working on developing a new budget, and a revision was expected in mid-May.
While government officials work frantically through video calls to put together legislation and a budget, Herrin in Fresno said those talks are far removed from what is happening on the ground for people like him.
“Legislators and whatnot, sometimes they get these ‘feel good’ or ‘I want to save the world’ [ideas], but they have no idea how to save it,” he said. “They come up with thoughts and ideas that really aren’t manageable.”
His request to the state government right now?
“Stay out of my way.”
This story was updated with information about legislation advancing in Sacramento.