Government officials and community organizers provided farmworkers information on labor rights and workplace safety protections this week as they caravanned throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
A press conference held by the Department of Industrial Relations launched the effort Monday, and California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower spoke about the need for worker protection in agriculture.
She and Carmen Cisneros, Cal/OSHA area manager, accompanied representatives from the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project , Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, the California Rural Legal Assistance and Líderes Campesinas on a caravan Monday. By the end of the week, organizations cruised by themselves.
MICOP and Líderes Campesinas drove around the Santa Ynez Valley and Lompoc Thursday, pulling to the roadways’ shoulders by farms.
They catch the attention of farmworkers with a box truck clad with LED screens on three sides of the vehicle. The screens present a phone number and DIR websites in three languages: Spanish, English and Mixtec.
A speaker amplifies the message, telling workers they have the right to sick leave, shade and water and COVID-19 protection.
Participants hope farmworkers will notice or approach with questions.
Jorge Toledano, community organizer for MICOP, led Thursday’s caravan. He spoke to the News-Press with the help of Jeremías Salazar translating the conversation before heading out through the Santa Ynez Valley.
The main reason for the caravan was to tell workers about the 80 hours of COVID-19 supplemenental paid sick leave. Employers are required to immediately grant workers paid sick leave to care for themselves or family members or need time off for a vaccine appointment or side effects.
Mr. Toledano said that although it’s law in California, farmworkers have reported that employers are disregarding the policy.
These incidents aren’t isolated. The COVID-19 Farmworker Study gathered stories from workers throughout California, all undergoing harsh conditions and lacking resources.
The study quotes a 40-year-old farmworker from the San Joaquin Valley region named Eliseo who was only given three unpaid days off when he became ill.
“They have not stopped us from working. We’ve kept working with the same pay, but those same bosses have taken away our sick leave and vacation days due to coronavirus … Instead of giving us days, they’re taking (our vacation) days from us that we got before for each year
of work,” he said.
The study also shows a cynical attitude toward Cal/OSHA.
“We called Cal/OSHA, asking them to please help us with all the problems that occurred on the ranch, and they never followed up on anything,” Eliseo said. “And we saw a lot of sick people, not just in my ranch but also at [other] nearby ranches that we run.
“We know of a lot of sick people. We know friends from dairies who are now dead, and we reported all this.”
Mr. Toledano was glad a Cal/OSHA representative could see the working conditions in person during the caravan. He said the reports don’t directly show what the workers endure.
A study by UC Berkeley, with initial findings published in December and distributed in the CDC’s “Emerging Infectious Diseases” journal in May, found that farmworkers in Monterey County were almost four times as likely to test positive for COVID-19 compared to the county’s test positivity rate.
Living conditions are part of the dramatic divide. When researchers compared farmworkers with other members of their tighter communities, farmworkers were 28% more likely to test positive.
Of 296 farmworkers surveyed, 57% reported going to work while experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. A quarter of those were concerned about losing pay, and just 4% were told to work anyway by their employer.
A small portion of workers reported the drastic conditions experienced by Eliseo, who didn’t have access to face masks or a handwashing station.
Almost all the workers studied by UC Berkeley could wash their hands, and 85% were given face coverings. But only 26% were screened for both symptoms and temperature before reporting to work.
Beyond the risk of contracting COVID-19, Santa Barbara County farmworkers are more likely to suffer from heat illness as the weather warms up.
The box truck in Thursday’s caravan displayed images to illustrate workers’ right to water, rest, shade and training. But Cal/OSHA does not have a set temperature ruling it too hot to work.
MICOP has hosted a caravan prior to this week and will continue its outreach. The organization wants to reach Santa Maria and Paso Robles next.
The Department of Industrial Relations provides information about workers’ rights at saferatwork.covid19.ca.gov.