Working conditions on farms could threaten our food supply : The Indicator from Planet Money The working conditions on many farms mean that agricultural laborers are at high risk of getting COVID-19. That poses a real threat to those workers and to the country's food supply.

Coronavirus, Farmworkers And America's Food Supply

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Gerardo Reyes Chavez has been working on farms since he was 11.

GERARDO REYES CHAVEZ: I have been working in the fields since I was a kid, harvesting tomatoes, oranges, watermelons.

SMITH: Hirata lives in Southern Florida, just north of the Everglades, but he's worked in orange groves and fields all over the state. These days, though, he spends most of his time organizing workers and advocating for better working conditions.


And those working conditions, he says, are typically pretty bad - no personal space, crowded quarters, no benefits, low pay. And now, he says, those conditions are putting people in immediate danger.

CHAVEZ: Our community is in a really vulnerable position.

GARCIA: While at the same time, farmworkers like him have been deemed essential by the U.S. government.

SMITH: Gerardo says he's glad for the recognition of the importance of the work, but there also seems to be a disconnect because although farmworkers have been ordered to keep working, in many cases, they're not being given masks or gloves, and their jobs are packing them together.

CHAVEZ: The expectation of do this job that's essential goes in stark contrast with the reality, which is how can you (laughter) be doing a job that's essential but you are sent without any type of protective equipment?


GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show - farmworkers. Many of the people who harvest crops are finding themselves in an almost impossible situation. Their working conditions are unsafe, but they have to keep working.

SMITH: And not only does that put their lives at risk, it also poses a very real threat to the country's food supply.


GARCIA: Gerardo Reyes Chavez says that, in farm work, the days start early.

CHAVEZ: Well, an average day, you wake up, you go to the - a parking lot in town where you are then selected to go to work.

GARCIA: And if you are selected to work, he says, you pile into a bus and make a long trip out to the fields.

CHAVEZ: You are transported in overcrowded buses, 30 to 40 people in one repurposed school bus, and then get to the fields, start working.

SMITH: The workday is long - 10 to 12 hours - and it is backbreaking physical labor. After work, people usually go to housing provided near the fields, very cramped housing.

CHAVEZ: You live with 10 to 12 other people inside mobile homes.

GARCIA: And the lack of personal space and the extreme crowding have always been a problem, Gerardo says. But now, he adds, they're posing a dire health risk, too.

SMITH: There are about 2 1/2 million farmworkers in the U.S. And it's estimated that at least half of them are undocumented. So they can't get unemployment insurance, and they will not get stimulus checks from the government. In fact, there were no explicit protections or benefits for farmworkers or undocumented workers in the massive CARES Act that Congress passed a couple of months ago.

Meanwhile, Gerardo says, on many farms, there are no masks or gloves provided. People are still packed together in the fields and in housing. They have no sick leave and nowhere to isolate if they start feeling ill.

CHAVEZ: The message that it sends is that we are expendable. As a worker, you are expected to continue to produce food for everyone else, risking your own life in the process. Seems like a very, very unfair proposition, you know?

GARCIA: Gerardo says there is an economic side to this as well. Farmworkers generally do low-paid work. They get paid, on average, about $14 an hour. That's roughly half of what U.S. workers get per hour, again, on average.

SMITH: Without stimulus or unemployment benefits, even if workers feel like they are getting ill, many will feel like they have no choice but to keep working. There have even been reports of farms who are ordering workers to show up even if they feel sick.

CHAVEZ: There is this feeling of powerlessness, like what are we supposed to do? Because if we don't go to work, then how are we supposed to have food for ourselves and our families?

DANIEL COSTA: Conditions are just ripe for a massive outbreak. It should be the kind of thing that keeps people up at night.

GARCIA: Daniel Costa is the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank. Daniel says this situation is basically a tinderbox for coronavirus. In one community of about 30,000 farmworkers in Florida, 150 tests were conducted and 30 came back positive for COVID-19. That's 20%. That's a big community, too.

COSTA: You can take a situation that is already really terrible - the low pay and tough conditions for farmworkers - and you can just make it much, much worse when they all get sick with coronavirus and it spreads to them and then it spreads to their family, and all of them are underinsured and probably don't live in large houses where they can quarantine, you know, one in one room and the rest of the family in other rooms. It's just - the conditions are there for a lot of bad things to happen and for it to have a real impact on our food supply.

SMITH: Our food supply. A lot of crops are harvested by machine, but many still need to be harvested by hand, including blueberries, tomatoes, peaches, avocados, apples and oranges. Without workers, those foods won't be harvested. They will just rot in the fields.

GARCIA: Right now it is strawberry harvesting time. And we spoke with Hector Lujan, one of the biggest berry growers in the country. Hector grows mostly for Driscoll (ph) berries, and he has farms all over the U.S. and Mexico and employs tens of thousands of workers. Hector says if COVID-19 hits the farmworker community, he's not sure what he'll do.

HECTOR LUJAN: We could lose a crew, we could lose a field just by a couple of people getting sick, and the whole field goes. A full crop of strawberries can cost you $30,000 an acre just to grow it. Then you have to harvest it. It's a lot of investment that's - you know, it's not sitting in a bank or it's not - and it's not a building that you can later sell. It's a crop that's alive. And if you don't pick it, you just don't get the value back.

SMITH: Hector has put a bunch of measures in place to try to protect his workers. He only lets a small number of workers on transportation buses at a time. He spaces people out during harvest. He provides masks and wash stations in the fields and also free health care at clinics near the fields. He says he's chosen to take these measures because he cares about his workers and it's the right thing to do. But he also needs these workers to be healthy for his business.

GARCIA: Labor shortages have already become a problem for farmers in the last few years with immigration crackdowns. And if COVID-19 takes a lot of workers out of the labor force, even temporarily, Hector says farms like his won't have any way to get their fruits and vegetables out of their fields and into supermarkets. They will lose their crops. Their businesses will be devastated, and the whole U.S. food supply would be compromised.

LUJAN: My biggest concern is there won't be anybody to pick our crops here in the United States.

SMITH: Gerardo Reyes Chavez says he hopes the urgency of these concerns gets to lawmakers. He wants to see some basic protections put in place right now, before the situation among farmworkers gets truly dire.

CHAVEZ: There is a shortage of food coming. That is going to put everybody in a really, really tough spot - not just us. We are in this together, and that's not a cliche statement. We are in this together. So people need to be aware of that. Somebody needs to be able to push for people to realize that there's human beings behind the food they need. That, for me, is sacred, and food is a sacred connection.


SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.


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