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20 Aug 2020

Assisting the Essential: Lawmakers and Medical Professionals Scramble to Help the Coachella Valley's Farmworkers Deal With the Pandemic

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Rosa Lucas, one of the founding members of the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, on testing farmworkers for COVID-19: “It’s been up around 17 to 18 percent, and I’m not going to be surprised if it goes up to 20 to 22 percent in the next batch.” Rosa Lucas, one of the founding members of the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, on testing farmworkers for COVID-19: “It’s been up around 17 to 18 percent, and I’m not going to be surprised if it goes up to 20 to 22 percent in the next batch.”

As the Aug. 31 finish line for the California State Legislature approaches, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and his colleagues are working hard to pass a package of bills designed to bring relief to the state’s farmworker communities and workplaces—which are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are making bold efforts to put forward policy that protects the health and safety of the farmworkers,” Garcia said during a recent interview with the Independent. “But, also, we’re looking at the economic security of workers, and we want to prevent disruptions in the nation’s food supply, which is as critical to all of us today as it was even before this pandemic.

“We’ve got this series of five bills that we want to highlight. We had a press conference back in April about these issues, and after that discussion, the governor took a number of executive orders, like hazard pay (for essential workers), housing as it relates to farmworkers in certain parts of the state, increasing PPE (personal protective equipment) and testing in specific agriculturally based communities.”

As a result of those executive actions, the concerns addressed were changed in those five bills: Assembly Bill 2043, the Agricultural Workplace Health and Safety Act; AB 2164, the Telehealth for Rural and Community Health Centers Act; AB 2165, the E-Filing and Rural Access to Justice Act; AB 1248, the Buy California Agricultural Products Act; and a request to have the funding for the California Farmworker Housing Assistance Tax Credit bumped from a $500,000 limit to $25 million. The bills focus on some important but relatively narrow concerns resulting from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state’s massively underserved essential farm workforce—largely because many of the more wide-reaching issues have been addressed to some degree through Newsom’s executive orders, which the Legislature has been working to codify into law.

“We’re talking about PPE investments, greater testing and permanent housing for our farmworkers. Then, of course, we’re talking about transparency and accountability to make sure that we’re accounting for farmworkers who test positive (for COVID-19) to make sure that we isolate them and keep others safe from becoming infected.

“We’re not asking for things outside the norm. We’re asking for greater investment in, and attention to, a very important part of our essential workforce that ties directly into our strong economy as it relates to the $50 billion agriculture industry.”

As of mid-August, the Riverside County of Riverside Department of Public Health said that 35.2 percent of the people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county are Hispanic/Latino.

“Working circumstances for farmworkers start with the thousands of people who are crossing the border from Mexico to go to work in the fields each day,” Garcia said. “They’re lined up at three or four in the morning, right next to each other. Then they cross the border, and they are loaded up on a school-bus type of transportation system where there are two or three people per seat heading out to the actual fields to prepare for a work day. They are working in situations where the physical distance is less than six feet, because of the type of crop that they’re picking, or the type of machine that they’re using. Those circumstances continue to contribute to an increase in positive cases. Then there is family to worry about when the workers go home, or others who may reside in the same location with them.”

Rosa Lucas is a registered nurse, a family nurse practitioner and one of the founding members of the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine (CVVIM). She has been on the frontlines of COVID-19 testing in the eastern Coachella Valley, which has helped to reveal the unusually high positivity rates among the local farmworker populations of communities like Mecca, Oasis and Thermal.

“It’s been up around 17 to 18 percent, and I’m not going to be surprised if it goes up to 20 to 22 percent in the next batch,” Lucas said of an Aug. 13 testing event at the Mountain View Estates mobile home park in Thermal. “That was only a group of 25 people, all of whom are migrant farmworkers, so it wasn’t a random sample.”

What concerns Lucas as much as the high infection rates is the fact that the county Department of Public Health didn’t start testing these residents at their workplaces or homes until the pandemic had been raging for months.

“The testing the county does is drive-up testing, basically,” Lucas said, noting that most farmworkers don’t have cars. “They were not doing it in the communities where the residents would be most affected by COVID, or any other illness, especially a contagious illness.”

To fill in the gap, Lucas said, CVVIM raised tens of thousands of dollars to begin testing.

“When we started testing, the positive results were higher than the communities in the western side of the valley,” Lucas said. “We continued doing the testing every few weeks, and the statistics kept rising. Then, I guess the county got embarrassed, so they came in and started doing it. But what was amazing to me is that the county went out and was doing their testing between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. The farmworkers are in the fields from early in the morning until 4 to 4:30 in the afternoon. We did our testing between 5 and 8 p.m.

“You know, there’s more than speaking the language to cultural competence. You need to know a community to become competent in their needs and their lives. The county personnel were missing this whole population. In any case, it just became clear it was impossible for the county to take over this testing, so we started testing again.”

These aggressive testing efforts, both in the Coachella Valley and in California’s other agricultural regions, that have fueled the urgency of Garcia’s legislative efforts.

“There’s a lot more that we need to do,” Garcia said. “Given that the virus continues to impact the workers in the fields at alarming rates, we need to pay additional attention and certainly provide the resources that are needed to address these concerns for our farmworkers. We have collaborations under way in different parts of the state with local farmers and other industry representatives to be able to address these issues.”

Does Garcia believe that these five bills will get passed by the end of the session?

“Yes, I do,” Garcia said. “I believe that the bills (all of which are now pending Senate approval) will successfully move in the Senate, and that they will end up on the governor’s desk.”

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