ESSENTIAL WORKERS Farmworkers in San Benito County and beyond have continued to work in the fields since the pandemic started, increasing their risk of exposure and illness, according to public officials.

California Assemblymember Robert Rivas is leading an effort to provide more healthcare services, support and information to the state’s farmworkers—a sector that has suffered more than others from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rivas was joined at a Sept. 16 online press conference by some of his colleagues in the state assembly, as well as farmworker advocates, to bring attention to a package of bills he has authored or co-authored that are awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. The “first in the nation” assistance package would focus on protecting the health, safety and access to healthcare services for agricultural workers, Rivas said.

“Many of our agricultural regions in California have seen disproportionately high rates of Covid-19 cases,” Rivas said. “It has threatened California’s most vulnerable workers, and threatened their families in an industry that is vital to our food security in California and in our nation, and globally.”

Rivas, of Hollister, represents the 30th District of the state assembly. His district includes San Benito County, South Santa Clara County and portions of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties—a region of the Central Coast that contains some of the world’s most productive farmland.

Agricultural workers are considered “essential” employees under the state’s shelter-in-place guidelines, and as such face potential exposure to Covid-19 more frequently than most other residents. Rivas noted that this is illustrated by the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Latino populations in California.

In San Benito County, Latinos account for 82 percent of the 1,310 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of Sept. 22—even though Latinos make up only about 61 percent of the county’s population. In Monterey County, Rivas said, 93 percent of confirmed Covid-19 cases are among Latinos, who make up about 60 percent of that county’s population.

“Agricultural workers are three times more likely to contract Covid-19 than the general population,” Rivas said.

He also pointed to a recent UCLA study that found that Latino deaths in California have quintupled since May, “because of their status as essential agricultural workers.”

But farmworkers are not always provided access to health services and information that could keep them safe from the pandemic, farmworker advocates said during the Sept. 16 press conference. Pete Maturino of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 union, listed some of the egregious cases among farmworkers his organization represents: an agricultural facility in Santa Maria where 85 employees caught Covid-19 in a recent outbreak; twenty-three employees who became ill at a garlic processing company; and a farmworker who went to the hospital with Covid-19 and came out with a bill for $800,000.

“Most farmworkers in California are not represented by a union,” Maturino said. “It is essential that all workers in California—especially our farmworkers—have access to information and resources needed to protect themselves, their co-workers and their families every time they go home at night.”

Irene de Barraicua, of Lideres Campesinas, noted that farmworkers are further challenged by the fact that the majority of them—about 54 percent statewide—are undocumented and uninsured. In some recent cases, farmworkers have lost their jobs due to pandemic-related absence and for speaking out about a lack of protections against Covid-19 in their workplaces.

“What this bill (package) represents to us is true action on behalf of our governor (and) legislature…(and) it makes us all more aligned in a collective effort to get the progress they deserve,” de Barraicua said.

Rivas was joined at the press conference by Assemblymembers Lorena Gonzalez (San Diego) and Eduardo Garcia (Coachella), who also represent agricultural districts.

The three bills they are promoting are awaiting the governor’s signature before a deadline of Sept. 30. The bills are:

-AB2043: Agricultural Workplace Health & Safety: Ensures enforcement by Cal/OSHA of its Covid-19 guidance, funds a targeted bilingual outreach campaign to educate agricultural workers on Cal/OSHA guidance, as well as Covid-19-related paid sick leave and workers compensation benefits, and directs Cal/OSHA to track and report workplace investigations related to the agricultural industry;

-AB2164: Telehealth for Rural and Community Health Centers Act: Expands telehealth services for rural and community health centers, to the benefit of farmworker and other marginalized groups that have difficulty accessing medical care;

-AB2165: E-Filing and Rural Access to Justice Act: Expands the availability of electronic filing to all state trial courts, given that access to courthouses is a problem in many farmworker and other rural communities.

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Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.


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