Reports of Covid-19 dominate the airwaves and print media. What more is there to say? What more is there to report?
For one thing, Covid-19 impacts underscore the great class divide in our nation and the difference between many salaried workers who continue to be paid as they work from home and hourly wage workers for whom paychecks stopped when they were told not to report to work.
Those workers designated as “essential” are those who provide health care, emergency and other life-sustaining services, including agriculture and food supply. A large number of agricultural workers are immigrants, some documented and many not. The same is true among hospitality workers (in hotels, restaurants, bars, golf courses and clubs), but they are not deemed essential and when their jobs are suspended, so are their paychecks.
From a public health point of view, stay-at-home orders probably should have come more quickly. The failure of the Trump Administration to acknowledge the very reality of the risk was irresponsible, ill-informed and, perhaps erroneously, politically motivated. Thousands will now die who might have been saved.
It is the economic divide, however, that makes a uniform public health response difficult. Hourly wage workers will risk their own health in an effort to keep paychecks coming to pay the rent, maintain food supplies, and pay their other monthly bills, including healthcare.
While there are resources being mobilized to support large manufacturers, schools and healthcare systems, it is the low-income worker who must scramble to survive. One lost paycheck can translate to reduced food resources and/or needed prescription drugs. Food banks are stepping up to provide more food, but for many, it is the loss of a paycheck that can prompt a cascade of loss and insecurity.
Farmworkers and food production workers continue to work at great risk. They face tough barriers in workplaces that have historically not protected workers against extreme heat, pesticide exposure, and spread of infection in shoulder-to-shoulder work environments.
As part of California’s and the federal response to the Covid-19 crisis, it is important to consider the following emergency actions with respect to agricultural and other low-income workers:
Communicate with workers in their own languages their right to self-quarantine to protect themselves and their families; the right to access healthcare services including workers’ compensation should they contract the disease at the workplace;
Expand unemployment insurance benefits for low-income workers and establish a special fund to support undocumented workers whose health and safety is linked to the broader population;
Expand hand-washing and sanitation facilities at pick-up, work and drop-off sites;
Require separated seating options on farm labor contractor and company buses as well as enforced distancing at the job site (to allow for social distancing);
Require those workers over 65 to shelter in place with full pay and benefits as they are among the highest-risk group.
This list is not exhaustive, but intended to provide some recommendations that might protect an at-risk population while also protecting the broader population.
And finally, could this pandemic be a dress rehearsal for the public health challenges that may be forthcoming with the climate crisis? If so, we must learn from the current crisis to prepare for the unfolding one. How we treat and protect low-income workers now should be an investment in that planning for the future.
While the social, economic and health impacts of vast economic polarization in our communities are not always apparent, the current pandemic illustrates two realities: Everyone, regardless of class and/or immigration status, is susceptible to the disease, but low-income workers who struggle to survive in our economy are the least able to shelter in place and protect their families.