Early in the pandemic, Salinas Councilmember Tony Villegas inadvertently called attention to what would become a vastly serious issue. Driving past a Salinas motel that had been entirely leased out to a farm labor contractor, he took out his cell phone and recorded the farmworkers amassing in the parking lot to await the arrival of their evening meal.
There were no masks, and no semblance of social distancing, likely because the men hadn’t been instructed on the importance of those things and masks then were in short supply. But a day later, when a group of reporters went to the motel, the men were masked, handwashing stations had been installed and chalk marks showed the workers how far to stand from each other while waiting in line for dinner.
That was April 16, when Monterey County Health Department had only 182 cases of Covid-19 reported and before anyone knew that over the next few months, the curve most were desperately trying to flatten was going to rise steeply, with farmworkers the hardest hit by the virus. Four months later, Covid-19 infections among agriculture workers represent 31 percent of all county cases for which the patients’ occupation is known, with 1,276 people infected.
Early in the pandemic is also when documentary filmmaker Daffodil Altan, a producer and correspondent for the long-running PBS series Frontline, came to town to investigate how farmworkers were being treated during the pandemic.
The episode, “Covid’s Hidden Toll,” told the story of Salinas Valley ag workers and showed them living in fear – afraid of the crowded vehicles that shuttle them to the fields, afraid of crowded living conditions, afraid of getting the virus and afraid of losing their jobs if they did. And afraid to ask questions of what their employers were doing to prevent the virus from spreading through the workforce.
The episode aired on July 21, and some say it paints an incomplete picture of the industry’s response to the pandemic. Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo took his grievance to Medium, writing the episode “focused on a cliché narrative that vilifies farmers, while neglecting to include both what farmers are doing to protect their essential workers, and what local communities can do to better mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on farmworkers.” (What the community can do, in my opinion: Stop obstructing the development of farmworker and workforce housing, for starters.) Alejo also writes the county, three days after ordering shelter in place, released a first-in-the-nation ag worker protection advisory; Altan, he says, told him it wasn’t worth mentioning because it isn’t mandatory.
Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot has been putting in long hours since the start of the pandemic, and he’s weary when I ask him about the industry’s response to the Frontline episode. There are several dynamics at play, he says, but a lot of the material they presented is out of date. “They did filming in the early stage of the pandemic when there was no PPE available for anyone. Workers were asked to bring their own masks, because companies then couldn’t get masks,” he says. “It was very one-sided and didn’t represent the positive, new practices implemented. Why are they focusing on a narrow, almost stereotypical report of the poor farmworkers and the employer who is exploiting them?”
Groot, like Alejo, points out that Monterey County moved quickly to get ahead of the pandemic, implementing the advisory and obtaining and distributing 1.7 million masks to farm employers. The nature of the always-backbreaking fieldwork has changed – fewer people are working at a single time and making more passes through a field for social distancing. “It took a lot of ingenuity in a short period of time in a crisis situation,” Groot adds.
Maybe the most compelling part of the Frontline episode was the cellphone footage, shot by a worker, of a Taylor Farms supervisor telling employees, after learning a co-worker tested positive, that if they felt unsafe inside, they were welcome to quit their jobs.
“Sadly, today you could all be fired,” he is heard saying.
For many people, a choice to work during the pandemic is no choice at all.