Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farmworkers in the fields are some of the most important workers in the U.S. food supply chain, yet they do their work completely isolated from most of the country. Organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have done much in recent years to get the stories of farmworkers in front of the people who buy the produce they pick, and they are now organizing to make demands for safer conditions. Oscar Otzoy is one of those farmworkers, still picking produce in Florida as the pandemic continues to spread and organizing with the coalition for better conditions.
“Farm workers are continuing to go out into the field and harvest the fruits and vegetables that we all eat,” Otzoy said through a translator.
And even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing that workers have no choice but to continue working, because they’re considered part of the essential workforce. . . . What we’re seeing is that, as part of the organization, the coalition, we’re able to educate workers about the risks that take place; we’ve worked with various agencies to get handwashing stations around town, where workers can wash their hands, and we’re suggesting people stand about six feet apart from each other whenever they can in the community. But the reality is, the protections are far less when workers are going into the fields.
One of the hardest parts, he said, is that the workers’ living conditions make self-isolation impossible.
We live up to twelve or more in a trailer, and if someone is sick, that means that the virus is going to be spreading really quickly throughout the farm worker community. And so we’ve been making the call for state and local officials to protect the health of farm workers, and there’s a petition going around right now, calling on the governor to set up a field hospital here in Immokalee where workers can isolate and be treated if they are positive with COVID-19.
The petition also calls for agricultural employers to be required to provide functioning personal protective equipment for the workers, particularly masks, to ensure comprehensive and free testing for workers and to allocate public funds to economic relief.
There have been four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Immokalee, Otzoy said.
But there is a lack of testing. Workers do not have access to that, and so we fear it’s much higher. One of the main reasons why we’re petitioning for a field hospital here in Immokalee is so when workers are feeling sick, they can go somewhere to be tested quickly and to be treated. . . . For us, it’s very urgent that this happens, because there is no hospital here. The closest hospital is forty-five minutes to an hour away. And so when workers get sick, where will they go? What will happen?
The hospital would provide them a place to isolate themselves and avoid spreading the virus in cramped living and travel conditions. “Workers that are getting on buses that are crowded with more than forty people at a time, going to and from the fields. Social distancing is not possible,” he said.
So far, Otzoy explained, their workload has remained more or less the same. “Florida usually provides a large quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables for the entire country during the spring harvest window, and specifically over 90 percent of domestically produced tomatoes. We’re seeing that workers are continuing to go out into the field, and with the same risk.”
The farmworkers, like many other low-paid immigrant workers, have suddenly found themselves deemed “essential,” but their conditions and wages remain the same. “In terms of our campaign to petition for better healthcare and protections and a field hospital, specifically to Governor Ron DeSantis, we think it’s time that the state and county officials take into account the workers who are essential to allowing this country to continue to eat,” Otzoy said. “We’re seen as essential workers, but we’re not taken into account with the same urgency and the same sense of protections that other workers have. And so we think that it’s time for that to happen, for them to be able to see us.”
The petition to the governor had over 20,000 signatures at the time of our interview, and the coalition also has been circulating a letter that, Otzoy said, “has been signed by many human rights and health organizations, and the Florida public health association has just signed on, [and] human rights leaders like Ethel Kennedy and Kerry Kennedy and also Human Rights Watch as well as some major institutional religious denominations, like the United Church of Christ and the National Farm Worker Ministry.”
Thus far, though, the Florida Department of Health has told reporters that it thinks a field hospital is unnecessary. The workers continue to hope that public pressure will change Florida officials’ minds, though the governor currently appears more preoccupied with deciding when to reopen schools.
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.