California farmland is often called “America’s salad bowl,” as our country’s largest producer of fresh produce, but it can also be a desert of health resources for farmworkers—essential workers who have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus. Lideres Campesinas – an organization empowering women farmworkers – is doing something to address the pandemic in the fields. That is why Blue Shield of California Foundation granted the group $100,000 as part of a cohort of nine organizations receiving funds to address the compounding impacts of COVID-19 and racial inequity on communities of color.
The racial disparities for COVID-19 infection and death rates are staggering. Latinos comprise 38.9 percent of the population yet make up 54.9 percent of the COVID-19 cases, according to the California Department of Public Health. The UC Berkeley School of Public Health conducted a study on a subset of those Latinos – farmworkers. Between March and November of 2020, 13 percent of the farmworkers they tested were positive for the coronavirus, and 40 percent had no place to safely shelter.
Lideres Campesinas Executive Director Suguet Lopez understands why those numbers are so high: The people who pick and process our food often work in unsafe, unhealthy conditions prone to COVID, and have faced retaliation for speaking out.
“When the pandemic first hit, the foremen would laugh it off and say the workers were safe because they are outside,” said Suguet. “They spread misinformation, didn’t make social distancing possible, and did not provide PPE (personal protective equipment) or proper sanitation. When women spoke out and asked for better working conditions, they were often put on ‘troublemaker lists’ and retaliated against. Other people kept quiet for fear of losing their jobs.”
Retaliation is nothing new for women farmworkers, who pull 12-hour shifts, six days a week to put food on their own tables. As immigrants, many do not know their rights or are afraid to file a complaint with the government for fear of being deported.
‘Wash your dirty laundry at home’
Giving those women a place to raise their voices is how Lideres Campesinas was formed. The organization’s name means “women farmworker leaders” and supports women experiencing gender violence, poor working conditions, and wage theft.
“For the campesinas, there is a culture of ‘la ropa sucia se lava en casa,’ or ‘wash your dirty laundry at home,’” said Suguet. “We provide a safe space for them to voice abuse, educate them on their rights, and train them to be ambassadors in the field.”
Araceli Ruiz, a farmworker from Mexico who picks lettuce, grapes, and broccoli, joined Lideres Campesinas to get information about how to protect and stand up for herself. “With COVID, Lideres has helped us understand how to keep each other safe,” she said. “We’ve been able to share information with our coworkers and community so that more people are protected.”
Blue Shield of California Foundation provided funding to this cohort of nine organizations to not only respond to community needs, but also work to create longer term health equity. “As the pandemic has demonstrated so powerfully, health inequities are complex, but through community-focused approaches, like that of Lideres Campesinas, we can support highly-effective, innovative community solutions,” said Debbie I. Chang, president and CEO of the Foundation.
To fight the high rates of coronavirus, Lideres Campesinas partners with local medical clinics to get information, PPE, and testing into the field. “Farmworkers tend to trust people they know,” said Suguet. “If they introduce the health care workers from the clinics, women are more likely to listen to what they have to say.”
Homelessness and Farm Work
Partner clinic staff bring their operations right to the fields, making it possible for women who work long hours to get the health services they need. Clinic staff provide education on how COVID-19 is transmitted, distribute PPE, provide testing, connect them with treatment and other services, and combat vaccine hesitancy.
Farmworkers are entitled to paid sick days and safe places to quarantine. According to the UC Berkeley study, 43 percent of the farmworkers sampled were either homeless or lived in overcrowded living conditions where the virus is more likely to spread. In addition, many are unaware of their rights and do not know how or are afraid to file a complaint.
Lideres Campesinas helps break down that fear with awareness. “Our community is small, but we’ve had entire families get the virus and so many people die,” said Araceli. “So, it’s really important to spread the word. We work on bringing consciousness to our communities, bit by bit. By being involved in Lideres, we get stronger, our families get stronger, and our entire community is stronger.”
The Center for Farmworker Families estimates that one-third to one-half of our nation’s farmworkers live and work in California. “The ability of farmworkers to advocate for better and safer living and working conditions, including COVID-19 protections and services, is important to the health and wellbeing of our state and our nation,” said Hilary Smith, foundation program manager who supported this work.