Advocates call for regulation as Santa Maria farmworkers suffer most from coronavirus infection

By Joe Payne

The two most direct governing bodies to the Central Coast’s current coronavirus hotspot, Santa Maria, received a dire warning from a community advocate for the local farmworker and indigenous immigrant population regarding the COVID-19 infection rate: “We are literally a ticking time bomb.”

Hazel Davalos, the organizing director for CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy), gave public comment over the phone on July 7 to ask both the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Maria City Council to act quickly to regulate local agricultural companies to adopt best practices to help stymie the spread of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected the valley’s farmworker population. Davalos also called for increased inspection and new policies regarding H2A farmworker housing.

The federal H-2A program allows ag companies to bring foreign workers into the U.S. for labor after background checks and other screenings, including most recently tests for coronavirus infection. Because of the high density of dormitory living conditions, H2A workers are susceptible to the spread and infection of the novel virus. A recent outbreak at an H2A housing facility in Oxnard, California saw nearly 200 guest farmworkers infected. Advocates like Davalos are worried that another widespread outbreak like in Oxnard could happen in any of Santa Maria’s H2A dormitories, as the virus has already hit hard farmworkers who live locally.

Santa Barbara County Public Health Department Director Van Do-Reynoso delivered a report to both the Board of Supervisors and the Santa Maria City Council at their respective meetings on July 7, and relying on survey data that included more than 100 infected Santa Maria Valley residents along with people who tested positive in the rest of the county, illustrated how the ag sector has been impacted by higher rates of infection. Outside of the Santa Maria area, 5 percent of those infected are agricultural workers; in Santa Maria, that figure is 20 percent. Santa Maria has also seen a disproportionate number of infections among its Latino population, with the majority of infections taking place in households of four to seven residents.

Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors COVID-19 updates, July 7, 2020.

During her public comment, CAUSE’s Davalos said that her organization heard reports from a small group of laborers who work at a Guadalupe packing facility but live in Santa Maria. She said that after learning of co-workers who had tested positive, the laborers asked management for more thorough screening and protections, but management’s “response was to tell workers they could leave and be easily replaced.”

“When workers aren’t getting clear direct information from employers about how to stay safe and are even retaliated against when they ask for better standards, we have a problem,” Davalos said. “It’s critical that the industry does its part to slow the spread.”

After reaching out directly to farmworkers for comment, one couple was able to offer a glimpse into the measures taken by the company for which they’re employed. Their names and the company are withheld to protect their identities and employment, and direct quotes were shared via email through a family member acting as interpreter.

They said that though there was some initial education when the statewide lockdown began in March, there were no real efforts made to increase the availability or number of hand washing stations or bathrooms available in the fields. Some managers encouraged social distancing, others did not. As re-opening efforts began, mask-wearing was less stressed.

“Work conditions remain the same prior to COVID; nothing has changed,” they said. “Zero effort to protect people from the virus. Everything is just like it always was, no mention of COVID.”

Santa Maria Valley farmworkers make up 20 percent of the cities coronavirus cases, compared to only 5 percent that farmworkers represent in the rest of Santa Barbara County, according to stats collected by the county Public Health Department. Photo by Joe Payne

National trends have shown that people of color and those in lower income brackets are disproportionately represented in coronavirus infection numbers. Meat packing plants arose as hotspots early across middle America, and the Santa Maria Valley also includes several indoor packing and cooling facilities. Risk factors for essential workers are high, as they are for those who live in high-density housing or have several people living in a single household. Santa Maria’s farmworkers fall under every one of those risk categories.

Abraham Melendrez, a policy advocate for CAUSE, reminded that agriculture labor on the Central Coast never stopped after the pandemic began. They’re the definition of an “essential worker,” which paired with the issues that many undocumented workers face, creates a combination of factors that make them most vulnerable.

“They’re getting hit from every direction,” Melendrez said. “There’s the choice between starving or working while sick, especially for undocumented workers, that’s the reality. … And then there’s a language barrier issue there, like with the Mixteco speakers and the Zapotec speakers.”

CAUSE paired up with MICOP (Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project)—an organization that has helped educate the indigenous population about coronavirus through a Mixteco-language radio station and Facebook page—to send a joint statement to both the county Board of Supervisors and the Santa Maria City Council with a list of recommended actions that could help protect farmworkers in the area. Recommendations include mandated temperature screenings, paid sick leave for those who become infected, multi-lingual education, providing N95 masks, and more.

In response to the statement from CAUSE and MICOP, county Public Health Director Do-Reynoso was unsure which state or local agency would enforce regulations on agriculture companies.

Info courtesy of Santa Barbara County Public Health Department

“I’m not sure whose jurisdictional authority it is to enforce it,” Do-Reynoso said. “That’s something that definitely we can explore with our county council to see, is it the Ag Commissioner, is it CALOSHA, is the Public Health? And what is the extent that Public Health can do?”

During the presentation by Santa Barbara County to the Santa Maria City Council, county officials called for strict enforcement from city staff and the Santa Maria Police Department. Do-Reynoso cited a health and safety code that grants local law and code enforcement to act in the name of a health director during a public health emergency. Santa Maria City Attorney Thomas Watson pushed back aggressively, pointing to a lack of enforcement by the District Attorney’s Office or the county Sheriff’s Office, and repeatedly said, “What is your ask?”

“I have to admit, I have been holding myself back because I know how hard my five officers are working on this and have been since day one, and I just question the fact that you provided us no actual response in your presentation this evening,” Watson said. “So I guess I would ask, what is the county’s response?”

Do-Reynoso shot back with the number of resources that have been made available for North County, including the fact that county health facilities offer free testing and treatment for coronavirus patients without health insurance. She also gave credit to the city for its facemask campaign while pressuring the city to increase enforcement on businesses.

“We have done quite a bit in providing education, walking the high-density living neighborhoods to provide face coverings; we brought resources to the community, we brought health education, we brought testing,” Do-Reynoso said. “So I want to say from a public health perspective, we have done our due diligence and have focused on Santa Maria quite a bit because of the burden of disease.”

The argument was underscored by frustrations voiced by city residents during public comment. Several calls were dropped due to technical difficulties, but everyone who did get through cast blame on city leadership for not acting sooner and more aggressively to protect the city’s vulnerable populations.

Santa Maria City Council meeting on July 7, 2020.

“Unfortunately councilmembers, … I’m going to ask if you can see yourself in any statements,” one commenter said. “A member of this city council told a business owner, when asked if they could reopen, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter because nobody is doing enforcement.’ And then, as recently as June 1, at a public press event, another member of this council was not wearing a facemask in public and was not the requisite six feet from others. At a press conference!”

The Santa Maria Valley is reflective of many agricultural communities in California and around the nation that have continued to work through the pandemic to feed a struggling nation. Another commenter mused on the phrase bandied about during the pandemic’s early days, “We are all in this together,” and whether that was reflected in the alarming infection rate among the city’s farmworkers.

“Frontline workers are ‘in it’ more than others,” she said, “and I fear that the largest group of frontline workers in our city, ag workers, have been left behind. I worry about the county and the city’s response to the alarming uptick in infections in Santa Maria in general, but particularly among ag workers.”

“Demonizing or ignoring our immigrant communities who are suffering a different pandemic than I am fosters widespread public health problems for all of us. They are not separate from us. They are part of us. We are all in this together.”

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Published by Joe Payne

Joe Payne is a lifelong resident of the Santa Maria Valley who teaches music, performs, and tunes pianos (pianopayne.com). He's also a seasoned journalist who shares his own reporting and opinion on matters local and national (politicalpayne.com).

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