Farmworker infected with coronavirus dies in Santa Maria guest-worker housing

By Joe Payne

On the day that advocates and community members called for protections for Santa Maria Valley farmworkers hit hard by COVID-19 infection rates, Leo Begario Chavez-Alvarado passed away. A guest worker who worked in Santa Maria for Alco Harvesting, Chavez-Alvarado was tested for coronavirus after he died July 7. The test came back positive.

Multiple agencies are now investigating Chavez-Alvarado’s death, which is connected to an alleged outbreak of at least 17 farmworkers employed and housed locally by Alco Harvesting, a labor contractor for Betteravia Farms, also known as Bonipak Produce. Multiple requests to Bonipak by Political Payne in late June asking for standards and practices employed in relation to COVID-19 prevention went unanswered.

Alco Harvesting released a statement to KSBY News on July 14, explaining that Chavez-Alvarez had worked for the company for more than three years, and that company staff were “deeply saddened” by his passing.

“Our hearts go out to his family and friends and to all those who have lost loved ones during this unprecedented global crisis… He was a valued employee and a good friend to many. He will be greatly missed,” the statement said.

Though specifics couldn’t be shared due to privacy laws, the company did share some information about actions taken after Chavez-Alvarez became ill.

“When we learned that Mr. Chavez was not feeling well, we immediately implemented our company COVID-19 preparedness protocols and took him to a local Urgent Care Center, where he was treated. Following that visit, Mr. Chavez self-quarantined while awaiting test results.”

Santa Maria Valley farmworkers make up 20 percent of coronavirus infection rates in the area. On July 7, an H2A worker quarantined while awaiting a coronavirus death passed away. Photo by Joe Payne.

Local advocacy organization Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy released a statement from Organizing Director Hazel Davalos on July 14, which shared information, concerns, and calls for action. According to the statement, Chavez-Alvarado was living in a Motel 6 room on East Main Street in Santa Maria at the time of his death.

“Allegedly, the company began quarantining infected workers at the Motel 6 and when they ran out of rooms, also started housing workers at the Colonial Motel,” Davalos wrote.

In the statement from CAUSE, Davalos called on local agriculture companies to take prevention of “the spread of COVID seriously,” and called again on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, Public Health Department, and Ag Commissioner to enact regulations and requirements to protect farmworkers. Companies that employ workers through the federal H2A program need to be especially careful, she wrote.

“In a situation where hundreds of workers live in dormitory style housing, are transported together, and work together, spread of the coronavirus can happen rapidly. Despite living in dormitory style housing, to-date California and county agencies have not treated guestworker housing as congregant housing (eg nursing homes, prisons, etc.). We have seen this happen in both Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.”

Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors July 14 meeting livestream.

At the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting on July 14, the Public Health Department stressed the importance of protocols in “congregate settings” during its coronavirus report.

“Enough can not be said about the administrative and environmental protocols that must be in place, not when you get the first case, but at all times in order to prevent it,” said Deputy Director of Community Health Paige Batson. “These congregate settings really need to have solid temperature and symptom screening protocols. In congregate settings, it’s not once a day when people arrive or when people awake, but they probably need to have enhanced screenings twice a day.”

Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso also updated the board with the current number of infections in Santa Barbara County, and clarified how many of the infected are farmworkers. The latest numbers included 4,323 total cases in the county, with 371 active cases, and 31 deaths. Santa Maria Valley remained the county’s hotspot of infections, and the farmworker population still made up the brunt of the infections there.

“Of the total cases, as of yesterday, 14 percent of our total cases in our county can be attributed to farmworkers,” Do-Reynoso said. “If we just look at the total cases in Santa Maria, 20 percent of those cases are attributed to farmworkers.”

Infographic courtesy of Santa Barbara County Public Health Department

Most of the report addressed California’s orders to re-close several sectors of the economy, including indoor dining and bars, fitness centers and salons, museums and indoor entertainment venues, and more. The board also formally accepted $46.1 million in federal CARES Act funds, allocating $2 million for rental assistance, but no ordinance for farmworker protections was drafted or approved.

No mention was made of Chavez-Alvarado until the public comment period, when CAUSE’s Davalos read her statement about his death and called for the board to require heightened health screenings and more from the industry.

The public comment portion of the meeting also included several members of CAUSE and community members calling for regulation of local agriculture companies for employee protections.

“As a farmworkers daughter, I’ve seen my mother come home every single day for the last 16 years of my life, sometimes in pain, barely able to walk or stand up because of how difficult it is to work in the fields,” said Jasmine Garcia. “The past months she has come home and talked about how horrible conditions have got in her workplace during the pandemic.”

“She also talked about how long it took for their employer to start checking temperatures after her coworker collapsed midfield and later tested positive for COVID. We ask that the board seriously consider making calls to loosen and direct the Agricultural Commission to require companies and ranches to notify workers in Spanish and indigenous languages about the sick leave they’re entitled to if infected, arrange for more frequent testing and screening of workers, and put an end to retaliation against workers who have a right to speak up about more safety protocols.”

This article was edited to correct information regarding Chavez-Alvorado’s citizenship. According to Alco Harvesting, he was an American citizen living in guest worker housing.

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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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