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Soraida Farias has never heard of National Farmworkers Awareness Week, but farm work has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. Her father was a farmworker and like him, she now “works the grapevines” in California’s Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. The grueling work keeps her incredibly busy for more than half the year. In April, the vines are prepared for the season, which goes through December when the table grapes are picked, cleaned, packed, and shipped all over the country.

Farias has spent the last 10 years working for one company and in the coming days, she should receive directives from them about what—if anything—will change in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Farmworkers like Farias keep the country fed and they are considered “essential workers,” but working through a pandemic can subject rural agricultural communities to incredible harm, especially when considering that these workers have few legal protections and large gaps in healthcare coverage, if any at all.

This is one example of the conditions that advocates hope to shine a light on as part of the annual National Farmworkers Awareness Week, which spans March 25-31 and is now in its 21st year. There are 2 to 3 million farmworkers in the U.S. and an estimated 900,000 of these workers are women like Farias, who harvest, pick, process, and pack the fruits and vegetables the country relies on each day. But they are some of the most unprotected workers in the country, performing work that consistently ranks as some of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. 

“In the work that I do, it’s easy to keep distance between us, but it can still be scary. My husband doesn’t want to go to work [during the coronavirus], but he has to,” Farias said. “For undocumented people, they have no other resources, they have no other way to get money to support their families. I’ve seen it before, people who are sick or hurt go to work because they feel like they have to. They don’t have other options.”

The Earlimart, California, resident is worried about undocumented workers with no other source of income. She told Prism that she has personally seen undocumented workers push themselves through illness and injury out of desperation for the funds that keep their families afloat.

There is little reward for the tremendous risks farmworkers take. The average income for a farmworker is $11,000. Most are exempt from minimum wage laws, and all are exempt from overtime provisions, despite long work days during peak harvest. Farias, who works six days a week during grape season, told Prism she doesn’t receive double pay for working holidays.

As Mónica Ramírez reported for Prism, despite their immense contribution to the economy, “farmworkers are among the lowest paid workers in the country, they have the fewest employment rights, they work under substandard conditions, and they are essentially invisible to most people in society.” The conditions facing women agricultural workers are especially dangerous, and have far reaching implications for their families.

“Under federal law, children can still work in agriculture, with limited restrictions, as young as the age of 12. Women suffer rampant sexual harassment. Adults and children are sprayed with harmful pesticides that result in short-term and long-term health consequences. In particular, pesticide exposure can cause grave reproductive health issues that affect farmworkers’ reproductive organs, lead to miscarriages, and cause birth defects,” Ramírez reported.

From California to Massachusetts, there are organizations working with agricultural workers to address the overwhelming issues their communities face. These are groups like NC FIELD, which works directly with migrant and seasonal farmworker youth and families to address inequalities and fill service gaps in the agricultural community by referring farmworkers to needed services, conducting educational programs, and teaching farmworker youth grassroots organizing principles through programs like Poder Juvenil Campesino.

NC FIELD’s executive director Yesenia Cuello told Prism that children as young as 12 years old work tobacco farms in North Carolina. “We know for a fact that children in agriculture are not protected under the law and there are very real reasons why pressure may fall on a young person to help support the family,” Cuello said, citing deportation of a parent as a primary reason a child might begin to work the fields. “We know legally that not much has succeeded as far as legislation to protect these kids, so we try to give them the tools they need to learn to protect themselves.”

North Carolina is home to more than 100,000 farmworkers who work in tobacco, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, Christmas trees, and blueberries, among other crops. According to the NC Farmworkers’ Project, North Carolina’s leading industry is agriculture, yet farmworkers are among the most underserved residents in the state.

Cuello’s organization has established relationships with community health centers, and based on information the centers report to NC FIELD, the organization creates educational opportunities for agricultural workers. “This is our way of being able to address occupational health and safety issues that directly impact farm workers,” Cuello said. “For example, in the summertime heat strokes are very common. A heat stroke can kill a person, so we have developed education around teaching people how to recognize a heat stroke, how to treat it, and how to prevent one.”

Pesticides are another major concern for agricultural workers nationwide. According to the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, farmworkers have one of the highest rates of chemical exposures among all U.S. workers. Every year, doctors diagnose up to 20,000 poisonings among agricultural workers—and that’s only what’s reported. Pesticide exposure poses serious short- and long-term health risks to children and adults. “The immediate results of acute pesticide poisoning can include rashes, vomiting, and death. In the long-term, pesticide exposure has been associated with increased risk of cancer, infertility, neurological disorders, and respiratory conditions,” Earthjustice reported. These toxic chemicals can also cling to workers’ skin and clothing after they return home, exposing entire families to the effects.

Raul Garcia, the legislative director of Earthjustice’s Healthy Communities initiative, told Prism that the voices and needs of agricultural workers are centered in the organization’s work because there is “nothing quite as powerful” as hearing the experiences of impacted people.

“Many people can look at an issue and say something is right or wrong. Exposing people to toxic pesticides is clearly wrong,” Garcia said. “In court, that might be called ‘hearsay,’ but there is no hearsay here. The people living with the consequence [of toxic chemicals] are the ones telling us what it’s like and why protections need to be in place.”

Last year, an important step was made when President Donald Trump signed into law the Pesticide Registration Improvement Extension Act (PRIA), which provides the Environmental Protection Agency with more resources to evaluate pesticide registrations and ensure the preservation of the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) and the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule that are vital to the protection of workers and consumers who are exposed to pesticides.

This is just a start, of course. If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that nearly every industry in the U.S. is ill-equipped to protect its workers. In industries where protections were already severely lacking, the situation is especially dire. As women like Farias gear up for work this season, they are headed into unknown territory. The mother of five’s agricultural season starts around the same time the coronavirus pandemic is expected to reach its peak nationwide. Farias said in the Sacramento area, workers there are already harvesting strawberry crops. She wonders if sick people will force themselves to work and whether the companies they work for will intervene.

“I think these companies understand how hard we work and all the problems with the job,” Farias said. “They just don’t really care about us.”

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.