As COVID-19 cases surge in California, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, it is laborers who are paying the biggest price. Agricultural workers, many of them migrants and the children of immigrants, endure harsh working conditions to keep America fed, and they are among those at highest risk of getting the virus.
Soraida Farias is deeply familiar with the dangers of the job. The second generation agricultural laborer “works the grapevines” in California’s Central Valley alongside her husband. Together, they raise their children in a mixed-status, multigenerational home where the youngest is 23-months-old and the oldest is 76-years-old. Safety is a top concern, but as a family of essential workers—including Farias’ 19-year-old son who manages a fast food restaurant—the mother of five knows so much is out of her control.
Farias’ job was already brutal. She’s on her feet, in constant motion, for nine hours a day during the summer. Pesticide exposure and heat-related illnesses are not uncommon in the fields, but things are getting worse. Not only is there the pandemic to reckon with, but climate change is making agricultural work even more dangerous. During a record-breaking heat wave in August, temperatures soared to 112 degrees in some areas of the Central Valley, worsening the area’s wildfires and forcing agricultural workers like Farias to battle COVID, extreme heat, and work days filled with smoke and ash.
As California braced for another heat wave over Labor Day weekend, Farias talked to Prism about what it’s like to juggle backbreaking work, climate chaos, and motherhood during a pandemic.
Here she is, in her own words:
To start the work day, I usually wake up at four in the morning. I get food ready for the baby and my husband and me. I also leave food for my kids that are staying home because they’re now doing virtual learning. I also pack a bag for the baby, who will be two years old in October. I take him to the babysitter before I leave for work around 6 in the morning. My husband and I get to work by 6:30 a.m. and it’s about two hours of picking grapes before we can have a 10-minute break, which is basically when we eat breakfast. We don’t get another break until around 11:30, which is when we take our 30-minute break for lunch. We get one more 10-minute break before work is over for the day at 3:30. Afterwards I get my son at the babysitter, go home, and start cooking dinner—carne asada, tacos, sopes, the Mexican stuff my sons love—before going to bed around 8:30 and then starting the whole process over again.
Some days we work and it’s 105 degrees. There was one day recently when it got to 110 degrees. It might not make sense to people, but you have to wear a lot of layers. Every day, I wear jeans and I try to wear two long-sleeve shirts. It’s really hot, but you have to protect yourself from the sun and the pesticides. I use six bandanas to cover my hair and mouth. It’s good to double them so you don’t breathe in the pesticides. I also wear a baseball hat. You have to drink a lot of water, but not too much water because when it’s this hot, you will throw up if you drink too much. I drink a lot of Gatorade at work, or lemonade with salt because we sweat a lot.
The wildfires make everything look different. Everything is dark and ashy. It’s like you’re in clouds, but it’s all smoke. The smell is very strong. I missed some of the worst days because my baby had to get tested for COVID and I had to be with him because he was very sick. My coworkers told me it was really hard to breathe because of the smoke and ash.
Since the grape season started in April, I’ve been tested for COVID three times. There was a woman at work my husband and I hung out with who tested positive. That’s when I got tested with my husband for the first time. They would only test us if we had symptoms; it didn’t matter that we were exposed. So we said that we had symptoms. All of our tests have come out negative.
This work is seasonal, so it stops and starts again. Recently when it was time to go back to work, we were scared to go back. A lot of people go to work when they’re sick because they are afraid of losing their jobs. My husband’s supervisor started saying he was lazy and didn’t want to work, but he was just very afraid of getting COVID. We ended up talking to the owner of the company, who told us we had a choice to work if we were afraid of getting sick. I got unemployment during that time, but my husband did not because of his [immigration] status.
In the town where I live, they are trying to help people. The food bank has been helping families like ours. At first, a lot of [undocumented] people were left out because they would ask for identification if you wanted to get services or food. But now that the situation is worse and more people are getting sick, they don’t ask for that and they give out food to everyone twice a month. In California, they gave $500 to undocumented workers and that helped a little. I never got a stimulus check because we are a mixed status family and because of that, I didn’t qualify.
There are more and more cases of COVID in the little town where I live. Big cities like Los Angeles had it worse at first, but now we’re starting to see it here in our little towns that are mostly Latinos who are essential workers. Five or six people at the company I work for have tested positive for COVID. I’ve seen people get the really bad cough and it sounds so different from a normal cough. It’s very dry, and it sounds like they can’t breathe; like they are trying to catch their breath. The people who’ve had it are taking a very long time to recover. This is a hard job, a very physical job, and they need more breaks than they can take when they come back to work.
Our supervisors don’t tell us if we’ve come into contact with anyone who has COVID, so we investigate ourselves. If someone misses work, we call around and try to figure out what happened so that we know if we need to get tested. It is very scary, but you just have to do what you can. I pay attention to clues. If someone never wears a mask at work and then they show up wearing one, even when they’re driving in their car, I know that something is fishy and I stay away from that person.
No one takes our temperature at work. I feel like the company isn’t doing its job to protect us. My coworker and I are thinking about calling a number we saw on the local news that will bring a mobile testing site to our work. I worry that there are infected people working who don’t have symptoms. The owner of the company has offered us masks, but the supervisors that we see everyday don’t and they don’t really care if we wear masks. A lot of people just take their masks off after the bosses leave because they’re very hard to breathe in when you’re working outside in the heat and you’re going up and down and coming in and out of the grape vines.
All of my oldest kids understand the risk we take when we work. My oldest son has also gotten tested because he’s an essential worker too; he works every day as the manager of a fast food restaurant. I take care of [an older family member] who has diabetes. We don’t have a choice when it comes to work, but all of us try to keep the family safe.
The pandemic has changed everything. My oldest son decided to leave college. He doesn’t feel like distance learning is “real” school. He wants to wait to see what happens next semester. My other son was supposed to start Fresno State and live in a dorm, but we wouldn’t let him, so now he’s doing distance learning. My other two children haven’t started school yet. The school just barely sent them laptops this week and they are still trying to figure out the Zoom thing. Other counties have already started and our district hasn’t. The district isn’t doing its job and now kids are getting behind. One of my sons is going into eighth grade and for some reason, they gave him seventh grade materials. My other son is very quiet and needs more help, but I know he isn’t going to get it.
None of our younger children have really left the house much; only us, the essential workers in the family. It’s a really weird time to be a little kid. Just this week I started to take the baby out a little bit. I put a mask on him and I decided that if he kept it on, maybe he can go a few places with me. Since April, he has only gone to the babysitter’s house and our house. I put the mask on him and took him to the store and he was just looking around at everyone wearing masks, scared, and holding my hand. I don’t know if things will ever go back to normal.