Workers harvest strawberries in Ventura County, California, where an estimated 88% of 20,000 farm and food-production workers are immigrants. An estimated 79% are Latino non-U.S. citizens.
( AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega. It's The Takeaway, and it's great to be with you. During the pandemic, Americans across the country showed their appreciation for essential workers who kept our communities intact. From nurses to cashiers to teachers, praise has been heaped on those who answered the call, and rightfully so. There's one class of essential worker that hasn't received a similar spotlight despite their backbreaking labor. Those are farmers and food service employees who work grueling hours during the pandemic. Many of them are immigrants who live in the shadows.
A new report out today from the Center for Public Integrity and Mother Jones is revealing just how integral these immigrant workers are, and how they have been overlooked by the public health response to COVID-19. One of the report's co-authors, Susan Ferriss, is with me now, and she's a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. Susan, welcome to the show.
Susan Ferriss: Thank you.
Tanzina: The top line here your report revealed just how pervasive immigrant labor is on the front lines of essential work. What did you find? What are the percentages?
Susan: What we found, we identified almost 2 million workers who are frontline workers in food processing and farm work. We found that 43% were immigrants. We found that 9 in 10 were Latino.
Tanzina: That's 90% of the workers are Latino.
Susan: Of the immigrants, yes.
Tanzina: We also know, Susan, that there have been high rates of infection among Latino and Black populations and Indigenous populations, specifically, what were your findings there? Did the report probe into that?
Susan: Yes, we did. We overlaid for a map, a national map. We have spikes of COVID in counties. Our map is county by county. Anybody can go look at it and check out what the percentages are in their communities. We did find that there was a connection between the two. I think, anecdotally, we're seeing this. What is happening though, is we're not really keeping track of who's getting COVID and who's dying in these communities.
What I found in a community in Georgia was a man who died in May, and really judging from public records that you can't tell that he was a poultry worker in the community of Hall County, Georgia, and that he died of COVID. In order to establish that, I got a tip from someone there. I had to find his family in Mexico, and confirm that. The company that they told me he worked for would not confirm that he even work there.
Tanzina: Susan, is this because we're talking about an undocumented population of worker who may be afraid to seek health care because they're undocumented? They were afraid to approach hospitals or doctors? Or is it because the organizations that are hiring them don't want to admit that they have undocumented workers?
Susan: I think it's both. In this case of this man, he was actually a US citizen. He was an undocumented worker years ago, but he received amnesty back in the late '80s. He was actually a citizen, but I have spoken with people in the same community who were undocumented workers, who became sick, and continued to go to work because they were afraid not to go, and they wanted to stick it out as long as they could, because they were afraid that they wouldn't get paid. It's a patchwork of policies. Some people are reimbursed for time they're off and some people aren't. I talked to one family where the the breadwinner was only getting 60% of her pay, because they put her on disability.
Tanzina: What have major food producers-- How have they responded to the coronavirus? Are we seeing efforts to provide personal protective equipment for these workers undocumented or not undocumented?
Susan: I think we've seen an improvement in policies. I was told how Hall County by some of the workers that things have improved. There was more masking, more separation. These are our jobs where people congregate, so it's difficult. Out in the fields, it's a mixed bag. Some farm workers told me that they were getting masks, and that they were taking steps, employers do separate people on buses, when they're taken out to fields. Others you see anecdotal evidence that there are people who are still taking great risks, and aren't getting protection.
Tanzina: The CDC which has had its own issues, as we know, in terms of its guidance, in June issued guidance to farm employers for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in those areas. Has that had any effect on worker health, Susan?
Susan: I think there was some evidence in one county in Monterey that's actually tracking people who get COVID by job, by occupation, which really isn't being done nationally. That there was a decline, but they're still getting it. I would say it's probably not enough. People are still becoming sick.
This is a vulnerable population. In many cases, we've been living with this denial that undocumented people and people who may have papers, but their family members don't, are doing this work, and many communities across the country, at the same time as politicians are attacking them and saying, we don't really need them, or they shouldn't be here.
Tanzina: You did interview communities that rely heavily on immigrant labor, and at the same time, say they support President Trump, who has moved to restrict legal and undocumented immigration. How do those folks feel about what's happening?
Susan: That's right. I've talked to people in communities around the country that were Trump-voting communities, and people do seem to be in denial, or they simply don't understand the immigration system and their bottom line as well. If they want to come work here, they should come legally. People have these believe in myths really, that there's some line people can get into come and do jobs such as these. There really isn't.
There's a guest worker program for farm work only, and very few specialty meatpacking like seafood that's seasonal, but the vast majority of these jobs are done by people who live in the country, but they came illegally, originally, and some people have been here 20 years, many of them, or they come as family members. As you as you say, there is a legal system for entering, but it's really based on family. President Trump wants to cut back those numbers, too, for family members.
Tanzina: Susan, finally, in your reporting, you found that there are informal networks that many of these workers have created to care for each other if someone should get sick. Tell us about that.
Susan: Yes, that's right. In a lot of the communities where I spoke to people, they have a professional class of Latinos, and they do try to turn out help for people, they organize food drives, they get churches involved. They get donations from companies, too. A lot of these workers can't go get cash benefits from organizations that might give you some emergency cash to pay rent. If they don't have papers, they're not going to do that. People are really reliant now on donations for just basic food if they've lost hours of work, and some workers into the fields did lose hours in the spring, in Florida, for example, where a lot of farmers plowed under crops.
Tanzina: Susan Ferriss is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, and you can find a link to her report at publicintegrity.org, and on our show page. Susan, thanks so much.
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