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California farmworkers at higher risk of contracting coronavirus, survey says

California farmworkers are at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus than people working in other industries, according to a new report released Tuesday by the California Institute of Rural Studies.

The institute’s findings are based on a survey of 900 agricultural workers from different regions of the state, including the North Bay.

A sizeable number of farmworkers in Sonoma County toil in the vast vineyards preparing for annual harvest, which will start in August, and then picking tons of wine grapes. Because county health officials have repeatedly refused to disclose companies affected by viral outbreaks and where workplace transmission has been occurring, it’s difficult to track the full effect of the pandemic disease on vineyard employees and farmworkers overall countywide.

Local agricultural workers — 134 employees — account for 11% of the adults with known employment who have tested positive for COVID-19 through July 21, according to county statistics. In total, there were 6,200 ag workers in the county in June, part of a civilian workforce of 224,400 people, according to state employment data.

The higher rate of infection statewide among farmworkers is due mainly to workplace and living conditions that make it difficult to maintain proper physical distance between workers, according to the report and public health experts.

“Farmworkers are at elevated risk, so far as we know,” said Don Villarejo, founder of the institute, which conducted the survey along with researchers, farmworker organizations and public policy advocates. “We need to be sure that the labor force is being taken care of because this thing is not over.”

Statewide data on COVID-19 infection rates among people working in ag jobs has been challenging to monitor because most county health departments, including Sonoma, have not been as transparent as they should be, Villarejo said. In 54 of 58 counties across California, local health officials have provided little to no detailed and updated information about how the infectious disease is affecting workers and industry sectors, Villarejo said, calling that “terrible.”

One exception is Monterey County, where the institute found ag workers were three times more likely to contract the virus than those in other business sectors. The county’s infection rate was 1,569 confirmed cases per 100,000 farmworkers as of June 30.

Although Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase has been mostly tight-lipped about which industries are contending with workplace viral outbreaks, last week she made a presentation to the county Board of Supervisors, revealing some specifics and expressing concern about farmworkers’ exposure to the virus.

Mase said at the time there were only 15 COVID-19 cases of workplace transmission in the local agriculture industry. And she said 18% of Latinos infected work in ag jobs. Then Monday she said there was one local unidentified farmworker dormitory affected by a single virus infection that forced workers there to move to an alternate site.

“It’s definitely a concern. People work together. They often live together in those types of close quarters,” Mase said of farmworkers. “They often travel to and from work together in vehicles and they may not be at the time wearing facial coverings.”

Neighboring Napa County has had to temporarily close two of three farmworker housing centers it operates, as a result of an undisclosed number of workers contracting the virus. About 100 workers moved to area hotels to quarantine, local officials said.

And Monday, Foley Johnson winery in Napa Valley, part of the portfolio of Foley Family Wines of Santa Rosa, announced it has temporarily closed after a single employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

The winery on Highway 29 joins at least one unidentified Sonoma County winery that in May had workers who contracted COVID-19. However, the Foley Johnson winery and tasting room in Rutherford might be the first in the North Coast wine sector to shutter because the virus infiltrated the workforce.

Leaders in area agriculture, whose employment is dominated by the wine industry, said they have taken steps to ensure workers are protected. For example, there has been the formation of a local ad-hoc group from the industry and community groups to improve communications with farmworkers, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

The farm bureau and Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group are making videos in Spanish to educate ag workers about how to properly protect themselves from the virus.

Tesconi said the heart of the message is for farmworkers to follow the necessary public health protocols at work and at home.

Karissa Kruse, executive director of Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group, said its foundation has bought and provided about 6,000 N95 masks to all vineyard workers. Some vineyard owners also have purchased washers and dryers to limit trips their workers need to take off of the ranch, while other growers have secured additional housing in case of a need to isolate workers who would be exposed to COVID-19, Kruse said.

Irene de Barraicua, a spokesperson for farmworker group Lideres Campesinas, said that there have been good efforts by Sonoma County employers in the ag sector working with community groups, but more needs to be done.

Her group has helped to provide personal protective equipment to farmworkers. She specifically mentioned a local push to secure a grant through the county health department that would allow more outreach to the Latino community, which is bearing a big ethnic disparity of infections with 3 of every 4 cases in the county.

But the process has taken too long, she said, especially in getting medical professionals out to farm sites as the virus infects more workers.

“There’s way too much talk,” de Barraicua said. “Let’s get the health professionals out there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the percentage of Sonoma County agricultural workers who have been infected with the coronavirus. They account for 11% of adults with known employment who have tested positive for the virus through July 21.

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