With no safety net, Sonoma County farmworkers struggle through pandemic and aftermath of wildfires
Lidia Chavez, a Cloverdale vineyard worker who left her village in Oaxaca, Mexico, more than 25 years ago, recalled vividly that her mother used to tell her that men have strong arms for work.
“But she would also say women have strong arms, too,” said Chavez, 56, speaking in Spanish and raising her fists.
The weathered, sun-baked skin on her arms is a testament to her words. Like so many undocumented immigrants, her ability to work is the essential yardstick by which Chavez measures her worth, her existence.
Today, however, she represents a crisis, as one of thousands of Sonoma County’s undocumented farmworkers struggling to pay rent and to stay healthy due to crushing blows from the lingering coronavirus pandemic and recent wildfires that decimated the annual wine grape harvest.
For the past month, Chavez only has been working a fraction of the 60 to 70 hours a week she’s accustomed to toiling during the busiest time of year for area vineyard workers, picking tons of grapes from August through October. Since wildfire smoke curtailed the harvest, she can no longer depend on her livelihood.
“There is no work,“ she said. ”I feel very anxious, like I’m not serving any purpose.“
She’s turned to house cleaning, logging 6 or 7 hours a day in between idle time worrying and longing to work amid the rows of grapes. She’s begged her boss, a local vineyard manager she holds in high regard, to put a shovel in her hand but his answer is always the same: sorry but no.
Chavez agreed to let The Press Democrat photograph her and publish her first and last name because she said it is important for people who are undocumented to speak out publicly about their experiences.
Chavez and other farm laborers interviewed for this story, several of them undocumented, say they’ve reached the point of desperation.
To be sure, public health emergency restrictions to stop the spread of the virus have taken a tremendous toll across the county, leaving many residents to rely on unemployment benefits and various forms of government assistance. But undocumented immigrants don’t have that safety net. They are ineligible for food stamps, Medicaid, state jobless pay, Social Security and health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
Essential yet left out
Gabriel Muchabanski, associate director of the Graton Day Labor Center, said there is not adequate help for agricultural workers, although they are an essential part of the labor force. Many vineyard workers, he said, rely heavily on their income from the grape harvest to get through the winter months when jobs for them are scarce.
This year, however, many vineyard workers made only 20% to 50% of the pay they earned in previous years picking grapes, he said. Typically, farmworkers are the strongest and most resilient laborers, but, he said, these are not normal times.
“That resilience is so fragile,” Muchabanski said. “They are literally the cannon fodder for economic sustenance in moments of crisis, as we’ve seen in the last seven months, as the frontline and essential workers. And they’re disproportionately impacted in terms of their health as it relates to COVID.”
Indeed, the coronavirus has disproportionately infected Sonoma County’s disadvantaged communities, many of which are Latino. Latinos represent 54% of all COVID-19 cases in the county, when race or ethnicity has been determined, yet they are only 26% of the nearly 500,000 population. Over the summer, that demographic disparity peaked at an alarming level; almost 80% of those contracting the contagion were Latinos.
On Friday, county public health officials said they are finalizing a $4 million “enhanced strategy” to address COVID-19 disparity. The new targeted pandemic response includes greatly increasing community virus testing in Latino neighborhoods, giving gift cards to encourage people to be tested and issuing cost-of-living stipends to those who contract the virus but do not have paid sick leave through their employers.
’We’ve never seen this before’
For undocumented farmworkers, the August and September wildfires wrecked their finances, after the virus had threatened their physical health.
“This year, the grape harvest was no kind of windfall, neither for vineyard owners nor vineyard workers. It was a loss for many,” said Adan, a vineyard tractor driver from Cloverdale who asked that only his first name be used because he is undocumented.
Adan, 69, said after smoke from the Walbridge and Glass fires contaminated a significant portion of the county’s grape crop and prompted an early end to harvest, many workers were unable to bank a “reserve” of money to carry them through the months of November and December, until it’s time to prune the grapevines.