Farmworkers key to keeping America fed wary of coronavirus but getting help from initiatives giving back

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The coronavirus pandemic has drawn fresh attention to farmers’ critical role in America, with residents finding some supermarket shelves cleaned out by people stocking up and then hunkering down in their homes.

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GREENFIELD, CA - APRIL 28: Farm laborers with Fresh Harvest arrive in the early morning to begin harvesting on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

GREENFIELD, CA - APRIL 28: Farm laborers with Fresh Harvest arrive in the early morning to begin harvesting on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

More than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, for instance, are grown in California, whose farms and ranches brought in nearly $50 billion in 2018, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture groups and union leaders have urged employers to take extra precautions to prevent the outbreak from spreading among California’s farmworkers, who are already in short supply. Workers getting sidelined by illness could jeopardize crop yields and disrupt the food supply.

Some farms are heeding the call, union officials and growers say. But it can be difficult to separate workers by 6 feet as recommended because of the way certain crops are grown, said Dave Puglia, president of Western Growers, a group representing family farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

Efficiency is also critical, he said, with farmers facing pressure to restock grocery shelves in the midst of a public health and economic crisis.

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa maintain a safe distance as a machine is moved on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa maintain a safe distance as a machine is moved on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

“You would have to stagger the workers who are harvesting,” Puglia said. “That is a very inefficient and a very, very costly way to operate, and most farmers wouldn’t be able to do it. They would be losing way too much money.”

Western Growers said many members have added sanitation stations in the fields and required hand-washing before and after work as well as spaced out workers in packing facilities.

United Farm Workers is using the moment of the pandemic to push for longstanding requests, including removing the need for a doctor’s note and other hurdles to getting sick pay. In a letter to the agriculture industry, the union said workers should be able to wash their hands frequently and be encouraged to stay home if they are sick.

“What we’re finding is that most growers are not communicating with their employees to even share the basics: how to practice best practices (like) washing your hands” and keeping distance from others, said Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer at United Farm Workers, which represents up to 27,000 seasonal workers.

Another concern is conditions for foreign workers in the U.S. on temporary agricultural visas, known as H-2As. They often live in close quarters, sometimes with bunk-style beds or in motels provided by their employers, and commute together in vans and buses.

A coalition of farmworker advocates has asked U.S. officials to require employers to provide at least 6 feet between beds for such workers and that they be tested for the virus before entering the country.

The government officials who will decide when to reopen their states are facing competing pressures, moreover. More economic activity and travel will likely lead to more people contracting COVID-19. But tight restrictions on which businesses can operate are causing millions of people to join the ranks of the unemployed. Another 3.2 million U.S. workers applied for jobless benefits last week, bringing the total over the last seven weeks to 33.5 million as states restrict activities to slow the spread of the virus.

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa harvest romaine lettuce on a machine with heavy plastic dividers that separate workers from each other on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California.  (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa harvest romaine lettuce on a machine with heavy plastic dividers that separate workers from each other on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California.  (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

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There are more than two million farmworkers in America, and the Phenomenal Farmworkers Initiative was launched to drive patrons to the Farmworkers’ Pandemic Relief Fund to help them out.

“Farmworkers are at the heart of the U.S. food chain. Political leaders and employers must take the appropriate measures to protect farmworkers. Because if farmworkers fall sick, what happens to our food supply in the process?” the Phenomenal Farmworkers Initiative asked in an essay.

Meena Harris, the niece of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is one of the founders of the Phenomenal Farmworkers Initiative.

She has used social media to push the effort.

Oscar winner Laura Dern, as part of the effort, used Mother’s Day to spotlight a farmworker who is also a mother facing hardship.

She wrote on her Instagram: “Meet Blanca. She is a #PhenomenalFarmworker who lives in California. Blanca is a mother of 7 children. She works in crops such as lettuce, broccoli and strawberries. Blanca is a breast cancer survivor who faced some recent health challenges in recent months. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, she has continued to go to work, but her hours have been drastically reduced. Sometimes she is only working 2-3 hours a day. This has caused huge economic challenges for her and her family. It has been difficult for her family to pay rent and other bills, not to mention buy food. One week during the crisis, her family did not have enough food to eat. A local head start administrator brought food to her and her family to help them during this difficult time. Blanca is strong, resilient and phenomenal. Support her and families like hers today.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.