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Farmworkers, Deemed Essential, Don't Feel Protected From Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In a field in California's Central Coast, farmworkers are picking and boxing celery, putting it into crates. The government deems these workers essential during the pandemic - people have to eat - but some workers do not feel well protected. NPR's Danny Hajek reports.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: Around Bakersfield, Calif., 74 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus in part of the state's most productive agricultural region. Teresa Mendosa is anxious.

TERESA MENDOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "I'm very worried," she says, "but I don't have a choice. I have to work." Mendosa has been a farmworker since 2004, and she's a member of the union, United Farm Workers. She makes minimum wage, which in California is $13 an hour.

MENDOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "I'm alone," she says. "I have to work because I have expenses. I have nobody to help me."

MENDOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: There are over 850,000 farmworkers in California, according to data from UC Davis. Nearly half are undocumented, and undocumented workers are excluded from the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress. That includes Mendosa, who's long felt that President Trump's immigration policies target her. Now in a deadly pandemic, she says the government suddenly sees her as essential.

MENDOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "Right now we feel they need us," Mendosa says. "But once this crisis is over, they'll forget about us. They'll forget about the workers."

MENDOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: Over a third of America's vegetables and two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts are grown here in California. A couple hours outside Bakersfield, at a citrus orchard, two farmworkers are hauling big bins full of oranges. One of the workers is named Carlos. He asked that we only use his first name because he's concerned about losing work. His daughter recorded this audio for NPR.

CARLOS: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: He says he's worked in the California fields for 48 years.

CARLOS: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "As farmworkers, we pick for the rich and the poor. We feed everyone," he says, "yet right now we're not being prioritized." For Carlos, who's 73 and diabetic, the coronavirus is especially concerning. He's paid as an independent contractor.

Do you get paid sick leave?

CARLOS: No. Nada.

HAJEK: Nothing.

CARLOS: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

HAJEK: Not even water, he says with a laugh. California labor unions say farmworkers are sometimes denied paid sick leave by their employers. And in the U.S., where about 20% of farmworker families live below the poverty line, Carlos says he worries people will show up sick to make the hours.

CARLOS: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "Even though they might get yelled at, a worker will go in their car to lay down," Carlos says. "Then they'll come back out and pick fruit for the rest of the day."

CARLOS: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: For Manuel Cunha Jr., that's no way to run a farm.

MANUEL CUNHA JR: No, no, no. I just have real problems with that because the people that are going to get hurt are these workers.

HAJEK: Cunha is the president of Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, so he represents the employer side of this, about 650 growers and 100 labor contractors.

CUNHA: And when we encounter a bad grower in our organization, we will drop them.

HAJEK: Bottom line, he says, sick pay for employees is the law in California. And if a farmworker doesn't feel protected...

CUNHA: You know what? Have them call me.

HAJEK: Cunha is working with manufacturers to get ear thermometers for farmworkers in packing houses. He's even petitioned the White House for respirator masks. And other California growers, like Reiter Affiliated Companies, are offering virtual appointments at their health care clinics.

CUNHA: We're going to get through this. But I do really care very, very much about these workers.

HAJEK: They're the backbone of California agriculture, Cunha says, an essential part of an industry worth over $50 billion. And as the coronavirus continues its spread across the U.S., keeping Americans fed means these farm workers are on the front lines of the outbreak.

Danny Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.