Monday, July 6, 2020




          Black Lives Matter. That’s not only true, but since late May it’s been an act of political incorrectness to suggest that other lives matter, too. Saying “All Lives Matter” today invites accusations of racism. And yet…

          This summer has seen protest marches stressing that both transgender and LGBTQ lives matter. But no one has marched for the well-being of farm workers, who are almost uniquely exposed to the coronavirus plague.

          In Monterey County, the contrast between wealth along the coast north of Big Sur and the poverty of farm workers laboring in fields two dozen or so miles inland has long been stark. Now the contrast is clear in another vital way: Coastal areas with more than one-third of the county’s population accounted for less than 15 percent of its COVID-19 cases as of June 27. The agricultural Salinas and south county areas with a host of farm workers chalked up more than 80 percent of cases in the county. So far, Soledad State Prison has contributed very little to county case and death totals.

          Drive through the Salinas Valley on Highway 101 or any of dozens of byways and reasons for the caseload disparity become obvious.

          Many farm workers ride old, re-painted school buses to the valley’s lettuce, strawberry, spinach, cauliflower and broccoli fields. They are often crammed in like schoolchildren in pre-pandemic days.

          They work parallel rows of plants side by side, any social distancing purely accidental. Workers return home on the same buses, living in conditions far more crowded than all but a few homes along the coast. It’s an open invitation to the coronavirus.

          The upshot couldn’t be more clear: Farm worker lives don’t matter.

          Almost everyone in America who has participated in this year’s protests and unrest, no matter their ethnicity, eats food produced by these workers and folks like them. Their absence would instantly disrupt America’s food supply.

          And conditions in the Salinas Valley are not unique. The agriculture-centered Central Valley has lately seen a rise in coronavirus cases, prompting several members of Congress to urge that Gov. Gavin Newsom prioritize COVID-19 testing for farm workers and food packers.

          The federal Centers for Disease Control issued guidelines calling for farm workers to use face masks and other personal protective equipment, but it’s difficult to spot any worker doing that. While farm workers are deemed essential laborers, the guidelines are not mandatory, leaving compliance to the discretion of farm owners and foremen.

          So it’s no surprise that COVID-19 outbreaks among farm workers around California grow steadily more severe and frequent.

          Edgar Franks, political director of a farm worker union in Washington state, told a reporter most farms are not as scrupulous about educating and equipping workers as companies in urban settings, where inspections are more frequent. “I haven’t seen much enforcement of guidelines in the fields,” he said. “No social distancing, no giving out masks, too little spacing between rows, everyone huddling close together during crew meetings.”

          Combined with crowded living conditions, that’s a recipe for disease.

          Meanwhile, pay is low and many workers fear being fired if absent. So labor advocates report few farm workers get tested, while many report for duty when feeling ill.

          Newsom has responded, but only a bit. One of his many executive orders requires anyone employing fewer than 500 food sector workers to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to workers affected by COVID-19. But testing is less common in agricultural areas than in large cities, so it’s difficult for workers at big farms to qualify for those two weeks of sick pay. And what about workers on larger farms not affected by Newsom’s order?

          Farm worker advocates also report that Cal-OSHA, the state’s occupational safety and health agency, has been reluctant to investigate directly in fields where the advocates say safety guidelines are ignored.

          The full extent of this problem remains unknown, partly because of the paucity of formal investigations and partly because most COVID-19 testing programs do not identify occupations of persons testing positive.

          Change is plainly needed, if only to prevent contagion in the food chain. It’s also high time someone asserted forcefully that farm worker lives do matter.

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to

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