By Shannon Barry & Sam Zlotnik
(Published April 2021)
Editor’s note: This story was written as a part of the University of Florida Environmental Justice Media Intensive, hosted by the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute and the UF Levin College of Law’s Public Interest Environmental Conference.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Robin Lewy worried that farmworkers and their families in North Central Florida would be the last to receive vital public health information. Her concerns were especially amplified for workers who do not speak English as their primary language. The majority of migrant farmworkers in Florida come from Latin America and the Caribbean, and many speak Spanish, Creole or one of many indigenous languages.
“The first reality we had was that our community was not going to have access to even the little information that all of us had in English,” said Lewy, director of programming at the Rural Women’s Health Project (RWHP) in Gainesville.
Worldwide agriculture operations have experienced disruptions in food production and transportation during the pandemic, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In the state of Florida, where agriculture is the second largest industry after tourism, fruit and nut producers saw an average of 30% sales losses over the first two months of the pandemic.
Image from Flickr user Jim Mullhaupt (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
While the industry overall has struggled, dangerous living and working conditions long experienced by farmworkers have been exacerbated by the pandemic, making this group particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Florida’s farmworkers spend long shifts in the state’s sweltering heat to harvest the food we eventually find in the produce section of grocery stores, including citrus, watermelons, tomatoes, blueberries and squash. Seasonal and migrant farmworkers often live in overcrowded rooms and rely on their supervisors for housing and transportation. Many migrant workers are undocumented immigrants, and because of their status are generally not eligible for public benefits like workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and stimulus checks. And critically, the majority of farmworkers do not have health insurance.
As essential workers, farmworkers like María Alvarez of Plant City, Florida, continued to work in risky conditions after the pandemic began. “When we arrive to pick up boxes, we’re very close to each other,” Alvarez told NBC News in February. “Then we head back to go picking and we’re still close. There is no social distancing.”
Farmworkers typically live and work in rural counties, which have seen higher COVID-19 case rates than in urban counties, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health. The Purdue Food and Agricultural Vulnerability Index estimates that 544,000 farmworkers in the U.S. have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of early April, with 17,000 of those cases in Florida.
A screenshot of the Purdue Food and Agricultural Vulnerability Index from April 7, 2021.
State and county governments in Florida have addressed some health risks specific to farmworkers during the pandemic, but their success has been limited.
For example, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) worked with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) to distribute mobile COVID-19 testing units throughout rural areas. However, these testing services were not provided until October 2020. Earlier in the pandemic, some communities, like Immokalee, had to instead rely on international aid organizations such as Doctors Without Borders.
Lewy also pointed out that these testing units mostly went to relatively urban areas in South Florida rather than to more rural regions further north. “Imagine places like up here in North Central Florida,” she said. “Nobody's gonna come up here. Who's going to come and provide services in areas where we really are so rural and we have so much distance between where workers are living and where they work and we didn’t have that nice convenience of all the workers living in one location?”
FDACS and UF/IFAS also teamed up to work on overcoming language barriers to public health information. They distributed flyers in English, Spanish and Creole and created a video series in Spanish. Yet, these efforts failed to account for the many migrant farmworkers from Mexico and Central America who speak indigenous languages.
To make up for the limitations of the state’s pandemic response, community-based advocacy organizations such as the RWHP, the Farmworker Association of Florida and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have stepped up. They have helped to distribute food and personal protection equipment, provide accessible public health information and advocate for farmworkers’ rights to protect their health. As these organizations are either run by or work closely with farmworkers and their families, they have been able to quickly determine the highest priority needs of these communities.
To address the language barrier in public health information, RWHP created Spanish-language videos, fotonovelas and radionovelas with tips for staying healthy during the pandemic. RWHP also collaborated with other organizations to translate public health information and guidelines into over a dozen indigenous languages, including Mixteco, Purépecha, Nahuatl and various Mayan languages.
Other farmworker advocacy organizations have made similar strides, such as WeCount!, which runs a radio station in Spanish and in several indigenous languages, such as Mam and Ixil.
RWHP has relied heavily on community health workers, or comunicadoras, to provide pandemic-related health information in Spanish to farmworkers and their families.
Sara Fernandez, a former nurse and RWHP comunicadora, explained to María Peña in her podcast Voces for Change last June that “there are people who this information has still not reached.” Since then, Fernandez has endeavored to bring vital health resources to her community.
Looking forward, it is unclear how quickly, if at all, most farmworkers in Florida will be vaccinated. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 27% of Florida’s population is Hispanic, but as of late March, Hispanic residents made up 37% of all COVID cases and only 19% of vaccinations in the state.
The push to vaccinate farmworkers has received federal support: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced in December 2020 that essential frontline workers should be prioritized for vaccination. Their recommendation placed farmworkers in the same priority group as those 75 and older, but ahead of those in the 65-74 age range.
Some states have followed CDC recommendations to urgently vaccinate farmworkers. One county in California, for example, was the first to prioritize farmworkers for the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the New York Times.
But in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis announced in December that elderly residents above the age of 70 would be prioritized for vaccination ahead of non-medical essential workers, such as farmworkers.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried pushed back against this policy and publicly urged the governor to vaccinate farmworkers as soon as possible. Fried launched a bilingual vaccine education campaign targeted toward farmworkers and asked the FBI to investigate potential corruption in the state’s vaccination plan.
Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees has also prevented many farmworkers from getting vaccinated by enacting strict proof-of-residency requirements. Many farmworkers move seasonally between states or even countries, which makes it difficult to prove residency in Florida.
For farmworkers who lack a legal immigration status, as well as those from mixed-status families, getting vaccinated may not be worth the risk of potential deportation. A recent Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult for immigrants to fight back against deportation will likely only worsen this fear.
Another barrier to farmworker vaccinations is the distance workers must travel to hospitals or pharmacies where the vaccine is administered. Lewy argues that Florida health services should “serve farmworkers by going to them as a way of respecting their time and their important economic responsibility within our state.”
Just as the state provided mobile testing units, they could create mobile vaccination units to bring treatment to the fields and housing facilities where the farmworkers live, Lewy said, adding that farm owners and managers could also be doing more to protect their workers.
Image from Wikimedia Commons user bratislavskysamospravnykraj (CC BY 2.0)
“I think that it would be important to see the agriculture industry be less resistant to participation in COVID testing, in isolation of workers that are not well and certainly in requesting access to vaccinations for their workers,” she said. “I haven't really seen that happen, and that's a little bit disconcerting.”
The approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could provide some good news for farmworker advocates. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines both require two injections and continuous storage in a freezer. In contrast, the J&J vaccine only needs a single dose and can be stored at 36-46 degrees Fahrenheit (2-8 degrees Celsius). These factors could make it much easier to vaccinate farmworkers who move seasonally both within and across state borders.
Yet, regardless of vaccine development, if barriers to access are not removed, it is unlikely that many farmworkers will receive them.
“This is a fight for equity and recognition of essential workers across the board, whether you're a doctor or you're the person who cuts the food in the fields,” Lewy said. “Essential work is essential work.”
About the Authors
Courtesy of Shannon Barry
Shannon Barry is a master's student in the University of Florida Entomology & Nematology Department, working on plant-nematode interactions and in outreach research. She received her bachelor's degree in agricultural communications & journalism with a minor in plant pathology from Kansas State University. She likes to contribute her knowledge in the plant sciences to the community by writing stories as well as creating presentations, and educational activities.
Sam Zlotnik is a Ph.D. student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida. She received a BA in Psychology and a BS in Molecular Environmental Biology from the University of California Berkeley and an MS in Biological Sciences from Purdue University. Her research focuses on behavioral ecology and evolution in insects and amphibians. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @SamZlotnik.
The University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute is advancing communication and education of Earth systems science in a way that inspires Floridians to be effective stewards of our planet.