farmworkers sew covid masks

Wilmer Jiménez,

A New York State farmworker sewing a protective mask.

This article appeared first in Spanish. Este artículo apareció primero en español. Read the Spanish version here. Lea la versión en español aquí.

On April 8, the first known coronavirus death of an undocumented farmworker in New York occurred in Cayuga County. The man, originally from Guatemala, was in his 40s and worked in one of the county’s dairies. According to Kathleen Cuddy, the county’s public health director, the man was hospitalized on April 1 and “had underlying chronic health issues which may have contributed to his death.” The deceased’s family did not release any details.

Other infections have occurred among undocumented farmworkers in that county, and several have lost their jobs.

A traveler, then two roommates

On March 18, Cayuga County reported the first case of COVID-19: a 30-year-old man, a non-resident of the county, who was traveling in the area on March 14, when he felt ill and sought medical attention. According to local reports, the man was placed in quarantine.

That same week, from Monday, March 16, through Friday, March 20, a couple of undocumented workers at a nursery in Cayuga County felt a fever, according to one of the workers, a 35-year old who asked to be called Pablo. It wasn’t the kind of fever that immobilizes the body, he says, so they kept transplanting flowering plants to larger pots ready to be displayed in the garden section. None of the 15 workers in the working group thought it was serious, much less the coronavirus. For them, that week went by smoothly, without interruptions.

At noon on Monday, March 23, while Pablo was at work, “suddenly I had a cough, with phlegm,” says Pablo from the hospital, in a soft, weak voice, during an interview interrupted by frequent outbursts of coughing. 

He did not feel well after that sudden coughing fit, so he asked the supervisor if he could go back to the two-bed hotel room where he and his partner and friend, 28-year-old Diego (also a pseudonym), were sleeping.

That Monday afternoon, after Pablo left work, “no one gave it a second thought despite what we had seen,” said Diego, who is the person with whom Pablo spent most of his time both inside and outside the nursery. Like Diego, the rest of the workers thought that Pablo was simply not feeling well.

That afternoon, Pablo went to the health center in Cayuga and made an appointment to be tested for the coronavirus on Tuesday morning. On Monday night, Pablo and Diego shared the same room, as they had done since February. After Tuesday’s exam, doctors asked Pablo to go into quarantine while waiting for the results of his test. Diego moved to another room, but that night Diego had a fever, which got so high that he called his supervisor and told him he could not work the next day.

A week after the first case was reported in Cayuga County, Pablo tested positive. As soon as Diego heard the news, he went to get tested and from that day on doctors asked him to stay isolated as well.

Pablo urinated dark yellow that week from Monday 23 and Friday 27. For three days he was not hungry while having diarrhea. On Friday night, he had a stronger, dry cough, “a cough that wanted to tear my throat up,” he says, and that made it difficult to breathe.

“I was short of breath and the sides of my stomach were swollen,” says Pablo.

Around 9 p.m. on Friday 27, Pablo worsened. He did not call the hospital directly because he doesn’t speak English. So, he called a local church pastor, who does not speak Spanish but based on Pablo’s voice and time of call, knew it was an emergency. An ambulance picked him up and took him to the hospital.

Pablo’s cough worsened more that weekend and on Sunday, March 29, Diego tested positive for the virus. Diego’s fever continued for a week with a lot of headaches.

The farm takes steps

On Monday, March 30, after two positive cases came out, within a group of 15 workers, the supervisor ordered workers to take their breaks alone.

Also, “they gave us a mask,” says María (another pseudonym). In addition, workers were told to keep six feet away, and only people who were related to the infected were quarantined at the hotel paid by the ranch owner.

According to María’s husband, Mario (a pseudonym), compared to other farms in the area, the nursery where María works at least provided some information and a few masks. “At the dairy where I work they didn’t say anything,” says Mario, who works at a dairy in Cayuga County, one different from where the first farmworker who died.

Since March 11, the United Farm Workers (UFW) has been taking social media surveys among non-union farmworkers and found that most farms have not provided information or made changes. For example, in the first two surveys (March 11 and 13) 90 percent of respondents said no information had been shared and in the most recent (April 9) 76 percent said the same.

In the dairy where Mario works there are about 42 workers, and eight of them (all undocumented workers) have been sick. Mario has seen that some of them, after four or six hours of work, cannot take it anymore, in a shift that regularly lasts 12 hours, so they ask to go home.

In this job “you can only ask for one day off from work, but nothing more than that,” says 39-year-old Mario.

None of these workers got tested: many were constrained by fear of going to the hospital and having to deal with some kind of authority; others because they had no one to drive them, or because they thought it would cost them thousands of dollars and did not know that the test was included in Medicaid emergency services.

Others, who were very sick, called health centers and were told to take Tylenol. Mario and María preferred not to go because of the fear of getting the virus at medical centers.

A car and contagion

Among the 15 workers at the nursery, Diego is one of the few who has a driver’s license, thanks to the green light law, and also a car. He, along with Pablo and another colleague, whom we will call John, used to go out to Walmart to buy food, go to restaurants or drive around town.

Not feeling tied to the farm where one works and being able to drive away are advantages that only a few undocumented farmworkers have in the United States. As organizations like the United Farm Workers have reported, the vast majority of farmworkers share cars to get to work, in an effort to save money or because they “lack the ability to buy a car or just don’t have a driver’s license.”

However, hanging out with Diego and Pablo likely got 19-year-old John sick. On Monday, March 30, a week after Pablo felt sick at work, John felt sick as well. This time, he had a severe headache and on Thursday, April 2, he tested positive.

The nursery closed temporarily when the third positive case of COVID-19 broke, so the workers sleeping in the hotel were quarantined. (María, unlike the rest of the workers at the nursery, lives in a motorhome one block away from the dairy where Mario works.)

On Monday, April 6, Pablo was still in the hospital. According to Diego, Pablo sounded better by that point. For his own part, Diego was still drinking hot liquids, his fever was gone and he was feeling optimistic.

On Wednesday, April 8, a doctor told Diego over the phone that John would be relocated to the same room where Diego was sleeping, that very same two-bed hotel room where it had all begun. “The doctor said I wouldn’t get the virus twice,” Diego says.

Pablo was released from the hospital on Friday afternoon, April 10, after the cough subsided a bit. He was advised to stay isolated, take Mucinex tablets three times a day and use an Incruse inhaler to help his lungs.

Essential, and undocumented

In New York’s agricultural areas, farm owners in mid-March began giving workers with vehicles a letter to show that they were essential workers in case police stopped them.

Workers say the designation raised deeper questions. Are we essential now, they wondered. Essential to whom? They knew they were essential to their families, to the people back home to whom they sent money. But were they now officially essential to the farm, the county, the supermarkets, the consumers, the state?

“The most essential are the most marginalized and excluded,” says Emma Kreyche, the Worker Justice Center’s advocacy director in New York. “If we were so essential and if they cared that much about us, they would have provided insurance for us.

“We come to work all year round with a fever, cough or flu,” said the organization Agricultural Alliance in a statement. “The problem is that there is no plan for what would happen if a worker gets sick and then: Where would one live for two weeks? Who would take care of one’s family? Would one have medical service? How are we going to get food while sick?” adds the organization.

Leaving undocumented workers out of the federal aid package “was a slap in the face for them,” says Armando Elenes, treasurer of the United Farm Workers. The agricultural industry received $9.5 billion in grants and $14 billion in loans through the aid bill passed by Congress. However, no rules were created on how farmers should protect their workers from the virus nor were reforms included to ensure their long-term health in an industry where undocumented workers have an average life expectancy of 49 years. Moreover, the Trump administration is seeking to drastically reduce the wages of migrant farmworkers on H-2A visas.

Due to the lack of masks, gloves, and personal protective equipment (PPE), María along with Wilmer Jiménez, Rural & Migrant Ministry’s coordinator in Western New York, decided to produce one thousand masks to be distributed among Cayuga’s farmworkers.

The New York Farm Bureau press office has acknowledged that “access to PPE has been difficult to come by on some farms because of the demand for the equipment.” The organization adds: “We have been relaying our concerns to proper officials to try and get resources to where they need to be. Also, a number of farmers are making masks for their employees and donating spare equipment to neighboring farms.”

Recovering and relocating

Pablo and Diego did not receive any money for the days they did not work. The last check they received covered the first, unpaid week of work but that ended up being their end-of-contract payment.

On Friday, April 10, Pablo left the hospital and in the afternoon the supervisor called. After hearing that Pablo was better, the supervisor told him that the rancher had suspended the work season, adding that the rancher no longer had anything to do with paying the rent for the hotel room. The room, she said, was already being paid by the health department. Diego was called directly by the rancher, because Diego understands English, and told him the same thing: no more work, no more money for the room.

Losing one’s job in these cases also means eviction from the places where they live. Six workers from the same nursery where Pablo, Diego, John, and Maria work have already left the hotel; four of them left on Tuesday, April 14. The governor of New York said there would be no 90-day evictions in the state, but that apparently did cover the arrangement between workers and farmers. 

On Monday, April 13, the doctor called Diego to tell him that his quarantine time was over and that he could now go out and look for work. As he understood it, his hotel room is paid for this week. John received the same call on Wednesday, April 15.

The body of the first undocumented farm worker was cremated and the family wants to send his ashes back to Guatemala. The Rural & Migrant Ministry organization through will be raising funds for this cause until the end of April. If you want to donate, you can call Wilmer Jiménez, bilingual Spanish / English, at 315 806 7338 or write to rmmwilmer@gmail.com

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