The new coronavirus is expected to cause less damage to Kern County agriculture than had been feared, thanks largely to "critical infrastructure" exemptions built into Gov. Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home order. But the pandemic is nevertheless complicating local farm production and highlighting health-care problems experienced by California farmworkers.
The executive order Newsom issued late Thursday included agriculture among 16 industry sectors deemed too important to be constrained by a broad requirement that most workers hunker down at their residences. It follows a directive Monday by President Donald Trump calling on food suppliers to maintain their normal work schedules.
The exemptions, which are generally interpreted as applying to food production, processing and transportation, relieved farmers' worries that they would be left without access to their workforce.
More than that, they conveyed special importance to the work of feeding consumers around the world.
"I think it’s important to note how important our industries here in Kern County are, especially during times of crisis. I don't think it can be overstated,” said Arvin-area grower John Moore III, president of the Kern County Farm Bureau. "Unfortunately, it takes a global pandemic to realize that."
In labor circles, this same recognition has been received as validation that farmworkers deserve greater respect, better pay and more generous health-care plan offerings.
Some field laborers were actually taken aback by the exemptions, said Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers labor union.
"It was, wait a minute, now we’re essential?” he said.
Concern that government agencies could enforce stay-at-home orders too strictly have led farming leaders including the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation to call for broad definition of what kind of ag workers are critical to farming.
Farm bureaus have also asked farmers to come up with identification paperwork labeling farmworkers as critical labor.
The exemptions do not ensure the pandemic won't cause problems for California farming. Karen Ross, secretary of the California Food and Agriculture Department, issued a statement Friday that there will be disruptions as farming workforces are affected and contingency plans kick in.
She noted, however, that the industry has long had to abide by food safety requirements and asked the industry to remain vigilant about hygiene and social distancing while also monitoring employees for illness and keeping up sanitation standards.
At Sun Pacific Shippers in Kern County, workers not critical to the supply chain are working from home, President Al Bates said. Signs have been put up around the company's warehouses and meetings have been convened to remind employees not to come to work if they feel ill, he said.
Besides filling orders for kiwi, his crews are currently harvesting and shipping as much citrus as possible as demand has increased for fruit high in vitamin C. Fortunately, he said, it's not the busiest time of year and slowdowns in other sectors means there should be enough workers available to get the fruit out.
"It seems like there’s enough labor to be able to harvest the crops," he said.
At Lehr Bros. Inc., where organic kale is now being harvested, Vice President of Farming Pete Belluomini said the alternative to bringing in laborers is to let the crop go to waste.
"I'm not going to let this (virus) shut me down," he said.
Belluomini emphasized the company has experience ensuring a sanitized workplace and said managers are making a point to send home workers who may try to come to work ill.
"If somebody looks a little droopy or something, (we) single them out,"he said. "We’ve been pretty heavy-handed about that."
Elenes, at the UFW, said the pandemic serves as a reminder that much more should be done, such as better health plans and easier access to paid sick days, to protect the health of farmworkers.
Most ag laborers have no choice but to come to work, sick or not, he said. They typically get paid minimum wage and have the most basic of health plans if they have any coverage at all.
An informal survey the union recently sent to 277 farmworkers found 90 percent had received no guidance at all from their employers about the new coronavirus, Elenes said.
In a follow up survey last week, he said, 77 percent of 165 farmworkers respondents said they still had been given no special instructions regarding the pandemic.
Elenes said it's time the farming companies treat their employees as the critical workers they are, especially because they are now on the front lines of helping society pull through the pandemic.
"We’re just really concerned," he said, adding that many workers' status as undocumented immigrants means they don't generally have access to many forms of government assistance.
"Workers are really, really petrified of what’s going to happen to them because they have no safety net,” he said.