As Wine Country harvest approaches, farmworkers continue to pay high pandemic price
With the 2020 grape harvest approaching, growers and farmworker support groups face new evidence that agriculture workers are being hit hard by the coronavirus.
The California Institute for Rural Studies, in collaboration with community groups, said in a recent study that the Latino community is the most vulnerable group for the virus, disproportionately represented by about 56% of the state’s COVID-19 cases and 49% of deaths, but account for only 39% of the total California population. Latinos make up 92% of the state’s farmworkers.
The results are based on phone interviews with 900 individuals from May to July. Survey data showed that farmworkers are at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than those in other industry categories.
The survey area included the North, South and Central coastal areas, desert regions, and the San Joaquin Valley. It comes as the industry in Wine Country is dealing with housing issues and caring for the safety of its workers.
Workers face a double threat
In Sonoma County, 134 local agriculture workers account for 11% of the adults with known employment who have tested positive for COVID-19 through July 21, according to county statistics. In all, there were 6,200 ag workers in Sonoma County in June, part of a civilian workforce of 224,400 people, according to state employment data. As of July 30, there were 2,748 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 32 deaths, with 1,437 recoveries.
Trade groups Sonoma County Winegrowers and the Farm Bureau of Sonoma County provide COVID-19 prevention education, information and training opportunities through webinars, websites, printed materials and videos.
“Agricultural workers in California now face a double threat: the COVID-19 virus and loss of employment owing to the collapse of foodservice demand,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. “Sonoma County’s wine community has been facing a labor shortage for the past decade. Jobs here are sustainable because the crop must be harvested and crushed and since the end product is bottled and can be aged, meaning there is opportunity to navigate marketplace dynamics.”
She said the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation purchased 6,000 KN95 masks and distributed them to all vineyard workers.
“We partnered with St. Joseph Health to provide free fabric masks for any farm operation and farmworker who needed them,” Kruse said. “In addition, we have provided regular updates on appropriate protocols and safety measures as we get them and published them on our websites in English and Spanish.”
Kruse said a partnership between the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Winegrowers has been convening Ag Stakeholder communications and outreach meetings and together are filming videos in Spanish of farmworkers talking about protocols to stay safe that can be shared peer to peer.
The Grape Growers Foundation has established two farmworker resiliency funds, one supporting employees if workers have a spouse who recently lost a job or wages as a result of COVID-19, and another fund available to employees if they had to miss work due to COVID-19 reasons (testing, potential exposure, etc.).
Another effort involves the purchase of washers and dryers to limit trips off the ranch and growers have secured additional housing in the event that a worker has to be quarantined.
Kruse said her team schedules weekly Ag calls with Sonoma County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase to get updates and share concerns. Currently the biggest issue many are facing is the long delay in getting test results.
More than 20,000 masks distributed
In Napa County, there are more than 21,000 vineyard workers and family members. As of July 30, there were 865 cases of COVID-19 — with 466 active cases and eight confirmed deaths, based on county statistics.
Napa County Housing Authority owns and operates three dorm-style farmworker centers for local workforce. The wine industry provides financial support through a local assessment to provide living accommodations, three meals per day and access to support services.
“Like any congregate living environment where the risk is higher, guidance from the CDC was implemented and regular screenings have occurred,” said Molly Rattigan, deputy county executive officer.
Officials in early July attributed a spike in infections due to a cluster of cases in one of the county’s farmworker housing centers where at least 30 residents tested positive. Infected residents of that center were placed into quarantine, either in a motel or emergency isolation trailers provided by the state, effectively ending the outbreak according to a Napa Valley Register report.