A young woman from the Yakima Valley shared farmworker concerns in the COVID-19 pandemic during a Congressional Hispanic Caucus discussion, which included national infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.
At the virtual meeting, Dr. Fauci, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that COVID-19 has hit the United States more strongly than any other. country, with 7 million confirmed cases, more than 200 thousand deaths and an average of 40 thousand new cases daily in the country.
The Hispanic Caucus conversation focused primarily on the impact of COVID-19 on Latinos in the United States.
So Fauci assured that Latino communities have contracted the virus at a rate of 359 positive cases per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate in the white community is 78 per 100,000 inhabitants, he said.
Latinos are also hospitalized and die at a disproportionate rate after contracting the virus, Fauci added.
The lack of protection for agricultural workers during the pandemic and how immigration status complicates the reporting of security violations were an important part of the discussion.
Kenia Peregrino, a Central Washington University student, organizer at the Farmworkers Union Foundation (UFW Foundation) and daughter of two Yakima Valley farmworkers, spoke about the problems in the agricultural industry, both from personal experience and from her observations while working with the farmers of this area.
Peregrino told the panel that his parents immigrated to Yakima from Mexico in 1995 to harvest and pack fruits and vegetables to support their family.
In addition, he commented that on average the agricultural worker earns between $ 20,000 to almost $ 25,000 a year, a salary that depends entirely on the number of containers they fill, so many work to their limit.
Peregrino added that, even before the pandemic, there was no possibility that most agricultural workers would report that they were sick or injured due to their financial need to work.
“In the Yakima Valley, farm workers were more afraid of losing their jobs than of contracting the virus,” he said. “At the same time, there were reports of COVID-19 cases in workplaces, but employers were not sharing that information with workers.”
Peregrino said that when COVID-19 reached Yakima County, his mother continued to work sorting and packing apples, very close to other people, without physical distancing, without prevention training, without exams or tests.
His employer gave him only a disposable mask, Peregrino said. Although some farm workers asked for additional protective equipment, many others did not do so for fear of reprisals, Peregrino said.
Peregrino said his mother fell ill in April, thinking, at first, that she had a cold. But when she started having trouble breathing, she got tested for COVID-19.
The test came back positive and the disease put his mother out of work for a month and a half, during which time she did not receive sick pay, Peregrino said.
The young woman said it was not known exactly how many of her mother’s co-workers also tested positive, as the employer “was not transparent” about who had been ill.
Peregrino shared that when he does not attend school, he informs farm workers of their rights, distributes personal protective equipment, helps operate a hotline to document labor violations, and monitors the implementation of state COVID-19 rules.
In those experiences, he has seen the fear of retaliation that many farm workers have because they are undocumented, an immigration status that excludes them from federal assistance during the pandemic.
Peregrino said the UFW is advocating for minimum requirements for agricultural employers to include sick pay, sufficient personal protective equipment, and a guarantee that workers won’t lose their jobs if they follow doctors’ orders.
He also asked that when COVID-19 vaccines are available they be given to agricultural workers such as doctors or other essential workers.
“If you are sick, you may or may not need to see a doctor, but you are hungry every day and for that, you will always need a farm worker,” he said. “We are contributing a lot to the economy and to the country, but our lives are not considered as important as our work.”
Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, Texas, who facilitated the panel discussion, said the talks should continue.
“There is no more pressing concern in Latino communities in the United States than COVID-19,” he said. “This pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Latinos, both due to the virus itself and its economic effects.”