By Johanna K. Schenner
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated who the “essential workers” are that keep societies from collapsing. These include nurses, doctors, janitors, food processors, and farmworkers, among others. Another issue to which the pandemic has drawn increased attention is the high level of inequality that pervades employment in the United States.
My research focuses on how the health and safety concerns of farmworkers in the California strawberry industry are being addressed, including in relation to Covid-19. Many farmworkers are foreign-born, and either lack valid documents or are required to work under the particular rules set out by agricultural guest worker programs, making them ineligible for unemployment benefits, adequate (and paid) sick leave, and stimulus payments. This topic has become even more salient as farmworkers are labeled “essential workers.”
It is true that farmworkers’ employment conditions do not necessarily make them vulnerable to contracting Covid-19. They work outside, and implementing social distancing may be more easily accomplished than in other workplaces, although the successful implementation of these guidelines does depend on the crop. For instance, crews can be reduced in size and split across the field in the strawberry industry, while harvesting celery or lettuce comes with challenges, because workers for those crops follow the rhythm of a packing machine. At the same time, issues remain about accessing restrooms during breaktimes; the number of restrooms is limited in the fields, as is the amount of time allowed for breaks. Thus, farmworkers may risk exposing themselves to the virus from a co-worker.
However, the risk of contracting the virus is high when one looks beyond the field to consider other work-related factors that impact employees’ lives: transportation to and from work, as well as living situations. In order to arrive at work, farmworkers often share rides in cars or buses. Maintaining six feet of separation in such settings is difficult, although it can be done if enough vehicles are available, or if employers arrange for multiple trips to pick up workers in smaller numbers. A survey by the California Institute for Rural Studies has shown that farmworkers tend to live in overcrowded spaces. Both the lack of choice in mode of transportation and overcrowded housing are directly linked to their employment, as farmworkers are not necessarily able to make different choices due to their comparatively low wages.
While the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages claimed in 2016 that farmworkers could earn up to US$30,300 per year, Martin and Costa have demonstrated that, realistically, the average farmworker’s annual wage is just below US$20,000. Considering that California is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, it goes without saying that farmworkers are unlikely to make ends meet by themselves, and therefore many of necessity have to share rides  and live in overcrowded residences.
These observations take place against the backdrop of California’s acute agricultural labor shortage. The labor shortage in this sector is not new, as shown by the ten-fold expansion in the use of the H-2A agricultural guest worker program. With a lack of workers to fill open positions, one would assume that the employment conditions in any industry would improve, because workers have a greater pool of employment opportunities than normal from which to choose, and therefore greater leverage/power in deciding which jobs to accept and under what conditions.
Unfortunately, this is not the situation for farmworkers. Employment may be comparatively “better” in California and on the West Coast of the United States in terms of pay — US$12-13/hour, depending on the size of the company — at least in comparison with the South, where wages do not necessarily exceed the federal minimum wage of US$7.25/hour. But even with such “good” wages, and in spite of the growing awareness of their essential role, farmworkers are at higher risk of poverty than other groups of laborers due to the high cost of living. Without farmworkers, there would be very little produce available on supermarket shelves, in farmers markets, and for food banks, as automation has not yet replaced manual labor in agriculture.
Covid-19 has plunged the world into the worst economic, political, and social crisis of the 21st century. However, moments of crisis are also opportunities to think about the bigger picture, and how to address issues that have persisted for too long, such as homelessness, lack of health care, and the plight of the working poor.
So where does the pandemic leave my research on employment conditions in the California strawberry industry? As a qualitative researcher who mostly conducts face-to-face interviews, I am currently “stranded,” as this method of data collection has been suspended by the Office for the Protection of Human Subjects (although interviews can be conducted over the phone and through teleconference services). It remains unclear when this suspension of fieldwork will be lifted. Though I may eventually be able to get into the field again, new precautions will have to be implemented, which will in turn change my mode of fieldwork: no more conducting interviews inside laundromats, but perhaps in parking lots and at a distance of six feet. Even with these changes, I am looking forward to getting out into the field as soon as possible and catching up in person with people to learn how they are coping with the pandemic.
 Sharing rides is not a ‘bad’ option per se, implying as it does less traffic congestion, CO2 emissions, and providing workers without cars the opportunity to labor in the fields. Indeed, some workers may actively choose to share rides for a variety of reasons. However, other workers have no other option if they want to get to and from work. In any event, sharing a car during the crisis — particularly if several workers are in the same vehicle — means they may be at a greater risk of exposure to Covid-19.
Johanna K. Schenner is a visiting researcher at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on how multistakeholder initiatives attempt to alter employment conditions.