With a history of double-digit unemployment and poor health indicators, Imperial County was among the hardest hit in the state in the early months of COVID-19.
IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. — It’s a familiar weekday afternoon in the heart of Calexico: Reggaeton music plays from storefronts. A line gathers at a check-cashing window. And the sidewalks fill with masked-up farmworkers carrying backpacks and lunch coolers, having finished their long day of work.
Thousands of agricultural workers start their day in the border city, gathering before dawn to check in for jobs. Buses take them to packinghouses or fields where the extreme heat of the Imperial Valley summer regularly exceeds 100 degrees.
Some return to Calexico in the afternoon and begin their trek back across the border to Mexicali, where their low wages can get better — and cheaper — housing. The metal brown barrier that separates the two cities is within walking distance from downtown, but long waits at the border mean the commute can take more than an hour.
Imperial County’s farmworkers have long been plagued by insufficient housing options, low wages and barriers to healthcare. COVID-19 worsened those conditions and the agricultural industry has since seen major outbreaks statewide.
Local leaders are now pleading for more help for the workers who serve as the backbone of the county’s $4.5 billion agriculture industry.
Raul Ureña, a Calexico native elected to the City Council in November, said the workers are being squeezed by stagnant wages and rising rents “despite feeding the nation.” He said he’s heard from women farmworkers who avoid drinking water for hours because of the lack of restrooms, despite having health conditions like diabetes.
“We need an emergency plan now,” Ureña said.
The city has allowed a temporary encampment on public land near the border to offer some relief. Newly elected city officials like Ureña are pushing for more housing options for farmworkers and seeking grants that would help fund construction.
But a state-run program called Housing for the Harvest that offers COVID-19 isolation in motels has hardly been used. Only four rooms have been booked in Imperial County since October when the program started there. One reason: People don’t trust it.
Farmworkers are essential workers
Kesifredo Figueroa leaves home in Mexicali early to cross the border for work in Calexico. The thin 54-year-old with skin tanned from three decades of working outdoors said the pandemic kept him from the fields for months starting last March.
“People got very scared,” Figueroa said in Spanish. “I was working and I stopped working.”
He was back in the fields by October.
Figueroa was standing in front of an empty lot in downtown Calexico, where vacant storefronts are common. Though Imperial County is the cheapest place to live in California and one of the poorest regions in the state, he said he doesn’t make enough to live in the U.S.
More than one-fifth of the county’s residents live in poverty and a double-digit unemployment rate is normal, in part because of seasonal farmworkers. Hispanics and Latinos make up 85% of the population.
Nearly 35,000 residents are considered food insecure. Poor health factors — high rates of asthma and obesity, and not enough doctors to serve the community — existed long before COVID-19.
The county early in the pandemic regularly topped the list for hospitalization rates and saw its two hospitals so overwhelmed that hundreds of patients had to be diverted elsewhere.
About 15% of Imperial County residents have tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday, but the positivity rate among farmworkers is unclear. Calexico, the county’s second largest city, has reported the most cases during the pandemic: nearly 7,000.
While there is no comprehensive national or industrywide reporting of COVID-19 cases among agricultural workers, UC Berkeley found roughly 20% of farmworkers in the Salinas Valley recruited for a study tested positive for the antibodies that indicate prior infection.
Purdue University estimates 46,000 farmworkers have contracted the virus in California. That number is likely higher because temporary and contracted labor isn’t counted.
Federal research also shows Hispanic and Latino workers have been disproportionately impacted, representing nearly 73% of COVID-19 cases in the food processing and agriculture industries but only making up about 37% of the workforce.
Because farmworkers were designated early on as essential workers, the crowds to Calexico have continued during the pandemic. There is no central facility where the workers can gather in the early morning. Instead, many linger around a downtown doughnut shop or a fast-food restaurant before being picked up by labor contractors.
But as COVID-19 forced businesses to shut down along with the city’s public restrooms, farmworkers were left with even fewer options.
That has led to unsanitary conditions, with urine and feces in Calexico’s alleys, said Alex Cardenas, a board member of Vo Neighborhood Medical Clinic. The organization has provided testing, vaccinations and other resources during the pandemic, including isolation housing for farmworkers.
“If you’re an agricultural worker and you go to Jack in the Box, it’s automatically: ‘Time limits on tables, don’t use the restroom unless you’re a paying customer, you can only be in the restroom for five minutes, no bathing,’” Cardenas said. “So imagine you walk into this restaurant and there’s all this signage basically not welcoming you to their restaurant.”
Farmworker camp pops up in wake of pandemic
Just steps away from the border with Mexico, separated by an unpaved road used by the U.S. Border Patrol, sits a row of tents. There are chairs, portable toilets, tarps for shade — even a shelf of books with a sign that reads biblioteca, or library.
Once slated to be sold to the federal government for a secondary border wall, the city-owned land has been used as a temporary camp since late January for farmworkers, some of them homeless or who want to avoid the long border crossing wait before their next shift.
José Mundaca, a 44-year-old farmworker, was entering his fourth day at the camp last week. Mundaca told inewsource that he was living in Calexico until his house burned down in December. The cost of housing has made it difficult to find another place in the U.S., he said, and he’s been told he must stay on this side of the border to maintain his residency.
“There were no other options left, because I looked for a house,” Mundaca said in Spanish. “Here in Calexico it’s very difficult to find a room or an apartment. The apartments are very expensive. They’re $1,200. But my work doesn’t provide for that much.”
Most of the state’s estimated 800,000 agricultural workers rarely hold full-time work due to the seasonal nature of the job and earn less than $18,000 annually, according to a study by the California Institute for Rural Studies.
Another institute study along the Central Coast in 2018 found 67% of farmworker households experienced “severe overcrowding” that makes social distancing during the pandemic difficult — and conditions are “likely similar for workers across the state.”
Ureña, the city councilman, has been a vocal supporter of the camp, bringing farmworkers dinner made by his abuela, or grandmother. He said others have been donating food and other resources.
“This community is very much in solidarity with the farmworking community,” he said, “because all of us, including myself, have had parents and grandparents working these very fields so that at some point my generation was able to go to university or was able to at least get a job outside of the fields.”
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Housing for the Harvest, a program that offers hotel rooms to farmworkers exposed to or who contracted COVID-19. The state touted it as an option for workers who did not require hospitalization and could isolate at home. Fourteen counties are participating.
“This is especially important for people who live in multigenerational households,” a news release said at the time.
But seven months later, the program remains massively underused despite being offered in California’s biggest agricultural counties.
Statewide, 131 hotel room reservations have been reported.
A December investigation by the nonprofit newsroom CalMatters found workers feared that using the rooms would open them up to job loss, deportation or “battling a deadly disease alone.” The program also covers only the cost of the hotel rooms, leaving other expenses like transportation and staffing to the local agencies administering the program.
The state had spent about $75,000 on the program as of December, CalMatters reported.
“This started off a difficult task because there was no funding involved for Housing for the Harvest,” said Jolene Dessert, Imperial County’s assistant agricultural commissioner.
The state would pay for the hotel rooms but didn’t provide funds to anybody who volunteered to administer the program.
“They’d have to go through philanthropy efforts or grants,” she said.
Dessert contacted the Vo Neighborhood Medical Clinic, which took on the project and eventually received a $105,000 county grant to provide additional services such as transportation, meals and wellness checks.
Cardenas, the Vo clinic board member, said access to healthcare is especially important. The workers are part of an aging population and are typically experiencing 14-hour workdays because of their long commutes, he said, making a trip to the doctor or urgent care difficult.
“Our ultimate goal is to keep the program going,” Cardenas said, “offer a toolkit to those agricultural workers — whether it’s self isolation or a hotel room — and just provide them a buffet of services, as opposed to trying to look at this through a vacuum.”
Newsom last week signed a legislative package that gives an additional $24 million to the program after conceding it was underutilized.
A spokesperson at the state Department of Food and Agriculture said the extra funding will help pay for services that local administrators have been covering and provide financial assistance for farmworkers. Workers quarantining at home also are eligible for the services.
inewsource reporter Camille von Kaenel and photojournalist Zoë Meyers contributed to this story.