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Thursday, December 9, 2021

COVID-19 Statewide Agriculture and Farmworker Education Program strives to protect and educate the agricultural community during the pandemic

Network of agricultural organizations works toward reducing the risk farmworkers have of contracting COVID-19

While it may not seem like a luxury to those stuck behind screens all day, working from home during the pandemic is not something everyone can afford. Many agricultural workers have continued to work in the fields throughout the pandemic to provide food for their communities. Because of this, farmworkers are at high risk for contracting COVID-19. 

In order to protect the agricultural community, the UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS) has partnered with the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and other agricultural organizations to develop the COVID-19 Statewide Agriculture and Farmworker Education Program to deliver COVID-19 training and outreach to the agricultural industry. 

“[We] have been working on COVID related topics since last March because we really quickly realized that farmers, growers, agricultural workers and employers were immediately being affected by the pandemic because they kept working while all of us came home,” said Heather Riden, the program director of the WCAHS. 

As demonstrated in a recent study by UC Berkeley researchers, farmworkers have suffered disproportionately since the beginning of the pandemic. The study found that of the California farmworkers surveyed, 13% of workers had a positive COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, with 42% of them being asymptomatic. Many participants also reported that they continued to work while exhibiting symptoms out of fear of losing their jobs. Although vaccinations have become available, some farm workers reported not being likely to accept the vaccine due to fear of side effects and distrust of the government. 

Riden explained that as it became apparent that more dedicated attention was needed for outreach and training in high-hazard industries where workers were particularly vulnerable, the WCAHS was approached by the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) to focus on efforts towards the agricultural industry. She elaborated that a lot of their efforts are focused on offering training tools and resources to employers and growers to keep their workers safe.

“We’re helping answer questions and be a resource in brainstorming how to assess the hazards at their workplace and make modifications to reduce the chance of exposure,” Riden said. “[One example] of that might be staggering work breaks so that not everybody congregates at the same time for a break to get water or have a snack, but instead get some small groups of people so you have less exposure.”

In addition, the program includes partnerships with community-based organizations to reach farmworkers. Riden said these organizations serve as the trusted sources for many farmworkers. The WCAHS supplies information and resources to the community based organizations who can then relay this to the workers directly. 

“Farmworkers in California are a fairly vulnerable population due to their economic status, immigration concerns, fear of interacting with the state or other large agencies,” Riden said. “And so community organizations that are locally based really have built over years a strong foundation of trust. We’re trying to be that support to them as they’re doing the critical work.”

AgSafe, a nationwide non-profit organization dedicated to providing practical health and safety education to the agricultural community, was also approached by the LWDA to collaborate on this project with UC Davis. Theresa Kiehn, the president and CEO of AgSafe, explained that their organization has been working with the WCAHS as one of their grant recipients for the past couple of years in promoting safe practices on agricultural operations.

“Especially as things were developing early on when we were in March, April and May, we were honestly just trying to keep our heads above water and keep employees and farmworkers safe,” Kiehn said. “So our approach was to really focus in on agricultural employers and to figure out what kinds of resources they need to help educate their workforce on COVID safe practices.”

With an abundance of information circulating about the pandemic, Keihn expressed that her team wanted to create a resource where information on topics, such as paid sick leave, were easily accessible. In order to do so, they have created a website resource, a clearinghouse for agricultural employees that is filled with resources and training tools, which will be launched in April. In addition, Keihn stated that they will be creating a video series in five different languages—English, Spanish, Hmong, Mixteco and Punjabi—to help establish a foundational understanding of COVID-19. Recognizing that not all agricultural workers have access to technology, AgSafe has also created a flipchart version for employers to use.

Aside from offering these resources, Kiehn elaborated that they will also be conducting a train-the-trainer program to reach as many workers as they can. As it is nearly impossible to directly reach all the agricultural workers in California, this program focuses on giving supervisors the tools and knowledge to continuously teach their respective employees about understanding COVID-19 and its effect on the workplace.

“We need to make sure we’re continuously providing education and training to our workforce, letting them know the safe practices that we’re taking to ensure their safety and needing their help to make our workplaces a safe environment for everybody to continue the good work that our agricultural operations do,” Kiehn said.

In order for those of the general public to help agricultural communities, Kiehn encourages people to continue doing their best practices surrounding COVID-19 to be responsible and help others in their community. 

“The most important thing to remember is farmworkers have been in the field picking and producing food for us over the last year, and they have suffered at a very disproportionate rate from the general public,” Riden said. “I think that in any way we can support them, whether it’s monetarily or through policy, we should be doing [so] because they are sacrificing, and many of us like myself who get to sit at home are the ones benefiting from their labor.”

Written by: Michelle Wong — science@theaggie.org

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