The Essential Pieces of Protecting Ag Workers, Preventing COVID-19 Spread

Christopher Valadez — As president of the Grower Shipper Association of Central California (GSA), I talk to farmers, farming companies, farm labor contractors and farm workers about the challenges faced when protecting essential employees from COVID-19 exposure. These conversations and hearing the needs firsthand formed the impetus for many of the programs established by GSA over the last few months to lessen or prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the farm worker community.

But I also speak regularly with county health officials, local hospitals and health clinics, farm labor advocates, academics, state regulators, elected officials and local community leaders about COVID-19 and its impact on farm workers. Many have become important partners and have worked with GSA and the local ag community to develop on-farm prevention training programs led by health professionals, provide daily health checks for farm workers in GSA’s quarantined housing program, acquire additional PPE and establish expedited testing programs to provide faster results for farm workers.

As we end the harvest season in our region, we have an opportunity to reflect and learn before workers return in the spring. What can we do better to enhance efforts to prevent the spread of this virus on the job and within our communities to keep our workforce healthy? At GSA, we hope to see more emphasis on contact tracing as well as a prioritization of farm workers to receive vaccinations against this virus. But let’s start with contact tracing.

After a positive test is confirmed, contact tracing is the process of identification of persons who may have come into contact with an infected person and subsequent collection of further information about these contacts. It is vitally important that public health officials have the resources to conduct more extensive contact tracing once a positive test is obtained so we are effectively targeting prevention strategies with a focus on where the virus is spread – work, transit to work, at home or within our community. Otherwise we may be enacting rules and regulations in one area when better information on where the virus is being spread may indicate they are actually needed in another. Or, the solution may not address the real problem.

While public health officials are integral to effective contact tracing, employers are also required to conduct their own tracing to determine if a COVID-positive employee may have exposed others and where – work or home. Once an employer learns of an employee potentially exposed or sick, they can then provide options and information about quarantined housing. GSA’s quarantined housing program provides COVID-positive or exposed farm workers with daily meal deliveries and health checks to ensure they can isolate or recover in a safe and comfortable environment.  And, California mandates that essential workers receive two weeks paid sick leave if they test positive or are sickened by the virus.

Farmers and farming companies are spending significant time and monetary resources to protect workers through both regulatory compliance and their own best practices. And, as we learn more about the virus, prevention practices in agriculture are continually improving. But, we are not experts in public health and we are reliant on public health guidance. Adequate testing and effective contact tracing combined with isolation alternatives through quarantined housing is the best way to yield real results and target the spread of this virus at its source.

While GSA will work collaboratively to ensure these crucial prevention strategies are improved and ready in 2021, it is the prioritization of providing vaccines to essential workers that will ultimately protect our workforce from this persistent and relentless virus. GSA will join with industry, local elected officials, labor groups and community leaders to advocate for vaccine prioritization so farm workers are among the first groups to receive them.

We have learned a significant amount since the early days of the pandemic when farmers and farming companies had to quickly learn and implement prevention strategies while striving to provide healthy fruits and vegetables to consumers. I look back over these last few months and ponder what was accomplished, what has changed and what we could have done better. But one thing is clear: Our work to protect farm workers at the workplace as well as educate this community about prevention practices at home must continue to evolve and improve. The 2021 harvest season will be here before we know it. We must be ready.

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