Amid Harvest Season, Farmworkers Lack Access To COVID Testing And Safety Measures

Aug 31, 2020

New Mexico’s harvest season is reaching its peak as the coronavirus continues to spread. The state’s agricultural workforce faces unique barriers to getting information about COVID-19, staying healthy, and reducing the likelihood of viral spread in their communities. KUNM’s Khalil Ekulona spoke with Ismael Camacho, Staff Attorney for New Mexico Legal Aid’s Farmworker Project, about the working conditions he’s seeing and efforts to help inform and protect these essential workers.

ISMAEL CAMACHO: We have, in essence, three sets of agricultural workers who come work in New Mexico. Those that are commuting from the border between New Mexico and Texas, usually from El Paso. And then we have another population of lawful permanent residents and even U.S. citizens who are actually living abroad. Both those groups are transported from the border crossing points. Those individuals who are transported from that area are brought into New Mexico in vans. And the reason that's important is because, as you know, we're supposed to be practicing social distancing. Well, that's virtually an impossibility for them because they're in the van with more than one individual. So that's, I think, a significant risk to them. So, then the third group is the ones that are seasonal workers who live in New Mexico and they provide their own transportation to the field site.

KUNM: Have you heard any complaints from the workers that they don't have adequate PPE? Are they being provided that from the farmers, or is this something they have to provide for themselves?

CAMACHO: The Hispanic Philanthropy Association gave us 5,000 facial masks to distribute to farmworkers. And it's been my experience that most of them do not have facial masks. But one contractor that we said, you know, ‘we're here to give out facial masks’ and he says, ‘oh, you know, I was going to provide those to them, but my order hasn't come in.’ We ran into him again and again, no face masks. So, we said, you know, ‘well, do you mind if we just give them facial masks?’ And he goes ‘no.’

KUNM: If one of the agricultural workers gets sick, is it possible for them to be housed separately? And if they can do that, also, can they get unemployment? Is there some type of protections given to them?

CAMACHO: So, the ones from El Paso commute on a daily basis. So, if they get sick, they're just going to go back to wherever they live. We have tried to also include, with some of the information that we have, share the information provided by the CDC. There was an El Paso worker who died of COVID. We have not been able to substantiate where he contracted it, if it was in New Mexico. The only ones that we know that are provided housing is the migrant workers, so they are being housed at a motel. And I think that if they were to contract it, there's no way for them to be separated. Because, when I went, there was a big family of about - altogether there were probably about 12 members in the family. And they were all sharing basically two hotel rooms. There's no way that you'd be able to even self-sequester or anything like that. Thank goodness they haven't gotten it. But, you know, if they did, it was just going to be a disaster.

KUNM: Do they have access to COVID tests?

CAMACHO: No, that's another problem. It's really frustrating, you know, trying to help them out because there is some rural health clinics [that], until recently, decided that ‘OK, well, maybe we should target them and provide free testing to them since they're out there, you know, working on our behalf.’ But I reached out to them and they said, ‘no, we're not going to do it.’ They don't want to endanger their staff. There was free testing that was provided by the Catholic Services and a local health department in Deming, but you would have to transport yourself on a Saturday [and] lose that day of work to go get tested. A lot of them are saying like, you know, ‘I need to work, you know, and plus I don't have transportation.’ It’s not like they have their own vehicle.

KUNM: Who else is working on this to make sure they have PPE, that they have access to testing, and protections in case there is an outbreak that occurs?

CAMACHO: So, there's a health care provider who has been around for a very long time, La Clinica de Familia. They’re a rural health clinic. The one thing that gives me some degree of hope is that they may implement a mobile kind of center. So, they might have the capacity to actually go to the work site. And then they also teamed up with an organization called Tierra Del Sol, which provides free housing to farmworkers. They're going to open up their housing to provide testing. So, all of that is a recent development.

KUNM: What's next for you all at New Mexico Legal Aid?

CAMACHO: One of the things that I need to look at is to figure out ways to reach them more easily than having in-person contact. The limitation is that you don't want to interrupt their work. Anytime they stop working it’s costing them money. So, we try to do that kind of as briefly as possible – give them information, then move on.

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This interview originally aired on an episode of No More Normal: The Survival Basics. The show is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS, and the Santa Fe Reporter.