While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues of food access for consumers, it’s also made things more dangerous for those who grow and harvest the food we rely on. Early in the pandemic, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty wrote to the state asking leaders to make a plan to keep agricultural workers safe. KUNM’s Khalil Ekulona spoke with Felipe Guevara, a workers’ rights attorney at the center, about conditions for farm- and dairy workers before and during the pandemic.
FELIPE GUEVARA: Health and safety continues to be a concern. It was always a concern prior to the pandemic. You know, there was always questions about whether workers were getting sufficient water, whether there was the right kind of hand washing facilities, whether there was shade provided, bathroom facilities were provided appropriately. When the pandemic hit, our concerns were elevated to a point where we felt it was necessary to reach out to the state and let them know that these conditions have always existed, that they've always been a concern, and the pandemic could just further exacerbate so many of these problems. And so, we wanted the state to engage with these large community organizations down south – and throughout New Mexico – to really understand what were those conditions, and how could they start to work on that to ensure that it wasn't going to be compounded by the pandemic, and that the pandemic wasn't going to create even worse conditions on these farms.
KUNM: Now, the Center on Law and Poverty released a whole list of public health problems for these workers and outlined what the state of New Mexico could do to prevent them. Do you feel that the state was responsive?
GUEVARA: We have yet to hear from the state regarding these health and safety conditions that we outlined to them. Some of the things that we talked about were the way that the community itself exists and works in southern New Mexico. And so, we were trying to highlight these things and ask them to come to the table so that we could speak about them, so that we could help them brainstorm how we could potentially go about protecting these communities and ensuring that these conditions weren't exacerbated by the pandemic. And we've yet to get a response.
KUNM: They haven't even responded? How long ago did you reach out to them?
GUEVARA: It was towards the end of April when we sent the letter and we've reached out now several times via email. Some of the coalition partners have reached out to representatives who we hope are going to be also advocating on our behalf. But, we've yet to hear any strategic response or be invited to any discussions that would open the door to us figuring out how to protect this community as much as possible.
KUNM: Now, have you heard of any outbreaks among agricultural workers with COVID-19?
GUEVARA: I have heard of examples, particularly on dairies right now where workers are getting sick. And we've recently heard of an example of one worker passing away. And we know that at a farmworker center down in El Paso, which actually brings farmworkers into southern New Mexico, there was a large outbreak there and they all had to quarantine for about two weeks. Unfortunately, one of the workers fell very ill, had to go into the hospital, and passed away as well. So, we've heard of these kind of local live instances, and we are starting to hear more and more that in those communities there is a fear that COVID is more rampantly picking up and sort of spreading throughout the community.
KUNM: And we're starting to enter harvest season. Does that increase the dangers for people as more folks are going to be out in the fields?
GUEVARA: Absolutely. We have heard instances of some farmers doing really well in terms of asking their farmworkers to spread out, but that was at the beginning of the season where groups were much more limited and much smaller. Now we're seeing much larger groups. And we're not necessarily sure that the proper measures are being taken at each of those farms to ensure that there is six feet of distancing, even if it's going to slow down the process a bit, but that people are doing it correctly.
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.