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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Feeding The Nation, Fighting For Housing: Imperial County Farmworkers’ Issues Persist Amid Pandemic

 March 3, 2021 at 10:13 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 Staying in Imperial County, a story from our partners at I news source, farm workers. There have long been plagued by poor housing options, low wages and barriers to healthcare. And COVID-19 has only made those conditions worse. Now, local leaders say more help is needed for the workers who serve as the backbone of the counties, four and a half billion dollar agriculture industry. I knew source reporter. Jennifer Bowman has the details. Speaker 2: 00:32 It's a weekday afternoon in downtown Calexico and the streets are bustling. The border city serves as a hub for thousands of farm workers who arrived before the sun rises to head to the fields. COVID-19 has ravaged Imperial County and caused outbreaks in the agriculture industry statewide. But even during a pandemic Kesey, Freddo, Figaroa is reporting for work. Speaker 3: 00:57 I have faith in God that nothing will happen. I don't have fear. Speaker 2: 01:01 Figaroa began working on farms three decades ago when he was in his early twenties. He lives in Mexicali and crosses the border. Every day. He works though. Imperial County is the cheapest place to live in California. Figaroa says he can't afford to live in the us. Speaker 3: 01:20 We make little money in the fields here to cover rent rent. Here comes out to 800 to a thousand dollars. Speaker 2: 01:26 The agriculture industry dominates Imperial's economy, but low wages and barriers to healthcare have long been problems for its farm workers. The pandemic has made things more, right? Speaker 3: 01:41 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 01:42 A new camp for farm workers popped up along the border in Calexico earlier this year on one side of the row of tents is an apartment complex. The other, the metal Brown barrier that separates the two cities. Some of those at the camp are homeless. Farm workers and others are seeking a place to stay. Instead of making the hours long commute across the border. Jose Moon, DACA is one of them. The 44 year old lived in Calexico, but said his house burned down in December. He said he must stay in the U S to maintain his residency. But as low pay has made the search for a new place, difficult, Speaker 3: 02:19 The apartments are very expensive. They're 1200, but my work doesn't provide for that much Speaker 2: 02:25 Farm workers have crossed the border and entered Calexico for decades, but there's no designated place for them to gather as they wait in the middle of the night, some hangout at a donut shop or a fast food restaurant before getting on buses and it's backpack city. Alex Cardenas is a board member at Volvo neighborhood medical clinic. The organization is helping farm workers with isolation housing during the pandemic. Cardinal says, even before COVID-19 the workers, weren't always welcomed downtown, Speaker 3: 02:56 Use the restroom unless you're a paying customer. You know, you can Speaker 4: 03:00 Only be in the restroom from five minutes, no bathing. So imagine you walk into this restaurant and there's all this signature and signage, basically not welcoming you. Speaker 2: 03:10 When the pandemic shut down businesses, it closed public restrooms to farm workers are now left with even fewer options than before we Speaker 1: 03:19 Need an emergency plan. Now Speaker 2: 03:22 Roll your Renya is a first term Calexico city council member. He says more farm workers are sleeping on the streets during COVID-19. He's now pushing the city to seek grants for permanent housing Speaker 1: 03:34 Quote, unquote unemployed or regular homeless population. How many of them are disenfranchised farm workers, Speaker 2: 03:40 Governor Gavin Newsome last week signed a legislation that gives $24 million in extra funding to help farm workers. The money will go towards services for those isolating because of COVID-19 and financial assistance. Speaker 1: 03:55 Joining me is I new source investigative reporter, Jennifer Bowen, and Jennifer. Welcome. Thank you. Housing for the harvest is an emergency program for farm workers who have contracted COVID-19 remind us what it provides. Speaker 5: 04:10 Sure. So the state launched housing for the harvest last summer, um, in response to the pandemic and the outbreaks that we were seeing in the agriculture industry, and it operates pretty similarly to other programs that people might be familiar with, um, like San Diego County, for example, where hotel rooms are being provided for quarantine or isolation housing. Um, it's like that this program is specifically meant for farm workers. Um, and it's offered in the state's biggest agricultural areas like Imperial County. So farm workers often live in multi-generational households and because of that or, or the size of their house, or any other reason, staying home safely may be an issue and this program is supposed to help. So the state covers the cost of the hotel room. Um, and so far it hasn't spent a lot on this program. Uh, just a few months ago, Cal matters reported just $75,000 had been spent, Speaker 1: 05:04 But very few farm workers have actually used the housing for the harvest rooms, despite lots of farm workers getting COVID. Why is that? Speaker 5: 05:13 Yeah. So the reason that the cost of the program is so low is because it is so underused. Um, only 131 rooms have been booked under the program statewide. Um, one County, it hasn't been used at all in an Imperial County, just for reservations have been made. And that's a shockingly low number. When you think of the eight, 800,000 farm workers, California has. Um, and there's estimates that 46,000 of them have contracted COVID-19. Um, and there are multiple reasons the program isn't being used as much. Um, one is that there are administrative issues. Um, only hotel rooms are covered. So the cost of actually implementing the program staff and, and things like that, the local agencies to cover that. Um, so no transportation, no meals, no wheel wellness checks, those things aren't covered. Um, and then there's also concerns that farm workers have. Um, they've had concerns about the information they're providing in order to obtain a hotel room fears that it might lead to deportation, and just the fear of being alone and away from family while you battle COVID-19. So, um, seven months after the program has launched, the state is realizing this and governor Gavin Newsome recently signed a legislative package that gives $24 million in extra funding for the program. And that will go toward those wraparound services, um, and offer financial assistance to farm workers and farm workers who are instead isolating at home are now eligible for that program. Speaker 1: 06:45 Now, housing in general has been a longstanding issue for the counties, farm workers in Imperial County. So what are local officials doing to try to solve the problem? Speaker 5: 06:55 Farm workers and Imperial County have suffered from low, low wages for a very long time. And it's partly because of that, that many of them live in Mexicali because their money stretches further there. Um, and now there are two council members in the city of Calexico who were elected in November and they say it's time to provide a more permanent solution. So they're seeking grant funding to build permanent housing, um, which we're seeing other cities in Imperial County doing the same as they try to find a solution for farm workers. Now, meanwhile, Speaker 1: 07:25 Oil Imperial County is asking the state for more COVID vaccines. And that's what we're hearing from every County really. But what is Imperial counties particular issue? Speaker 5: 07:36 It's certainly not a unique request that Imperial County has. Uh, but their argument to Newsome is that they're not seeing his pledge, that the vaccines will be distributed equitably. Um, becoming a reality, Imperial County has been one of the hardest hit regions in the state by COVID-19. Um, it has a predominantly Hispanic and Latino population and Latinos and Hispanics have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Um, so in short County leaders are saying they've been absolutely battered by the pandemic and yet other regions that haven't been hit as hard are getting more doses, Speaker 1: 08:13 No, in answering an email from I new source, the state says it is increasing its vaccine allocation to Imperial County. Tell us about that. Speaker 5: 08:21 So nuisance office pointed out that the state increased the Imperial counties vaccine allocations by 91% last week. And they said that was due to changes in the state's methodology, um, that better reflects Imperial's large population of agricultural workers. Um, and it's also offered an additional vaccination site to the County. And, um, as we see farm workers continuing to work and to be impacted by the pandemic, we're told that the state is working with local partners to provide culturally competent information to farm and their families to try to better reach them. Speaker 1: 08:57 And has Imperial County come up with a strategy to boost vaccinations among farm workers? Yes, Speaker 5: 09:04 As soon as they were able to get some doses and as soon as farm workers were made eligible for the vaccine, um, they jumped right in. So just last week, Imperial County had a vaccination clinic for, um, 1000 appointments for farm workers. And the County got help from a local nonprofit to book those appointments. And it was fully booked by the time the clinic was held. Um, and the County has mentioned future vaccination clinics. Um, that will be similar to how they've handled a flu flu shot clinics in the past. So mobile clinics, holding events in downtown Calexico in the middle of the night, you know, as farm workers wait to start their long day, going out to the fields to meet them where they are. Um, you know, farm workers are a huge part of the county's economy and its end its community. So County officials tell us they're going to be borrowing from those past practices to help them. Speaker 1: 09:53 I've been speaking with I new source, investigative reporter, Jennifer Bowman, Jennifer. Thank you very much. Thank you.

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Imperial County’s farmworkers have long struggled with insufficient housing options, low wages and barriers to health care. Our partners at inewsource report that COVID-19 worsened those conditions and caused major outbreaks in the industry.
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