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Pandemic’s true impact on farmworkers remains elusive

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Migrant farm worker (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Limitations of government record keeping, journalism conventions likely helping to obscure the true impact of COVID-19 on migrant communities

It’s long been established that agricultural workplaces are among the nation’s most dangerous. The latest census on fatal occupational injuries [2] by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the category containing agriculture was responsible for the highest fatal work injury rate at 23.1 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers.

What’s more, in addition to previously existing hazards such as heat exposure, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated dangerous work conditions. Researchers have found evidence [3] suggesting that rates of COVID-19 infections and fatalities are higher in counties that employ more agricultural workers, particularly hired and migrant workers.

When it comes to the specifics of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, unearthing definitive evidence about the vulnerability of farmworkers is, despite a lot of anecdotal evidence, much tougher.

Each week, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services publishes a report on COVID-19 clusters in the state [4]. At the top of the report’s list of workplace settings is “Agriculture.” According to the latest report updated July 6th, there have been 0 total deaths associated with clusters of COVID-19 in agricultural workplaces.

Looking closely, however, you’ll notice an asterisk next to the label “Agriculture,” alerting the reader to the fact that the data do not include cases among migrant farmworkers living in labor camps, a population that comprises approximately 20% [5] of the estimated 150,000 farmworkers in the state. [6] Those cases, the report explains, fall under “Congregate Living Settings” – a category which also includes shelters for the unhoused and lists a cumulative death toll of 17. [7]

The department acknowledges the limitations of the report. The introduction admits that it underrepresents the full scope of clusters and associated cases for multiple reasons, including the fact that many cases are never diagnosed and that many which are diagnosed cannot be linked to a specific setting or cluster.

A challenge for researchers

DHHS isn’t the only entity struggling to secure solid information about farmworker COVID-19 cases. Despite their determined efforts, many independent researchers and journalists have struggled as well.

In March of 2020, Leah Douglas, a writer at the Food & Environment Reporting Network [8], began compiling an internal log of outbreaks in the food chain. Her plan was to write a story after the pandemic had subsided in what she thought would be a month or two. By late April, however, the log had become an interactive map [9] and publicly available database compiling state health data, alerts from companies, and local news reports across the country.

“For a long part of the year, I had assumed if I just keep digging, if I just keep asking, if I reach out to as many local and federal officials as I can, eventually I’ll find where the trove of information is that isn’t being released, where this was all being collected by somebody either at the state or at the federal level,” Douglas said. “And what I’ve learned is that just doesn’t exist.”

Douglas readily acknowledges the limitations of her project, which serves as a stand-in for what otherwise would be compiled by the federal government or a team of researchers.

“Many, many times I just remind myself, every number I’m plugging in represents a community, represents a person in a family,” Douglas said. “Even if it’s exhausting and very difficult work, it needs to be done because otherwise this information isn’t going to get out.”

The database lists four more outbreaks and 409 more positive cases of COVID-19 related to farms in North Carolina than the state health department’s report. The number of deaths, however, remains blank.

Douglas credits the work of local reporters who have established longstanding relationships with members of the communities they report on as an invaluable resource to the project. Despite what she describes as the tendency of some news organizations to trust official sources over the perspective of community members, advocates, unions, or activists speaking on behalf of people they know, Douglas says that news reports that included those voices helped tell the story not reflected in state data.

Journalism conventions present another hurdle

One reporter that has contributed crucial information to Douglas’s database is Aaron Sánchez-Guerra of Raleigh’s News & Observer. Sánchez-Guerra, who is Mexican-American, attributes his connection to farmworkers and their communities to his cultural and personal background; a connection he says has helped cultivate and enrich his work as a journalist.

“I have a better grasp on issues because of where I am because of who I am, and where I come from, and how I identify,” Sánchez-Guerra said. “That plays an active role.”

However, that familiarity has at times put him at odds with the tendency of his profession to prioritize the word of authorities, such as an employer, over that of a worker, even if it’s members of the latter group that are facing the hazards of the pandemic. Though it is not always the case that such testimonies must be omitted, Sánchez-Guerra says it is difficult to base reports directly off workers’ accounts due to journalistic ethics, especially if a source wishes to remain anonymous due to fear of possible retaliation.

Though his natural reaction as a Latino with personal knowledge and experience of the issues faced by the community may be to believe them, claims and details that can’t be verified do not make it into his stories that have documented the pandemic.

Sánchez-Guerra recalls translated comments from Latino farmworkers which ultimately could not survive into the final version of his stories due to him having never seen the workers physically and their desire to be identified only by their first names. Even at a time when Zoom meetings had taken the place of personal contact in many circumstances of modern business, a conference call with his sources proved insufficient.

“That concession of anonymity to sources is only granted in some cases, especially in longer, big stories, not small daily stories,” Sánchez-Guerra said.

Even reporters who are sometimes afforded relief from the conventions of traditional journalism have witnessed the medium’s limitations.

For Tina Vasquez, a writer at The Counter [10], witnessing these limitations came with a growing sense of discomfort with the task brought on by her work of filtering the experiences of the communities she covers and collaborates with.

In an attempt to overcome those constraints, Vasquez experimented with alternative forms of coverage, including narratives that preserved subjects’ own words as told first-hand. Vasquez says that her decision to arrange a narrative piece with a farmworker laboring in the grape vineyards of California [11] with whom she grew up might have been labeled inappropriate in a more traditional newsroom.

However, Vasquez, like Sánchez-Guerra, sees those familial and community connections binding her to these stories as a strength that makes her a better reporter. Vasquez says her approach to working with vulnerable people in the community has been developed through her relationship with her father who was once undocumented himself. Honing that touch has been a personal experience for Vasquez, an intimacy that norms of objectivity and impartiality may otherwise discourage.

“I’m the only person in my family that gets to work like this,” Vasquez said. “Everyone else does the kind of work that I cover for a living.

Even in the best of circumstances and approached with the sincerest intentions, journalism is limited in its capacity to inform the public. This is only compounded when covering members of our society that are forced into states of vulnerability. [12] Words themselves fail to capture memories and lived experiences by their very nature.

Letting community members speak for themselves

And yet, reporters continue to collaborate with the communities they cover to fulfill their responsibility of informing the public.

At a Day of the Dead event held last fall by members of the Farmworker Advocacy Network [13] in remembrance of agricultural workers whose lives were lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors recognized the need to be informed.

Eden Smith, whose mother is a social worker for farmworkers, said she had come to the event to “see the people who are affected by us going to the grocery store and to see what happens in a pandemic when food still needs to be produced, when produce still needs to go out even with horrible conditions and fear and the threat of one losing their job or, worse, their life.”

“I wanted to at least come in solidarity and hear what people had to say about their own experience because I am not in a position to speak for them and talk about it,” Smith said.

Marta Hernandez, another visitor to the vigil, said in Spanish, “I think it is necessary that people who do not work directly there but eat the meat that comes from poultry plants and eat the food that they must harvest whether there’s sun or snow or a pandemic or not. I think it’s good for them to see and sympathize with what they’re going through and value their work.”

Standing there in a courtyard in downtown Raleigh after nightfall as an altar full of candles, handwritten notes and portraits of deceased agricultural workers sat guarded by a large puppet representing the sun, a mobile phone recorded their words. They’d heard the personal accounts of worker advocates bearing their hearts and pleading for support. Now they offered their own, speaking to the power of the stories that had filled the night air along with beating drums.

There, they saw how those words could illuminate much more than a zero on a data table.

Kevin Gomez-Gonzalez is a rising Junior at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. His stories cover labor, particularly in industries with predominately Latino workforces. He is an intern at the Workers’ Rights Project of the NC Justice Center.