Essential farmworkers risk COVID-19 exposure to maintain food supply

"Farm work is an honorable job, but a tough job."

Cleotilde is a farmworker in Ventura County who wears a colorful bandana to protect her from the sun and pesticides, but since COVID-19 broke out, she also hopes it can protect her from the virus.

"Farm work is an honorable job, but a tough job," she said. Her employers have implemented social distancing in the fields, but she said she's worried about putting her three daughters at risk when she returns home. "I leave at 5 in the morning and return at 5 in the evening, and I always have this fear on my mind."

While many Americans are working from home, farmworkers have continued laboring in fields. The government has deemed their work essential, meaning they're excluded from stay-at-home orders. The pandemic puts additional strain on a community historically overworked and underrepresented.

Lillian Argueta is doing everything she can to help them. Thread by thread, she weaves together splashes of brightly colored cloth to make face masks -- about 100 each day.

"One mask can save a life," she said. "I feel so happy to be able to share what I know how to do. It's my grain of sand."

Argueta has been creating masks as part of the Ayudando Latinos a Soñar organization's project "Un Respiro de Vida," which translates to "one breath of life."

Spearheaded by Dr. Belinda Arriaga, the organization has been distributing masks to farms throughout the West Coast, where many field workers have been laboring without protective gear. The group has delivered about 4,000 masks over the last few weeks.

"We really started it as a small local project -- we didn't realize the magnitude of how many and how hard it was to get this protection for the farmworkers," Arriaga said. "We're going into a season where everything is harvesting and being grown, and this pandemic has not stopped them."

Marciana Lazaro, who picks lettuce and celery in Monterrey County, California, was given a letter by her employers that explained she was an essential worker traveling to and from the fields. Her workplace told employees they could show the letter to police if stopped while commuting.

Her employer has implemented strict social distancing guidelines and ramped up sanitation practices in order to help keep Lazaro and her co-workers safe, but she has heard reports of farmworkers in neighboring towns who've been infected with COVID-19. She said she's put aside her fears to keep working, to provide for her son who's deaf.

"If I don't work, how will I pay rent?" she asked.

Organizations that have built relationships with farmworkers are often the first to find out about incidents where employers aren't following safety protocols.

"We're getting reports about not enough wash bins, having to bring your own toilet paper, about not having masks," said Diana Torres, executive director at the United Farm Workers Foundation.

There are between 2 to 3 million agricultural workers in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, nearly half are undocumented immigrants. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, recently signed by President Donald Trump, provides economic help for some employees and businesses, but it excludes undocumented immigrants. Even without access to health insurance or paid sick leave, most of these workers opt to continue, at substantial personal risk.

At the beginning of the outbreak, Wilmer Jimenez, western coordinator at the Rural and Migrant Ministry, said some farmworkers in New York state were told to keep working even though they were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

"They were sick and didn't know that, so they were working along with other people who didn't have the virus," he said. "But later on, when they got tested and came back positive, some of them still went to work."

Additionally, many of those workers return home to environments where social distancing measures suggested by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention are difficult, if not impossible, to adhere to. A study conducted by Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for healthier living and working conditions, estimates that one-third of farmworkers live in houses and apartments where multiple families share the same household.

"Their housing tends to be crowded," said Alexis Guild, director of Health Policy and Programs at Farmworker Justice. "They have shared bathrooms and shared kitchens and don't necessarily have the ability to physically distance themselves or to practice those CDC recommendations of hand-washing to keep themselves healthy."

Heather Riden, manager of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of California, Davis, has been working to come up with practical recommendations employers can apply to help keep workers safe while on the clock, but said there are still challenges in implementing social distancing when it comes to certain aspects of farm work.

"So, OK, if you're having people working in row crops, skip a row in between people so there's greater spacing," she said. "What about when you have equipment that is used for planting or harvesting that requires two people to be sitting in close proximity in order for that equipment to work or to be used? We don't have an exact recommendation for that -- that's a long-term engineering kind of issue."

Alexandra Allen and her husband own Main Street Produce in Santa Maria, California, and have placed signs written in Spanish warning workers that they're prohibited from entering the strawberry fields if they're exhibiting flu-like symptoms. They've placed a diagram of two people standing 6 feet apart under the tent where employees pack strawberries to remind them about social distancing. They're also stuffing paycheck envelopes with the latest information from the CDC.

"The last thing we would ever want to do is let anybody come to work who is sick," Allen said.

In neighboring San Luis Obispo County, Ryan Talley also said he's focusing his efforts on keeping employees safe -- staggering shifts, limiting the number of people riding in each vehicle, disinfecting all of the shared facilities multiple times a day. In some cases, he's reduced production in order to increase safety for employees -- people he refers to as his extended family.

"Even though our machines require literally individuals being shoulder to shoulder, we've made the adjustment to where we are pulling out every other row, every other individual, so they're at least 6 feet apart in their harvesting," he said. "Our efficiencies have suffered, but we feel that's the most responsible for our employees out in the field."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the government agency that oversees health and safety in workplaces, published "Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19," a set of practical guidelines employers should follow to protect workers.

State OSHA agencies in Washington and Oregon have taken a stronger stance against employers who ignore CDC guidelines. They've announced temporary emergency rules to increase protections for agricultural workers from COVID-19. Businesses violating state rules may be susceptible to citations.

"A couple states are issuing rules, which have an actual legal protection behind it, but federal OSHA has not done any kind of actual rule, which means that it will vary state by state," Guild added.

"Employers are and will continue to be responsible for providing a workplace free of known health and safety hazards," a Department of Labor spokesperson told ABC News. "OSHA's standards remain in place and enforceable, and they will continue to be as workers return to their work places."

Cleotilde has been helping to advocate for healthier work conditions for other women in the fields through her work at Líderes Campesinas, an organization that seeks to empower and provide resources for women and families.

She submitted a selfie video to ABC News from the field where she works, on a recent morning as the sun was rising.

"Good morning, we're here ready to start another day of work in the fields even though we are very worried about the presence of this disease," Cleotilde said in the video. "Here we are, doing everything possible despite these times, the good and the bad. We're harvesting food and sending it to the table of the millions who need it."

What to know about the coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
  • Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.