Farmworkers on the Coastside already struggle to access health care, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s becoming even more difficult. Now, local farm owners and nonprofit leaders are discussing how to improve education and access to resources should essential farmworkers here become a hotspot.
Raul Ramos, who works at Sea Horse Ranch, said there’s still not much work to go around, making getting by difficult. He said workers there are well separated across the farm and have the ability to self-isolate if needed. But now, with case numbers rising, the fear of the virus is returning.
“Everyone is a little bit worried because supposedly it is getting worse,” Ramos said in Spanish. “When the numbers were going down, we were feeling better, but now we are getting scared again.”
If he were to get sick, Ramos said he would go to the RotaCare Coastside, a free health clinic offered at the Coastside Clinic in Half Moon Bay on Wednesdays. He doesn’t have medical insurance, so he waits until the free clinic is open to get treatment.
“It’s how we live, finding the services we can afford,” Ramos said.
RotaCare Coastside Clinic Operations Manager Will Cerrato said the rotating clinic exists to serve uninsured and underinsured residents, many of whom are farmworkers. Typically, he said the clinic will see 12 to 15 patients per week during its Wednesday free sessions for both acute and chronic issues.
But Cerrato said the clinic doesn’t just provide medical care. RotaCare staff work to connect their patients with permanent health care providers through programs offered in California, like Medicare, and through San Mateo County’s Access and Care for Everyone program, which provides affordable public health care to residents.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cerrato said, while clinic visits are by phone only, he’s seen a decline in patients. That is not because there’s a decrease in need; access to technology is a barrier his patients face, alongside lack of access to transportation and language barriers. If a patient is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, depending on the severity, RotaCare doctors either advise them to stay home or refer them to the emergency department, Cerrato said.
Corina Rodriguez, Health and Community Development director for Puente de la Costa Sur, sees similar issues in the community her office serves. She said Puente’s health program refers patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms to get tested, and while their office visits have been reduced, a field team is available for in-person calls.
Some farmworkers said they aren’t worried about contracting the virus because their work allows for social distancing, and they rarely leave the farms. But others echoed Ramos’ concerns, especially those who live in high-density housing. They said they’re also worried about getting tested because a positive result might mean their immigration status is called into question.
Ayudando Latinos a Soñar founder Belinda Arriaga said her group can help get out information that neither testing nor contact tracing asks for a Social Security number and can work with farmworkers who need resources, a safe place to self-isolate and help through the process should they think they have COVID-19.
But Arriaga said it’s not just farmworkers who struggle to access health care and face barriers to compliance with health orders. All essential workers and anyone who doesn’t have the privilege to shelter in place nor access to technology is struggling.
She sees as much at the weekly food distribution, which Arriaga said has increasing, not decreasing, demand. The same is true for the South Coast, where Puente Director Rita Mancera says the line of cars coming each Thursday for food and masks has not ceased.
The topic of health care and access to resources about COVID-19 for farmworkers was heavily discussed at Monday night’s Agriculture Advisory Committee meeting. The committee penned a resolution to the county spelling out the problems members see in their communities and asked for help. Vice Chair B.J. Burns said he is worried not enough health information is getting directly to workers, and wants representatives from the county health department to come in person to local farms to help educate workers on mask wearing, sanitation and social distancing.
In talking to Ramos, Arriaga discovered the same problem: For workers without access to the internet, information isn’t always getting through. And the current testing offered by Verily requires both an email address and a car. Ramos said, if testing came to the farm, he would participate and would welcome temperature checks to improve safety.
“It would be for the good of all,” Ramos said.
Mancera agreed with committee members that an outbreak in the farmworking community would be devastating, and offered to do additional outreach in the form of flyers and in-person conversations on farms to make sure employees understand safety protocols and to encourage residents get tested for COVID-19. She recognized that many people worry their legal status will come up in a testing questionnaire or that they won’t have the support to self-isolate and will miss work due to a positive result.
“We share the concern with all of you about the real risk of the pandemic and the fear of a labor camp getting infected,” Mancera said. “It’d be a huge problem, not just for the farmers but the impact on the food supply.”
Farmer and committee member John Vars said farmers need to be prepared to address the consequences of positive results among their employees, like ensuring paid sick leave, encouraging those who are ill to not come to work and to help identify financial resources for workers and for farmers who may face a labor shortage.
That’s where Rodriguez sees an avenue for Puente to step in and help. This year, the nonprofit has seen a tripling in demand for financial assistance, and Rodriguez said their close connections to both the farmworking community and the farmers make the nonprofit a good partner. It can help not just to help with education, but to get workers and farm owners any financial aid they need to weather the effects of the pandemic.
“We have a really good overall connection to farm owners and participants, so both know we are here for the overall good,” Rodriguez said.