Farm workers | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

On September 3, the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced that Santa Barbara County has joined the Housing for the Harvest program, which provides temporary hotel rooms for California farmworkers who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19 but are unable to adequately quarantine at home. Local officials and grassroots organizations that work closely with the farmworker community, also known as campesinos, applauded the move, citing it as an important step to protect farmworkers, who often live in packed housing that makes social distancing impossible.

“It’s not uncommon to have multiple families living in one home,” said Hazel Davalos, a community organizing director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). H-2A workers, foreign laborers brought to California on seasonal work visas by employers, live in compact, dorm-like housing facilities provided by employers, and at one such facility in Ventura County, more than 190 workers tested positive for COVID-19.

The Housing for the Harvest program, which was announced by California Governor Gavin Newsom in August, offers agricultural workers who would otherwise be unable to quarantine at home after testing positive for or being exposed to COVID-19 temporary hotel housing where they can sufficiently self-isolate. According to the program’s website, the State of California will purchase 14-day hotel stays for workers in participating counties.

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To qualify, one must work in agriculture or food processing in California, have tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19, and lack sufficient space at home to self-isolate. Under the program, local officials are responsible for providing transportation to the hotel, meals, and wellness checks for quarantining workers.

“I was happy to hear that wellness checks are included,” said Davalos. “For a lot of workers, especially those who have family back in Mexico, this is a time of great anxiety.”

Along with organizations like CAUSE, local political figures also welcomed the decision to participate in Housing for the Harvest. California State Assemblymember Monique Limón said that the program “provides peace of mind to families and delivers a resource to farmworkers working in the field every day to provide food for Californian families.”

For their critical role in keeping the nation’s food supply chain up and running, California’s farmworkers have been labeled “essential workers.” But the pandemic has had a devastating effect on the already strained farmworker community, as parents miss out on shifts to stay home to watch their children due to school closures and mask requirements make already strenuous work even more taxing. In California, the average farmworker makes around $14 an hour for work that often involves hours bent over in the soil, picking crops in stifling heat. Many California farmworkers are also undocumented and don’t have access to economic assistance programs such as unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and the stimulus check that many essential workers have utilized to stay afloat during the pandemic.

Davalos noted that while the program is a welcome development, the systemic issues that lead to farmworkers living in such packed conditions in the first place will ultimately need to be addressed. “This is getting extra attention right now because of the pandemic, but these conditions aren’t new,” said Davalos. “Even before the pandemic, low wages and high housing costs were taking a toll on this community.”

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