Frontline Farmworkers Are Defenseless and Terrified

In Immokalee, Florida, immigrant farmworkers are living and working in crowded conditions without sick leave, space to quarantine, or a nearby hospital. They’re afraid of an outbreak, and they’re making demands on the state to prevent one.

Farm workers harvest zucchini on the Sam Accursio & Son's Farm on April 01, 2020 in Florida City, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty

As the US coronavirus death toll surpasses thirty-five thousand and much of the country shelters in place, packed buses take people from crowded trailer homes in Immokalee, Florida, to busy farms every day.

The twenty-five thousand residents of Immokalee are nearly all immigrant farmworkers. Their labor is keeping the nation fed during the pandemic, but they say they aren’t being adequately provided for, and they’re worried about the crisis hitting home.

Observers worry that a local outbreak could not only prove deadly to Immokalee residents, but could trigger a larger outbreak in the state. It could also interrupt the nation’s food supply chain, as the region is integral to US agricultural production. So far, few steps are being taken to prevent Immokalee from turning into a hot spot and to protect the people who live there.

Silvia Perez, a forty-six-year-old former farmworker who now works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), says that farmworkers have no options for staying home if they begin to develop symptoms. “Workers don’t get paid a lot, and it’s not consistent pay. They also don’t have health insurance or any sort of vacation” or paid sick leave, Perez says. “They definitely wouldn’t be able to afford to maintain themselves if they had to take off time from work because they got sick.” (Perez spoke to Jacobin in Spanish, translated by Natalia Naranjo from the Alliance for Fair Food.)

Perez reports that the CIW knows of several cases of coronavirus in Immokalee already, and assumes more are going unreported and untreated. Even if sick workers were to find a way to stay home, she says, living conditions in Florida’s most densely populated farm labor community make social distancing difficult to impossible. “In Immokalee, we aren’t able to isolate ourselves,” she says. “Here you see ten or twelve people living in a mobile trailer home. Often, you see two or three families all sharing the same space. It can get very, very crowded.”

In other Florida cities and towns, vacant hotel rooms are being set aside for people to quarantine themselves if they come down with symptoms. But Collier County — on which Immokalee is entirely dependent, as it is unincorporated and has no municipal government of its own — is making no such provisions in Immokalee. Nearby Naples is one of the richest cities in Florida, observes Perez. “Collier County is putting its money into protecting Naples residents. We want someone to respond to what’s happening here.”

As soon as the coronavirus pandemic began to escalate, the CIW began pushing for the adequate provision of protective personal equipment for workers on the job. The county responded by distributing kits for farmworkers, Perez says, “but the kits only provided one pair of gloves and one mask. And we know, a lot of these things can’t be reused. So they would use one in the field, and then what happens?” She notes with relief that some of the farms themselves have been responsive to the CIW, providing handwashing stations and protective gear. But it’s still not enough, she says.

The most troubling problem of all, though, is that the community lacks ready access to medical care. “Our closest hospital is about an hour away,” says Perez. “We already have a few positive cases here in Immokalee, and from what we know, it took extreme measures to get those people to the hospital,” Perez says. “There have to be more sick people here who just don’t have access to it. So we’re campaigning for a hospital that people in town will be able to get to.”

The CIW is campaigning for a field hospital to be erected to serve this community of essential workers. Collier County has already reviewed and rejected the CIW’s request for an emergency medical facility, saying, “A field hospital concept has been evaluated and determined unnecessary at this time.” The CIW is circulating a petition requesting Florida governor Ron DeSantis step in and built a field hospital, citing makeshift hospitals already erected elsewhere in Florida as a precedent.

“We were deemed essential workers, and we’re the ones providing food for the rest of the country,” says Perez. “But we aren’t getting the resources that we need in order to continue doing that or to stay healthy.”