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Farmworkers face unique challenge with COVID-19 social distancing requirements

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El Paso area farmworkers are transported to worksites in conditions that may make them susceptible to the spread of coronavirus.

Farmworkers generally are picked up at a Downtown center and put in vans and trucks that take them to farms. These tight transportation conditions fall short of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to stay six feet apart from each other.

“I see that as a big problem.  When you transport people from El Paso and the border to the fields they are putting them in buses and they are putting them in vans,” said Ed Ogas, owner of the Seco Spice chili farm in Anthony, New Mexico. “I don’t want to open a can of worms, but I think we have a problem in the transport (of the workers).”

Under the city’s “Orders for Workplaces” and amended “Local Emergency Directive” the contractors that pick up the farmworkers would also have to comply with the safety measures.

‘We take the risk when we go in vans.’

Gorge Maciel, a migrant farmworker from Durango, said workers are at risk.

“We take the risk when we go in vans. The vans are crowded,” he said.

Miguel Angel Nava, a migrant farmworker from Ciudad Juárez, uses a computer at the Border Agriculture Workers Center in Downtown El Paso before heading to the fields for work. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Marentes)

Maciel said in the 25 years he has been a farmworker he and his fellow workers have been exposed to colds and the flu because of the often crowded working conditions.

“We have to take care of ourselves. We do the best we can,” he said.

In El Paso, migrant farmworkers are picked up in front of the Border Agriculture Workers Center. 

Taking steps to protect farmworkers

Amid the spread of the virus in the border region, the center’s staff has been providing them with crucial information about how to protect themselves from contracting it in an industry that was not designed with social distancing in mind.

“The majority of workers understand the severity of the problem and they try to minimize exposure,” Executive Director Carlos Marentes said.

Marentes said the center, which has been in operation since 1995, provides community services to migrant farmworkers, their families and residents of South El Paso.

The nonprofit center also serves as a hub where migrant farmworkers gather to wait for contractors that serve regional farms in Doña Ana, Hidalgo and Luna counties in New Mexico as well as El Paso and Hudspeth counties in Texas to pick them up for work in fields and processing plants for various crops.

When the city issued the “Stay at Home, Work Safe” order aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, Marentes said he closed the farmworkers center to the general public and is now solely serving the farmworkers.

“The center never closes to the workers,” Marentes said.

Agricultural workers are classified as essential workers under state and local orders.

Marentes said the center is actively taking precautions such as providing gloves and masks, doing health surveys and daily updates for the workers about safety precautions that are COVID-19 related.

Marentes said they are following guidelines from the CDC and  city as best they can with the resources that are available. They had not been able to take temperatures, but Marentes said he had three thermometers on order that had not yet arrived.

He also said the center provided bottles of hand sanitizer while they had the supply, but has since run out and are asking for donations.

‘We have talked about having to take care of each other.’

Miguel Angel Nava, a migrant farmworker from Ciudad Juárez, has been working the fields since the 1980s. In those 30-plus years he has worked in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and has spent the last five years along the U.S.- Mexico border.

“Right now we don’t know how it all started, we don’t know how it will end,” Nava said. “The pandemic is the biggest I have seen in this time.”

Nava said he is worried about contracting the virus. During normal working conditions in the fields, he said workers are able to use the bathroom and wash their hands, but they are sometimes in close proximity to each other.

“We have talked about having to take care of each other,” Nava said. He added that the safety guidelines they have been receiving at the center and from Marentes have helped him to be prepared. “We follow the orders that he gives us. We are informed.”

Richard De Los Santos, Texas Department of Agriculture director for produce safety, said the agency has general health rules for farms and farmworkers, but nothing specific to COVID-19.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requested that TDA temporarily suspend all assessments and face-to-face meetings. De Los Santos said the department is still working through phone calls, email and webinars.

“For the produce industry, these uncertain times do make it difficult to find workers to help harvest. Social distancing is a challenge for all farms, regardless of size, because harvesting and packing areas were not designed with social distancing in mind,” De Los Santos said.

Ogas said in the next few weeks he will be needing around 50 workers to help transplant the chile fields. He said they are taking precautions as best they can and have handwashing stations and bathrooms.

He said he is not concerned about social distancing once the workers arrive at the farms, but getting there is problematic.

How to help

The Border Agriculture Workers Center is seeking donations for masks, gloves and other items. For more information, or to make a donation, call (915) 873-8933.

Cover photo: Farmworkers wait to be picked up for work at the Border Agriculture Workers Center in Downtown El Paso. Center director Carlos Marentes is in the red shirt in the foreground. (Photo courtesty of Carlos Marentes)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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