Fall is usually a busy time of year for agricultural workers in the Pacific Northwest, offering bountiful harvests and a steady paycheck. But the coronavirus pandemic has forced many farms to truncate the workday and reduce the number of workers in the field.
That has many Oregon farmworkers, like Juan Rios, struggling financially this year.
“Things are restricted: We have to maintain distance from each other, wear masks and they make us leave at about noon,” said Rios, who’s worked in the orchards in and around Hood River for about 20 years. “There hasn’t been much work.”
Rios, who is originally from Morelos, Mexico, said he usually earns about $5,000 a season. This year he’s seen a dramatic decrease in his wages, earning only $1,500. To make matters worse, Rios is also undocumented. That means he and thousands of other undocumented workers and families in Oregon don’t have access to any of the federal pandemic financial relief programs. That’s despite evidence that the state’s Latino population has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.
But Rios has a friend looking out for him.
“I know who has papers and who doesn’t have papers,” said Umberto Calderón, a Hood River store owner. “I know who’s legal and who’s not legal.”
Calderón sells elaborate boots, cowboy hats, western shirts, traditional Mexican clothing and other goods at his store Novedades el Potrillo. His establishment is also a de facto bank, cashing checks and executing money transfers for many of his clients. Most of his customers work in agriculture or the restaurant industry.
Calderón’s well connected within the Hood River Latino community, so when he learned of the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, an emergency pandemic fund specifically for the state’s undocumented workers, he knew who in his community would need it the most.
A coalition of Oregon immigrant and farmworker advocacy groups launched the program in May to provide temporary financial relief for people who are undocumented and do not qualify for federal unemployment insurance. The bulk of its reserves came from the state Legislature, which allocated $10 million to the fund in April and an additional $10 million in June.
“[Undocumented] people got excluded from the federal government and sometimes they make just enough money to send back to their families in Mexico,” said Calderón, who also used to work in the orchards around Hood River. “So I called a few people that I thought really needed the money.”
Rios was one person he thought of.
“Calderón knows that I live in the countryside and that I don’t have permanent work,” Rios said. “He said, ‘You qualify. You can do this. And that’s how it went.’”
A few weeks after applying for financial assistance with the fund, Rios got a check in the mail totaling just more than $1,700. He used it to buy food, clothing and other necessities for himself. Rios also helps support a grown son and granddaughter in the area.
Cecilia Alonso with the Oregon Human Development Corporation has heard countless stories like Rios' over the past few months. Alonso’s organization is one of 100 community based groups in Oregon that helped process thousands of applications for the fund. She recalls one conversation with an applicant who was overwhelmed with joy when she told her to expect a check in the mail.
“This lady just started crying, like sobbing on the phone,” Alonso said. “She was saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have no idea what this is going to do for my family.’”
But Alonso is having a different conversation with applicants now because around the same time wildfires swept across the state, the Oregon Worker Relief Fund ran out of money.
“Even with the fund ending, people are still calling, still needing help,” Alonso said. “And I have to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t know when we’re going to have more money.’”
The fund has dispersed about $22 million to close to an estimated 10,000 undocumented households in Oregon since May, according to Innovation Law Lab Director of Strategic Initiatives Ramon Valdez. Most of the people who received financial assistance work in the foodservice industry. The average check size: $1,712.
“We got those resources into the hands of a lot of families really quickly,” Valdez said. “We didn’t have enough funds to get to everyone.”
It would cost around $124 million to cover all of Oregon’s undocumented workers who have lost jobs or wages during the pandemic, according to estimates by the Oregon Center for Public Policy. Valdez said this need has likely grown because of the wildfires, another event that disproportionately affected Latino people.
Although the coffers of the fund have been exhausted, a sister program called the Oregon Worker Quarantine Fund still has about $10 million available. That effort provides a one time check of up to $1,290 specifically to Oregon’s agricultural workers who must quarantine themselves after being exposed to COVID-19.
The coalition behind the fund is working to rebuild its reserves. Coalition leaders are talking with the governor’s office and taking private donations. They’re also in conversation with Latino organizations in California and Washington, two other states with large undocumented populations who have similar pandemic relief programs. Valdez said they are looking for a long-term, community-driven fix to this problem.
“The West Coast is well-positioned to lead the nation in coming up with a permanent solution for undocumented workers,” said Valdez. “What that solution is, and whether and when it will happen, that’s the question that’s up in the air.”
Rios, the farmworker, got his pandemic relief check back in June, but he hasn’t spent all of it yet. He said he wants to have some leftover because he’s worried he could catch the coronavirus. He’s put away $300 just in case.
Rios said many people who are undocumented like him fled poverty and suffering in South America, so they know how to get by in difficult times. But, he said, having something like the Oregon Worker Relief Fund is helpful and he’s thankful for it.
“Many of us have Mexican values and one of the values is gratitude,” Rios said. “A lot of times things are tough for us, but this time we got some assistance. So, thank you.”