A recent study takes an in-depth look at the unsafe and often dehumanizing conditions Oregon farmworkers have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers from Oregon universities collaborated with advocacy organizations and farmworkers themselves to understand the challenges these essential workers have faced and what policies they want to see changed to improve conditions in the future.
We hear from Sandra Martin, an Oregon farmworker and COVID-19 emergency response coordinator for Bienstar, an organization that provides housing and other resources to farmworkers and their families. Also joining us are Jennifer Martinez-Medina, a Ph.D. candidate at Portland State University and Anabel Hernandez-Mejia, communications and advocacy coordinator for Farmworker Housing Development Corporation. Interpretation for our interview with Sandra Martin was provided by Victor Shepherd with Passport to Languages.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to a new report about the experiences of farm workers during the pandemic. It’s part of a multi-year, multi-state effort that included researchers from Oregon Universities in collaboration with Advocacy Organizations and farm workers themselves. The big idea was to hear directly from those farm workers to find out what they have endured during the pandemic. In a few minutes we’ll talk to two people who worked on the study, but we start with Sandra Martin whose husband has been a farm worker for 40 years. We talked recently with the help of an interpreter. I asked what kind of farm work her family does.
Sandra Martin [Interpreted by Victor Shepherd]: Specifically it is different areas in the field. I don’t do it exactly but my husband has done it for 40 years in the agricultural work and a few times I have supported him, planting plants, watering, and all of those kinds of things that he does, he prepares orders or we have cultivated pear trees which is a very difficult job.
Miller: And you’ve been in the Northwest for 40 years?
Martin: No, my husband. In September it will be five years since I have arrived.
Miller: And so before that you were largely separated.
Martin: Si. I come from Guatemala City and my husband brought us to this country and he has been working on his own and then I came over here with my daughters, and I supported him in the agricultural work and also the kitchen, which is very difficult and I admire all the workers because of all the work that they do. And it was quite difficult for me.
Miller: You’ve worked recently as a ‘Promotora.’ Can you explain what that means?
Martin / Interpreter: Si. I started working as a Promotora in the apartment where I live, and this is a very beautiful job, very important, because we serve the community ever since the pandemic started. We’ve received donations of resources and we have given it to residents. We have gone door to door providing them, at that time, hand sanitizer, wipes, masks, and given information about taking care of themselves, interviewing them, how the pandemic has affected them and receiving information. And also, we have received food donations, and we share them with the residents who work with Jennifer, where I work, and I’m also a Promotora and also we’ve been providing food to different properties and up to date. We’ve still been serving different residents with their different needs. And if we don’t have the resources, we try to put them in touch with other organizations.
Miller: I imagine that you encountered a huge variety of situations and questions and needs. But can you give us a sense for some of the themes that would come up over and over?
Martin / Interpreter: Si. Yes. The ones that came up in interviews and surveys were mental health affected a lot of kids, a lot of adults, both men and women. Closing schools was another theme that came up because a lot of parents in the Hispanic community, they’re not up to date with technology and that affected them with your… with their kids because sitting in front of a computer was very difficult for the kids and even for parents, even more because of not being able to understand the technology and how to support them. Many mothers were also affected because they had to stay at home, losing their jobs and they …because they will take advantage of the time where the kids will go to school, to be able to work, and then coming and supporting the kids after school. So being able to support them, family, and acquiring services, they didn’t have like, say, WiFi. Many of us, including myself, we saw the necessity of reducing expenses, taking things away that maybe weren’t as useful and, in place, trying to get more WiFi. In schools, there is that service for WiFi for $10, but capacity for kids, like, of having the WiFi at home didn’t really work, especially if you have two or three or more kids, we had to get more expensive service. Also, the health of the kids, they didn’t want to receive classes. They didn’t want to be in front of the computer, school performance dropped, parents would continue getting sick. The fear was a huge factor. The idea of going to work, exposing themselves and then coming home and taking off their clothes to be able to feel safe at home. It was something very, very, very difficult to live through all those moments.
Miller: Did anyone in your family end up getting COVID?
Martin / Interpreter: Si. Yes. So we are a family of four; three of us, we had COVID, including myself. And it was something very difficult. The place where we lived, it wasn’t very spacious, it’s a two room apartment. And trying to figure out where we could keep the person who wouldn’t get contagious, and that was the same person. Our youngest daughter was the one who didn’t get it. And all three of us, we had to lock ourselves in that room, so that way, she could try not to get it. And it was something very, very difficult for us.
Miller: Sorry. Did your husband have to stop working for a while after he got sick?
Martin / Interpreter: Si. He had to stop working because of the same reason. And he stayed here at home, all of us. We had to be locked in our room, quarantine, making sure to follow the safety measures for our community because we live in an apartment complex.
Miller: What did that mean for your family’s finances?
Martin / Interpreter: That is very difficult subject for us because ever since the pandemic started, we were affected quite a lot since 2019. He was fired. So he had four months without work. The company closed. And he has only been able to do temporary jobs. We got COVID and I know there’re resources, but once you are under quarantine, sick, you don’t have any desires and well there wasn’t much to do besides just being like that. And now, we’re starting all over again, right now. He is without a job and this is something very difficult for us and I’ve been by myself with other families, working day to day and seeing that necessity in our homes and also it’s destabilizing in a financial point of view
Miller: What policy changes would make the biggest impact on your lives right now?
Martin / Interpreter: Well, the change in my life will be to reduce expenses, just buying what is necessary, change that we did before, we had cable tv and we had to stop that service. Even today, we still don’t have it, because in lieu of having WiFi, we do our budget with what we have, and we still have to pay rent, bills, and we just tried saving, we had an opportunity to also to go to food banks, but we couldn’t find everything that we needed, and whatever was useful, we tried to grab, and also making sure not to spend unnecessarily because we had limited resources.
Miller: What would it take for your husband to get more permanent work right now?
Marin / Interpreter: For us, it will be much better because it will be economic stability with what we will have, because at this moment we don’t have it. And as soon as he finds something, then we will have extra income and then you can be, you can breathe freer. This season is going to be a little more difficult because we’ve been having interviews and with the last snow storm that we had and the rains, the plants haven’t grown. So actually in the country they have become bad. So it’s going to be a very bad season. Very difficult.
Miller: What do you most want people who aren’t familiar with the lives of farm workers or their families to understand about your situation?
Martin / Interpreter: I would like for a lot of people that don’t see and don’t value the farm work, these are the people who are very affected, less paid, and lots of limitations. So, being able to value us more, and if there’s more opportunities for work, giving them the opportunity to work, so that way they can have dignified job with respect, and we also know that they are the ones who are providing the goods at home. So just making sure that there’s more opportunities for work for them.
Miller: Sandra Martin, thanks very much for joining us.
Martin / Interpreter: Thanks to you, very kind.
Miller: That was Sandra Martin, her husband has been a farm worker for 40 years. She worked as a COVID-19 Emergency Response Coordinator for Bienestar. Interpretation for that interview was provided by Victor Shepherd from Passport To Languages. If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected farm workers, I’m joined now by two people who worked on a recent report about this, Jennifer Martinez-Medina is a PhD candidate in Public Affairs and Policy at Portland State University, Anabel Hernandez-Mejia is a Communications and Advocacy Coordinator for the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation. Good to have both of you on.
Jennifer Martinez-Medina / Anabel Hernandez-Mejia: Thank you. Thank you for having us today,
Miller: Jennifer, first. I’m curious what stood out to you and what you just heard from Sandra and how common the challenges that she described are?
Martinez-Medina: I think Sandra mentioned the transformation of jobs, right? So even though farmworkers were labeled essential at the start of the pandemic, many of them lost weeks and months of wages and they haven’t recovered now because many of those jobs where folks were working, for years, are now gone. So now farm workers are shifting to less stable, more inconsistent jobs. Right? So it’s adding a layer of economic insecurity. And I think this conversation in the aftershocks of the pandemic are not divorced from climate change impacts that we’ve seen throughout 2020. So many farm workers are figuring out how to pay for food, how to pay for rent. And that has not stopped being a factor. Many times with folks… got infected in our study, we found over half, 50% of our sample in this space to folks were infected with the COVID-19 and that created many downstream effects. And so especially during quarantine, as I mentioned, farm workers took a while to get better. Many farm workers reported being out for over a month and these impacts were not equal across gender or Indigeneity. Women, as Sandra was mentioning, took on the economic and emotional toll of child caring. Many women had to choose or were the first ones to be laid off from work. They had to choose to be… sometimes, to stop working because they had to take care of their children. And a lot of times they couldn’t pay for the babysitter when their wages were or their hours were being cut. I think across Indigeneity, we also saw that, you know, farmworkers that identify as Indigenous didn’t always get enough information. A lot of times they also work in jobs that are most often tied to harvest seasons. And we also saw that they felt they experienced a lot of financial instability as well.
Miller: Can you remind us just how many different languages are spoken by the people who you talk to in the study?
Martinez-Medina: Yes, this has been a really important finding, it captures the diversity of farm workers here in the state. In our two phases, we found that farmworkers speak over 29 different Indigenous Meso-American languages from Latin America.
Miller: Anabel, Hernandez-Mejia, what kinds of housing challenges did you find people talking about that were specifically tied to the pandemic?
Anabel, Hernandez-Mejia: Well, I’ll start by saying that our participants in the surveys weren’t truly the best case scenario, because in Sandra, who spoke first, and in my case as well, being in Farmworker Housing Development Corporation, we were able to connect and have some of the farm workers that are closer to organizations be the ones who participated. And one of the things that happens with farmworkers or even LatinX communities that are coming up is they are bunching together in houses. So while it is a single family home of two, three, four bedrooms, there’s one family per bedroom – and some of the difficulties with the housing is the funding that is sometimes allotted to nonprofits, and nonprofits are some of those that provide the resident services, the wraparound services that helped support in many of these, throughout the pandemic and with the COVID, so that farm workers were not completely falling off the cracks and were being able to receive the support necessary to at least stay afloat.
Miller: Anabele. How willing were people to take the surveys and to do these interviews?
Hernandez-Mejia: In my case, being able to belong in again, a nonprofit organization that already has these connections and relations, a strong trust within the farmworker community. There wasn’t much hesitation, but if we were to go out and try to reach out to those that were living in labor camps, It would be much more difficult because there is a fear of retaliation for participating or providing any information that may impact their work and employability, because of anything that they may, they may say.
Miller: Jennifer, am I right that one of the ways you tried to get around that was to ensure anonymity to people who are participating?
Martinez-Medina: Yeah, that’s correct. We use pseudonyms.We extrapolated some of the locations to make sure people were not able to be identified. But this is one of the risks, right, of farmworkers. And so that’s one of the things we try to work with this report, is to really center farmworker voices through this report. I think in this Phase Two, we’re really talking about the nuance that happened to farm workers, what they were reporting from the ground, and I think farm workers are experts in their fields, in the best position to provide policy recommendations and they themselves understand the different structural layers that they’re facing, right? It’s not only labor policy, it is immigration policy, and many times their recommendations and you know, with their conversations pointed to those pieces.
Miller: Can you give us a sense, Jennifer, to what those policy recommendations are – the ones that you heard from people and that sort of bubbled up eventually to the surface?
Martinez-Medina: You know, it was surprising. One of the pieces that bubbled up most often, and a lot of the suggestions to employers and elected officials, where this idea of inspectors, having inspectors in the workplace to ensure employers are protecting farm workers adequately, and that they’re enforcing rules, COVID-19 Emergency Rules or whatever other rules might be.There was a strong support for vaccines, especially for younger adults or younger kids, that farmworkers parent, and I think another big, another big recommendation that bubbled up is language accessibility, especially for Indigenous farmworkers. They want to be able to have clear information in the languages they speak, because a lot of times, if that information is interfaced by a nonspeaker that doesn’t speak their language, a lot of nuance and information gets lost in translation.
Miller: Jennifer. What do you think about the now finalized rules from Oregon OSHA, put out yesterday, about exposure to heat?
Martinez-Medina: Well, I think it’s important to recognize OSHA as a critical player during these last two years and you know, the wildfire smoke [rules] that they just announced are said to be some of the most robust in the country, especially because they will not only apply to workers in the workplace, but also those in employer provided housing. So that’s really important. I think it’s also critically important to recognize that some of this came from advocacy efforts after the death of Sebastian Francisco Perez, an Indigenous farmworker who passed away in the summer heat waves in 2021. But I think what we learned in this study and throughout COVID is that even when rules do exist, they are not always enforced on the ground by employers. So my hope is, and I think most folks hope, is that these rules are also accompanied by strong enforcement mechanisms and including random inspections to reduce the burden on farm workers to file grievances. Currently we have a grievance driven system, so it adds a lot of burden on farm workers that can experience retaliation, as my colleague Anabel mentioned. Throughout the pandemic, Oregon OSHA carried out few enforcement visits. So I think this is a critical opportunity for Oregon OSHA to improve the confidence of farm workers in the system. And we hope that the agency is also given the resources to ramp up those enforcement operations so that they could have Inspectors, hire inspectors that speak Spanish and Indigenous languages that farmworkers speak. I think something else that is really important in this conversation and that’s considering inclement weather or hazardous pay. You know, farm workers are often kept- and COVID revealed this – Farm workers are caught in this paradox between staying at home and losing pay or exposing themselves, going out to work to make ends meet. So in California, the state is currently exploring some policy proposals to pay farm workers impacted by drought and I think here in Oregon that’s a realistic proposal as well. Some of the chatter that we’ve had in our network is that the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, which was an important source of aid for farm workers that did not qualify for federal aid or unemployment, is a well suited model for something like this, to provide economic payments to farm workers impacted by climate change.
Miller: Jennifer Martinez-Medina and Anabel Hernandez-Mejia, thanks very much.
Martinez-Medina / Hernandez-Mejia: Thank you. Thank you.
Miller: Jennifer Martinez-Medina is a PhD candidate in Public Affairs and Policy at Portland State University and a facilitator for the Oregon COVID-19 Farmworker Study, Anabel Hernandez-Mejia is Communications and Advocacy Coordinator for the Farmworker Housing Development Corp Corporation. Coming up after a short break, we’re going to hear about an Eastern Oregon high school that is sending its band to the state championships for the first time.
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