Last week, PBS’s news program “Frontline” aired an episode about Covid-19’s devastating impact on the lives and health of farmworkers in Monterey County and meat packers in Kings County. The stories, voices and fears of our farmworkers are certainly important and must be heard by all Americans.
However, the film omitted an opportunity to provide balance by also telling the story of collaborative efforts in Monterey County between our farmers, elected officials, agriculture commissioner, health professionals and community leaders.
Instead, the film focused on a cliché narrative that vilifies farmers, while neglecting to include both what farmers are doing to protect their essential workers and what local communities can do to better mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on farmworkers.
I was among the first people that filmmaker Daffodil Altan contacted on April 2 for her project. I thought a film would be an effective way to share our efforts so that they could serve as a model for other counties both in California and throughout the nation.
Along with a long list of local contacts, I also shared that Monterey County issued its Shelter in Place order on March 17 and just three days later, we released a first-in-the-nation Ag Workers Protection Advisory. It has since been amended over a dozen times, and is more comprehensive than the guidance Cal-OSHA released on April 6. When we hear of worksites not following the protocols, we follow through to quickly correct reported problems. But the filmmaker told me that it wasn’t worth mentioning because it was not “mandatory.”
She failed to realize that this collaboration within our community has led to other efforts in our county to protect farmworkers. Our county was the first to release infection data on farmworkers and to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to make PPE available to them. Our first shipment was delivered on May 7 with 750,000 masks designated for farmworkers.
Monterey County did not stop there. We urged Newsom to issue a statewide mask order for farmworkers, and then we did so within our county on April 30. Our county was also the first to lobby Newsom to create a disaster relief program for undocumented immigrants who were excluded from federal aid. The State of California later established a $150 million program for that purpose.
Last Friday, Gov. Newsom looked to Monterey County when he modeled a new state program after one started here by local farmers. The Grower Shipper Association launched a partnership with Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital to provide alternative housing for farmworkers so that they can have a hotel room to quarantine and recover in, along with both meals and healthcare. The state has now a similar program, called “Housing for the Harvest,” which will expand throughout the Central Coast, Central Valley and Imperial Valley.
The Grower Shipper Association also created another first-in-the-nation program with all four of our local hospitals to deploy nurses to engage in bilingual Covid-19 prevention outreach in the fields, packing sheds and food processing plants.
I also shared with the filmmaker that the Salinas Valley is the hub for farmworker housing anywhere in the nation, which is fully paid for by local growers. It started with Tanimura & Antle building housing for 800 farmworkers, and then the Nunes Company followed, building housing for another 600. Monterey County recently approved new projects for 1,200 farmworkers in Salinas and 800 in Greenfield. There is no other county facilitating this type of employer-sponsored housing to help address congregate living conditions, but apparently, Ms. Altan believed that was not worthy mentioning either.
Farmworkers are the occupation most impacted by Covid-19, and are on the frontlines providing a stable food supply for our nation. For many weeks, they accounted for 40% of all infections in our county, but that number has now dropped to 25%.
Nonetheless, Monterey County recognizes that these efforts are still not enough. Accordingly, we have now focused more resources to expand our bilingual public education efforts on radio, social media, TV and billboards. Even some Spanish radio celebrities like Piolín, a National Radio Hall of Fame broadcaster, and Don Cheto have agreed to do several free public service announcements for television for us.
I get it. Sometimes, inflammatory rhetoric is what gets ratings and attention. But in this crisis, we need to do more to share our local efforts to serve as a model for other communities. For these reasons, I believe “Frontline” missed the mark.
Luis A. Alejo is a Monterey County Supervisor for District 1, representing most of the city limits of Salinas.