California bill would give farmworkers, grocery employees priority for COVID-19 vaccine
A new California bill would lay the groundwork for farmworkers, grocery store employees and other food sector workers to be prioritized for vaccine distribution and rapid testing during this pandemic and future ones.
While still short on specifics, AB 93 is intended to ensure the food sector workers, as essential workers who have been hard-hit by COVID-19, are near the front of the line for vaccination. Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat from Coachella, said he expects the bill to start conversations, shaping the legislation that “could potentially become a model for the nation."
Garcia introduced the bill this week with Assemblymember Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Hollister.
“It’s those handling our food that are most exposed to, and spreading, the COVID-19 virus,” Garcia said. “We want to make sure that as we’ve labeled them essential, that they are part of the first rounds of vaccination.”
Vaccinations could be critical for food sector employees, who have continued to sacrifice their health throughout the pandemic to ensure Americans can eat.
Data from the California Institute for Rural Studies showed that as of June 30, 2020, farmworkers in Monterey County were three times more likely to become infected with the virus than people employed in the county’s non-agricultural industries. Nationwide data from the United Food and Commercial Workers, meanwhile, indicated that as of Nov. 23, more than 17,400 grocery workers had been infected or exposed to the virus, contributing to 109 grocery worker deaths from COVID-19.
The situation is only becoming more dire. Southern California's harvest is currently operating at full tilt, even as virus cases surge and hospital intensive care units reach capacity. And while much of the state is under renewed stay-at-home orders and in-restaurant dining is shuttered, grocery stores remain open and customers are preparing for the holiday season.
State and local officials, with business owners and industry leaders, are working to address some of the health and safety issues impacting food sector employees, Garcia said. But, he added, "we have to now, if we have the vaccine, make sure that those folks have access to it and are immune."
Lawmakers support prioritizing food workers
The legislation comes as California officials are hammering out plans for distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. They have already announced plans for vaccinating health care workers at high risk of contracting the virus. Employees and residents of skilled nursing facilities and first responders are also expected to be vaccinated early.
Other essential workers are expected to be included in the next phase of vaccination, and a growing chorus of lawmakers, industry leaders and workers’ advocates are calling on officials to ensure the state’s nearly 1 million farmworkers, as well as other food supply workers, are explicitly prioritized in this round.
The Coachella City Council on Wednesday night unanimously agreed to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, requesting that farmworkers be prioritized for the vaccine.
A week earlier, the California Latino Legislative Caucus called on Newsom to prioritize farmworkers in the essential workers category of the state’s vaccination plan. The caucus, led by chair Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, who represents central and east Los Angeles, and vice chair Rivas, said the plan must include undocumented immigrants, who are often afraid to utilize government services, as well as a culturally and linguistically sensitive outreach plan specifically for farmworkers.
“Protecting our farmworkers benefits all of our residents by helping prevent labor shortages, keeping the food supply strong, and improving public health by minimizing the number of agricultural-related COVID-19 cases,” they said in a Dec. 4 letter. “Prioritizing farmworkers in the vaccination plan is also helpful to farmers and growers, who depend on farmworker labor to meet the demand of California’s massive agricultural industry.”
Local leaders express support for bill
As part of the bill, Garcia said he is interested in exploring whether essential workers in regions with high disease transmission — like the agricultural Coachella, Imperial, Salinas and San Joaquin valleys — also could be prioritized for vaccination.
Both Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, which are home to many farmworkers, are under new stay-at-home orders due to the critically low ICU capacity in the regions.
He acknowledged that farmworkers might be hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine. A study from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health of 1,091 Salinas Valley farmworkers found that about half of participants said they were extremely likely to get a vaccine, while about 20% said they were unsure and 11% said they were either unlikely or very unlikely to do so so.
The bill will likely be heard in Assembly committees in February or March, he said. It’s also possible, he added, that Newsom could act sooner on the issue through executive action.
The bill's intent, he said, is to protect food sector workers now and in the future.
"We always have to think about the moment, but also the future," he said.
Several leaders in the Coachella Valley welcomed the introduction of the bill.
Joe Duffle, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1167, which covers grocery and pharmacy employees in stores like Albertsons, Vons and Food 4 Less in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, as well as portions of Los Angeles and Imperial counties, said the proposal is “a great step in securing and creating a safe work environment for the people who work in our food supply chain.”
Grocery stores continue to be the leading business setting of COVID-19 outbreaks, according to data from Riverside County public health officials.
“We can’t have those centers become ground zero for the transmission of COVID,” Duffle said. “We have a responsibility to each other and to our communities to make sure that we take care of those folks.”
George Tudor, a Coachella Valley farmer, also supports the bill.
"Farmworkers in the state are a highly vulnerable population," he said, adding, "they need protection."
Dr. Conrado Bárzaga, CEO of the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation, said the bill would help “ensure that the health and well-being of our essential workers are given top priority in our state.”
The district, with Riverside County’s public health department and other local organizations, has been working to expand farmworkers’ access to testing, through events in the fields and at Catholic churches in the eastern Coachella Valley.
“The farm-working community and other food supply workers of the Coachella Valley should be at the forefront of California’s response to COVID-19, which includes receiving the vaccine,” Bárzaga said in a statement. “These essential workers are among the most vulnerable in our community, risking possible infection to feed not only the valley and Riverside County, but the country as well.
Luz Gallegos, executive director of TODEC, which supports the immigrant community in the Inland Empire, celebrated the introduction of the bill.
“Farmworkers and food supply workers are an essential workforce responsible for the food production that sustains our state,” Gallegos said in a statement. “For centuries they have faced inequities that now COVID-19 continues to spotlight. We must appreciate and value our essential workers always, not just in times of crisis.”
Rebecca Plevin is a reporter for The Desert Sun. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @rebeccaplevin.