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Saturday, January 28, 2023

UF IFAS works to improve farmworker conditions during pandemic, but workers say they need government aid

<p dir="ltr"><span>Joe Yzaguirre (middle) tested positive for COVID-19 mid-May. After a 17-day battle with the virus, he passed away on June 5.</span> </p>

Joe Yzaguirre (middle) tested positive for COVID-19 mid-May. After a 17-day battle with the virus, he passed away on June 5. 

Joe Yzaguirre was a farmworker crew leader in Immokalee, Florida, where he bussed workers to farms each day. 

On his last day of work before taking time off in June, the 32-year-old started to feel ill. He appeared tired and had difficulty breathing, which prompted his wife to take him to North Collier hospital in Naples, 30 miles west from Immokalee.

Yzaguirre tested positive for COVID-19 mid-May. After a 17-day battle with the virus, he passed away on June 5.

Those working in agriculture have asked for aid from the state since June, which has been sparingly delivered. The Florida agriculture commissioner never requested PPE from the emergency management office. But workers’ continued labor is why plates have stayed full throughout the pandemic and into Thanksgiving. 

“Sometimes he has no days off,” said Liza Yzaguirre about her late husband, Joe. “It’s every day, every day, every day.” 

Immokalee, which does not have a hospital, has had 2,545 COVID-19 cases as of Nov. 23, according to the Florida Department of Health. Florida produces four of the 10 traditional Thanksgiving foods that the American Farm Bureau accounts for in its annual survey.

The state has nearly 25% of the market share of sweet corn and snap beans. Florida is also ranked fourth in sweet potato production and 11th in the potato industry.

The UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Science acts as the bridge between UF scientists and farmers with a research center in Immokalee. The IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee helped disseminate research for farmers, who inform where research is most needed.

This fall, it extended its ongoing farm labor COVID-19 safety training through October. But advocates want action from the state beyond the education UF is capable of. 

Alliance for Fair Food national coordinator Uriel Perez said the Florida government is not helping the local farmworkers, who are piling into buses with 50 others to get to work and not being given PPE by the state. 

One recommendation the IFAS center makes is to wait 20 minutes after workers get off a bus to clean it, she said. This was derived from CDC research that found droplets remain airborne for 20 minutes.

“UF is one of the top agricultural schools in the country, yet leaves much to be desired in standing with migrant farmworkers,” Perez said.

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Yzaguirre described her late husband as frequently run-down and tired, a result of his laborious job.

“I told my daughter-in-law, I said, ‘It feels like sometimes it has to hit your home so you understand,’” Yzaguirre said. “And those are words that I regret.”

Much of Yzaguirre’s frustrations are intensified when she sees those that don’t have to put themselves at risk because of their jobs, like her husband did, taking unnecessary risks like partying, she said.

Yzaguirre shared her husband’s story with the UF IFAS center’s outreach team at the urging of those close to her husband.

The center’s COVID-19 program aims to educate agricultural employers on how to protect their farmworkers, Kimberly Morgan, an economist for the center, said.

In the early months of the pandemic, when Florida was in its harvest, a misconception persisted that COVID-19 had a lesser effect on young, healthy people, Morgan said. Farmworkers were not perceived to be high risk.

“They're almost like the athletes of agriculture,” she said. “So they have to be young and they're healthy and they're fit.”

Cases of young, healthy people falling ill with the virus like Yzaguirre prompted the Immokalee center to start educating agricultural employers on how to keep workers safe, she said.

Morgan said that the agriculture industry was doing things that shouldn’t be done during a pandemic. While states were going into lockdown, tens of thousands of farmworkers were headed to Florida for the harvest. 

“We're not supposed to travel. We're not supposed to be around a large number of people. We're not supposed to be on vacation,” Morgan said. “But, you know, these folks aren't vacationing.”

Grocery shopping and agriculture have taken substantial hits from the COVID-19 pandemic this year, especially in Florida. Hurricane Eta damaged South Florida crops like green beans and squash weeks before the holidays.

In six online seminars over Zoom from August to October, the center trained 775 employers and labor contractors across Florida, each employing anywhere from a dozen to several hundred workers. 

These trainings discuss case studies of those in the community that have been impacted by the virus as well as tailor CDC guidelines to the unique work environment of a farm.

“It sounds very simple,” Morgan said. “But this was something our team could say, ‘Okay this is something that works specific to you handling workers moving from one place to the other.’”

Poverty and neglect in the Immokalee farming community created a unique vulnerability to COVID-19, wrote the coalition’s co-founder Greg Asbed in a New York Times op/ed.

In Gainesville, UF IFAS students studying agriculture are educating themselves on the lack of protections of migrant farmworkers in Florida during COVID-19.

The UF chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences invited the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to speak at an Oct. 13 event. The coalition is a nonprofit organization made up of migrant farmworkers that was founded to address the abuses that farmers face in the industry. 

The event focused on the work being done by the coalition to protect migrant farmworkers from COVID-19 as well as the history of farmworkers’ rights advocacy in Gainesville.

About 30% of the lowest-wage workers have received paid sick leave, according to a Congress Joint Economic Committee report. The report cited 50 cases of low income workers that have to risk exposure to go to work, including that of a California farmworker.

More than 145,000 agricultural workers have tested positive for COVID-19 across the country, according to Purdue University.

The Immokalee coalition has gathered more than 49,000 signatures as of Tuesday on a petition demanding community-wide testing, contact tracing, PPE and economic relief to the area. Immokalee has a large Hispanic community ––72% of its population identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Though MANNRS aims to uplift minority students in the agricultural field, chapter president Juan Gonzalez said that they are in a unique situation in the farming community because of their education at UF.

“As a person who has the privilege of going to grad school, I feel a responsibility to make sure that we don't forget others along the way,” he said.

The event focused on the work being done by the coalition to protect migrant farmworkers from COVID-19 as well as the history of farmworkers’ rights advocacy in Gainesville.

Those from UF on the ground in Immokalee are focused on education of how the virus is transmitted and precautions to take, said Gene McAvoy, IFAS Immokalee center associate director for stakeholder relations.

He and three others who work at IFAS in Immokalee joined the Florida Department of Agriculture’s farmworker COVID-19 task force. This team of about a dozen helps guide the allocation of COVID-19 resources in Immokalee. 

The task force has handled projects like finding an optimal testing site location and the distribution of multilingual posters informing workers about the virus. McAvoy added that PPE was being provided to farms by Florida’s Department of Agriculture.

“Being here on the ground in the Immokalee area, I have a better feel for where resources are needed and what their needs are, than somebody sitting at a desk in Tallahassee,” McAvoy said.

Saddie Vela, MANNRS community service committee chairperson, joined the IFAS Diversity and Inclusion committee this semester, where she helps the college foster a better environment for students of color.

She takes issue with the way that the Florida government has handled the spread of COVID-19 cases.

“The governor,” she paused and scoffed, “blamed their spike in cases due to Immokalee, specifically Immokalee and the farmworkers.”

In June, Governor Ron DeSantis’ statement that farmworkers caused Florida’s spike in COVID-19 cases was disputed by the Florida Department of Agriculture. The department said this was inaccurate because farmworkers had already left Florida when the harvest ended in May.

The wife of the late farmworker, Liza Yzaguirre, said her husband planned to finish the year out and then hire another driver to take over for him. He didn’t even have the option to make this choice.

“He was looking forward to getting all his work finished so that he could relax,” she said.

Joe Yzaguirre (middle) tested positive for COVID-19 mid-May. After a 17-day battle with the virus, he passed away on June 5. 

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