Into Protecting Florida Farmworkers
Trymaine Lee: Coronavirus cases across America's sunbelt are surging. In Florida, more than 140,000 residents have now tested positive for the virus. The state recorded more than 9,500 new cases on Saturday alone. Bars and restaurants that had reopened are being forced to close for a second time. (MUSIC) And on Sunday, Governor Ron DeSantis, who for weeks tried to downplay the threat of the virus, attributed the recent surge in cases to young people.
Governor Ron DeSantis: And if you look at that 25 to 34 age group, that is now by far the leading age group for positive tests in the state of Florida.
Lee: The governor's also blamed the state's, quote, "Overwhelmingly Hispanic farmworkers" as a source of the virus.
DeSantis: If you look at the counties that have 10% or more positivity, it almost always has agriculture links or prison or jail links.
Lee: (MUSIC) But for months, the rural community of Immokalee has been trying to raise the alarm with the governor's office. Immokalee is home to thousands of migrant farmworkers. Some are undocumented or on temporary guest worker visas. But during the coronavirus outbreak, they've been deemed essential. Now, the Immokalee zip code, 34142, has the highest number of cases of any zip code in the state of Florida.
Gerardo Reyes Chávez: The people that place the food on the table of every family deserves better.
Lee: (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. Today, we're goin' into Immokalee, known as America's tomato capital, on the eastern side of Collier County in Southwest Florida. Collier County is also home to wealthy Florida enclaves, like Naples and Marco Island. I sat down with representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker advocacy group.
The CIW runs the Fair Food Program to ensure good wages and working conditions on the farms it partners with in Florida and other states. And they say this crisis not only threatens the nation's food supply, it threatens the lives of millions of farmworkers all across the country.
Greg Asbed cofounded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in 1993. Gerardo Reyes Chávez is a leader in CIW. He also spent many years as a farmworker in Mexico and Florida, starting when he was 11. Greg, Gerardo, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Greg Asbed: Thank you.
Chávez: Thank you. Thank you for making this possible.
Lee: So Gerardo, I wanna start with you. I hear you've been doin' this work for a long time, farm work. How did you first get into farm work?
Chávez: My family has worked in the fields. That's where I grew up. When I was 11 years, during each weekend, there was no vacation time, you know? That's what we did.
Lee: You know, for a lotta people, it's as if the food in the grocery store and the fresh fruits and vegetables just kind of fall from the sky, right? They just wake up and there it is. But it takes a lotta hard work. For the average worker, workin' in Immokalee and other places around the country, what is a typical day actually like?
Chávez: Well, you wake up at 3:30, 4:00 a.m. Start walking to a parking lot in the center of town. And then you are picked up. There's a couple of spots in Immokalee where you get picked up by these bosses that takes you to the fields around Immokalee.
And then, depending on when in the season, that extends from November to May, you go to the fields also in Central Florida. These companies, based in Florida, also produce in other states. So you follow the system during the summer. You used to, before the Fair Food Program, we used to wake up and go to work from ten to sometimes 12 hours a day.
You come back to your living quarters, which are typically a mobile home where you live with eight, ten, 12 people in order to save rent. You are transported in repurposed school buses. And you travel overcrowded to the fields. And during the day, you have to endure a lot of abuses, a lot of yelling, a lot of discrimination.
In a single day, a farmer has to pick more than than two tons of tomatoes. So you can imagine makes for a very, very vulnerable community. Before (MIC NOISE) you even complain, before you even try to address an issue of abuse against you, you have to think about, "Am I willing to risk the food on the table for my kids?"
Lee: So what happened when coronavirus collided with that? How have workers been impacted? And when it comes to workers that you've worked with, have any of them gotten coronavirus?
Asbed: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, it is a perfect recipe for disaster when coupled with the lack of appropriate response from those who should be, you know, responding with the resources that are needed in communities like Immokalee. And in general, you know, rural communities that were deemed essential for the work they do, we're seein' how it is especially dangerous when we are talking about a unwilling government that is not doing its part, that is arriving late even to do something that is not even appropriate right now.
Lee: Greg, you've been organizing for a really long time, man. When you saw COVID-19 creepin' in and you understand the workers, their conditions, you understand step by step, what are the inherent risk (SIC) to some community and this population? And when you first started seeing coronavirus comin', did you say, "Uh oh," you know, "This is gonna be bad"? Did you realize it immediately?
Asbed: Oh, for sure. And we knew that the conditions in the housing, the conditions in the transportation where people get driven to work in employer provided transportation, in vans, 15 people in a van or 40, 50 people in a bus, that those were the perfect super conductor for the spread of this virus.
So early on, we started toward the end of March, we wrote to the governor directly. We didn't make it public. We just wrote to him and said, "This is gonna be a problem. Farmworker communities like Immokalee are gonna be facing a massive and uncontrollable spread of this virus once it gets a foothold in our communities. And you need to step up now because it's such a high risk situation, and bring resources to help protect the community."
And, you know, it took some time for what we said to happen, to happen. But it did. And right now in Florida, which is an epicenter, we're the epicenter of the epicenter. We are now the zip code with the highest number of positive cases in the entire state of Florida.
Lee: The coalition came together with 49 other organizations and wrote this letter to Governor DeSantis and laid out a bunch of orders. Gimme a rundown of what you were askin' for and also what the response was from the governor.
Chávez: Well, what we have been asking for since the beginning, you know, we started with testing. We were also asking for the governor to work with us. Basically, in trying to imagine a field hospital because, remember, we're talking about a community that's, like, 40 minutes away, lacks transportation, and it's living on really overcrowded circumstances.
There's no way that everyone can make it to a hospital, bein' so far away. And, or, you know, a place that was dedicated for people to self-isolate if they tested positive or that were asymptomatic. While at the same time we were asking for the follow up steps that come after that.
The contact tracing to make sure that you identify everyone who's positive so that you can then direct the resources to treat those who start to show symptoms while at the same time try to contain the spread. We were asking for that. We were also asking for the resources that makes it possible for workers that are poor, you know? So you get sick. You don't have any kind of income. You don't have any kind of support either.
Lee: What was the government's response?
Asbed: (SIGH) That's the problem. It was very slow to respond. For quite some time, they did nothing. In the end, we had to actually connect ourselves directly with Doctors Without Borders, a non government organization that, you know, it's a Nobel Prize winning organization for its health work overseas.
It doesn't work in the United States. And so they actually came before the local health department came and started doing testing. And that was I guess the thing that sparked them to actually step up. So at the end of May 3rd is when they started testing. And they did that for three days. But then they didn't do it again until May 31st.
Chávez: I think that in about a month, they gave 163 tests. That was it for our community, for about a month. While in other places, you know, we heard how, or the hospital in Naples, about how they had always have access to those tests. And when you see the fact that, you know, you need to fight actually, that's ridiculous to me.
You need to fight so that you can have access to something that will protect you as a community. And we had to actually make the argument that the food supply was in jeopardy. We even had to, like, leave behind the importance of us as human beings and trying to protect our lives. We had to make the point that the food supply of the country was in jeopardy, which is also true. But it's a shameful approach when we are trying to work together to slow the spread of a virus that represents a threat to the life of everyone.
Lee: (MUSIC) I'm back with Greg Asbed and Gerardo Reyes Chávez from the farmworker advocacy group the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. When people hear Doctors Without Borders, you're thinking of a poor country, an earthquake happens, you know, they don't have the infrastructure or the wealth. What is it about this community that the state and officials decide to just ignore?
Asbed: People who are charged with protecting the community of Immokalee for public health have very little in common with the community of Immokalee demographically, geographically, economically. While the other communities that they are also charged to protect, the coastal communities of Naples and Marco Island and Bonita Springs, they do have a lot in common with them.
It's interesting. You know, we have the Fair Food Program that Geraldo mentioned. And in that program, there's a dozen major growers who provide tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables for the country. And, you know, they did things like they went out and they bought groceries for everybody so that people didn't have to go on individual trips to the grocery store.
And, you know, exponentially expand the possibility of exposure. They went out and got those groceries, paid for them. These are growers that did that, while our state wouldn't even think about providing sick leave support for workers who don't have it.
So what happens when you don't have sick leave? You don't go get tested because you don't wanna find out. First of all, you can't take the day off to get tested. Second of all, if you are tested and you tested positive, you're gonna be sidelined for two weeks, three weeks.
And people can't afford to do that. So people don't go get tested because they don't have sick leave. And yet, here, the growers are putting out resources to help the workers get through this very difficult time that the county and the state didn't even think once about doing. That's how absurd the response was.
Chávez: And also, if I may add, something that doesn't help at all, it's what's going on in the public sphere. And you see the response from Governor Ron DeSantis. You don't want to be mixing those people with the general public if there is an outbreak.
When you hear things like that, that basically it's embracing the idea that it is okay to let farmworkers alone without resources and basically, if they die, it's kind of accepted. We cannot accept something like that, as a community. But beyond that, the country shouldn't allow. The people that place the food on the table of every family deserves better.
Lee: So Greg, here we are. That letter was sent almost three months ago. What's the status of things now? PPE, the testing, the contact tracing, everything, where are we now?
Asbed: Testing has (SIGH) I wouldn't say caught up to the problem, but it has definitely made some progress, you know? The fact that Immokalee's become the number one zip code in Florida shows you they've gotten their arms around the problem to a certain extent. You know, far better than the past.
So now we know the problem, right? But testing doesn't do anything in and of itself. Then you need the contact tracing and the isolation support. But those things are not forthcoming. And even though we have now a partnership with a group called Partners in Health, another internationally respected expert in health services, but also probably the national expert on contact tracing.
They have come to work with us, just like Doctors Without Borders did. Again, two international organizations that deal with refugees overseas, coming to Florida to do this. Their particular expertise is contact tracing. And the county is not accepting their support to do contact tracing free in Florida. (MUSIC)
Lee: So Greg says that there were offers of outside help, but they were rejected. We reached out to the Florida Department of Health in Collier County for their response. Public information officer Kristine Hollingsworth said she was not aware of any offer of health from Partners in Health to do contact tracing for free in Florida.
And that mass testing in the county was made available in Immokalee first at the beginning of May. And that isolation resources were available in Immokalee at the end of May, beginning of June. Hollingsworth told us, quote, "The mission of the Department of Health is to care for the health and wellbeing of all of our residents. "It doesn't matter if you live in a $40 million mansion on Gulf Shore Boulevard or if you pay $40 a week in rent in Immokalee. We are going to care for you." (MUSIC)
So Greg, we're seeing that the spread of coronavirus is far from over. In the south, in the west, you know, numbers are rising. And as we see growing seasons and harvesting seasons upon us, is there concern that if we don't address what's happening in places like Immokalee, that this will continue to spread and even at a greater rate, even worse?
Asbed: Oh, absolutely. There's no question about that. People left Immokalee because the season ended here and went up the eastern seaboard for the northern summer season. And what percentage of those people went with, you know, an active infection? We don't know. But certainly, not zero, you know?
There's a significant number of people who left, who were infected. Housing conditions up north are even worse for workers than they are down here because it's more temporary. People are in these places up north for about a month, right? So in some places, you may be staying in one of those very cheap hotels that you see on the side of the road sometimes. Anything that happens, any person who gets sick in that room is absolutely going to share that virus with every single body else. So those conditions that we see in Immokalee today are gonna be as bad or worse up the road.
Chávez: If I may add, this should also be a wakeup call for governors in other states because, remember, workers live here during these eight to nine months of the year. Around May, you finish the system, you travel up north. But there's also workers that go into other states to do other crops that aren't necessarily with companies that are based here.
Many Fair Food Program farms have implemented best practices to protect workers, like taking temperature, requiring mask wearing on buses, disinfecting transportation several times a day and making sure that people are not overcrowded while they are going to the areas for lunch. Here, we have a chance because we have a willing tomato industry that is working with us. But in other places, that's gonna be even worse. It is even worse right now, as we speak.
Lee: Let's talk about what's at stake just to the food chain, the supply chain, right? Let's talk about the risks we're taking in the big picture here.
Chávez: Well, the big picture here, it's that the food supply is at risk. You know, if people don't think that our lives are as important, they should start thinkin' about their own wellbeing. A food crisis is coming on top of a pandemic. And that is impacting already a lot of people. There's a lot of plants that have been closed. And if we continue at this rate, there's not gonna be people to harvest the food. In order to be able to fight this in a proper way, we all need to do it together. (MUSIC)
Lee: Greg, Gerardo, thank you so very much for your time. We really do appreciate it.
Asbed: Thank you very much. It was great. Good talkin' to you.
Chávez: Yeah, thank you.
Lee: That was Greg Asbed and Gerardo Reyes Chávez of the Coalition of Immokalee workers. We also reached out to the office of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, but we didn't hear back. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday and again on Thursday.