COVID-19 housing program would help county’s ag workers

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By Craig W. Anderson


San Joaquin County and the San Joaquin Agricultural Commissioner’s Office are actively working on initiating a plan – Housing to Harvest Disaster Relief program – that would provide COVID-19 testing for county ag workers and housing for those who test positive covering the two-week quarantine period.

“This is a new program in its beginning stages,” said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. “It demonstrates the collaboration of San Joaquin Farm Bureau and the San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office to ensure the safety of county ag workers.”

Two significant areas that need to be defined are: who does the testing and when can results be known? The basic program is when workers test positive for COVID-19 they will be put up in local hotels and motels for the quarantine period.

“We’re being very cautious about who’s doing the testing and how quickly accurate results will be returned,” Blodgett said. “It’s also imperative that no union organizers or other groups are allowed to take advantage of the situation.”

SJFB President David Strecker said Farm Bureau agrees that “agencies or organizations not involved with Housing for Harvest, no union recruiting or other businesses, interests, alliances or associations should be part of the process which is for protecting our workers health.”

Testing sites

Proposed testing sites – where test samples can be taken without the workers leaving their vehicles – are large venues with equally large lots. The risks for exposure are extremely low at these sites since schools are currently using virtual learning with few, if any, students on campus.

Pelican explains basics

San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican has been working on putting together Housing for Harvest for more than two months.

“It’s two programs approved by the county board of supervisors: testing for the homeless and specific testing events for ag workers,” Pelican said. He said an excellent non-school site for testing would be the Lodi Grape Festival grounds expansive parking facility where “about 75 to 100 people could be tested per day.”

During the extreme summer heat, indoor venues would become a necessity because they have plug-ins for power and necessary air conditioning, he said.

“The San Joaquin Public Health Department’s processes its own samples and has a same-day turnaround for results,” Pelican said. “The returns generally have a 24- to 72-hour time frame on average for various venues.”

The Big Question

According to Pelican, the question is: “What do we do with tested people? Fast results are imperative because the health of the workers and their associates is on the line. And if they test positive, they’ll need housing for the quarantine period.”

Hotels, including the Motel 6 and Wyndham chains, have already contracted with the state to handle Housing for Harvest tested positive workers and, said Pelican, “Some hotels are available in Tracy.”

Operation Room Key, a homeless program, can also take ag workers from Housing for Harvest.

Those involved and funding

Thus far, the program has involved the California Department of Food & Agriculture, Department of Management Services, California Office of Emergency Services, California Social Services, the County’s Department of Public Health and Cal OSHA’s “been out there observing,” Pelican said.

Funding Housing for Harvest comes from FEMA (covering hotel costs), local (the county contributing $450,000) and the Community Foundation of San Joaquin County ($100,000).

Pelican said the Community Foundation of San Joaquin County is partnering with Catholic Charities for “supplying food, arranging housing and more, with the state picking up the bill.”

What are the costs

“The hard part is that the overall cost is unknown at this point as we don’t know the number of people who’ll use Housing for Harvest,” Pelican said. “However, this initial program will help future efforts determine costs and necessary funding.”

Major questions remaining to be answered are: What happens when the ag workers leave? Where will funding come from? “We can’t just let it go, the future must be considered,” said Pelican. “And that includes continuing the program.”

Pelican has conferenced with the CDFA regarding what San Joaquin County’s doing and where they are in the process. “We’re right on schedule considering the short time we’ve had to work on it.”

San Joaquin County setting state standard

In the arena of caring for ag workers, San Joaquin County and Fresno County are involved in a multi-county effort to implement a similar plan.

Strecker said, “We need a program that’s non-intrusive at work sites. It’s not in the workers or their employer’s best interests to have to travel 35 minutes to be tested.”

Mobile testing sites and locations near the fields and orchards are being considered.

“San Joaquin County is definitely on the cutting edge, setting the standard along with Fresno County,” Pelican said. For now, we’re doing what we must to meet the current COVID-generated challenges to our workforce.”

Farm Bureau involved

Farm Bureau wants to be involved in every aspect of Housing for Harvest, said SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel and he discussed that issue with Supervisor Chuck Winn.

“He understood we must protect agriculture and our workers and work positively to protect people and jobs,” Vogel said. “When harvest is here, it can’t be postponed and ag workers are crucial to agriculture’s success in California.”

Farm labor contractors

Pelican said the word is getting out to farm labor contractors “175 of which are providing workers here in San Joaquin County. There are more than nine in the Escalon area so it’s a focus for testing purposes.”

Help needed ASAP

It is imperative that a quality program be in place as soon as possible because, said Vogel, “Now we have onion, melons and pumpkin harvests going on with big crews working. The challenge is socialization later at home, after work.”

For example, he explained that cherry harvest was successful in the orchard as separation while picking was effective. “And Monterey had big crews in the strawberry fields and other labor intensive field crops. Field and orchard distancing was accomplished quiet well.”

Ag workers abound

During work time in packinghouses, distancing and other COVID-preventive measures are effective, Vogel said. “But we can’t forget the other ag-oriented labor that’s also affected: equipment operators, mechanics, packing shed workers, transportation and applicators, to name a few.”

He pointed out that the Spray Safe program, created by and for farmers, is an excellent example of ag employers looking out for the safety of their workers when dealing with pesticides, both directly and indirectly. “Housing for Harvest is another example of that mind-set.”

Workers associate outside work

Living in the same place, traveling together and maintaining the family unit has led to COVID-19 outbreaks in ag operations that have done all that is possible at the workplace, but that control ends after the workday ends.

“A lot of families share households and roommates in other housing which tends to keep COVID spreading. Housing for Harvest will be a great asset to significantly slowing that spread,” said SJFB Second Vice President Jake Samuel. “However, many workers don’t necessarily have the means to separate in their living conditions. We, as an industry, are working to keep workers healthy at home and in the work place.”

Mask giveaway

The COVID pandemic has led to big safety programs; for example the county has, according to Pelican, already given away 500,000 masks to workers to combat COVID spread and 66,000 N-95 masks mandated for wildfire smoke protection “are on the way and will be given out to workers,” he said.

Legislative help

Four bills intended to provide ag workers with assistance are wending their way through the California Legislature, including a $25 million expansion of the California Farmworker Housing Assistance Tax Credit.

The state funds could help families with rent costs and provide a safe space away from family members for workers who’ve tested positive or are ill from the virus and require quarantine.

“It’s possible that our Housing for Harvest initiative will help counteract the  impression in the media that agriculture’s not doing enough to protect workers,” Samuel said.

Vogel said, “Any impression that farmers don’t care about the people who work for us is 100% wrong. They are vital to our industry and we’ll do all we can to help them stay healthy.”