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Amid a pandemic, business as usual puts Napa Valley's farmworkers at risk
Wine Industry

Amid a pandemic, business as usual puts Napa Valley's farmworkers at risk

Napa Valley grape harvest 2019 1.2

Workers pick the first grapes of the 2019 harvest last August. Growers must take appropriate precautions to protect farmworkers in vineyards, the UFW has warned, not only for the health and safety of their crews but to ensure agriculture remains viable amid the pandemic.

Agriculture has been deemed an essential business in Napa County – after all, the growing season slows for nothing, not even pandemics. Conducting business as usual, though, could place the health of the valley’s farmworkers in serious jeopardy.

The nature of agricultural labor often places farmworkers in close proximity to their peers, according to Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer for the United Farm Workers, the largest American farmworkers’ union. For example, social distancing might prove logistically impossible among workers tending to fixed harvesting machines, commonly used by vegetable farmers, where workers man stations that keep them almost shoulder-to-shoulder.

In vineyards, though, social distancing is possible – workers just need keep about three vines between themselves. Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of implementation, according to Elenes, who said he’s heard of growers who still aren’t enforcing social distancing.

Sixty-seven percent of respondents last week in a small pool of non-union farmworkers polled by the UFW – the majority from agricultural sectors in California – said their employers had not provided additional information about COVID-19 or made any changes to day-to-day operations in its wake, down from 90% from the month before.

“In my opinion, it’s a combination of not knowing and not wanting to affect the efficiency of their work,” Elenes wrote as to why growers and farmers would choose not to take recommended precautions.

Wine grape growers in Napa Valley, producing an internationally recognized luxury product, are held to higher standards than their counterparts in other agricultural sectors or regions, according to Jennifer Putnam, executive director and CEO of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG). Wages are higher for workers in the Napa Valley, she said, and benefits for workers tend to be more common here than elsewhere in the state.

NVG has encouraged its membership to provide additional hand-washing stations and toilets for workers, according to a press release from the group. Recommended safety protocols include social distancing in vineyards, staggered lunches, and regular check-ins to ensure everyone feels healthy, according to the release.

State-mandated sick leave accrual comes out to 24 hours (three eight-hour days) per year. Beckstoffer Napa Valley offers its year-round workers more than twice that, according to General Manager Dave Michul. Workers are afforded seven sick days per year and additional paid time off for vacations. Full-time employees are also offered health insurance and retirement plans.

“I think we try to be ahead of the curve,” Michul said of the Napa Valley industry. “We try to be as progressive as we can.”

A membership survey conducted by Napa Valley Grapegrowers in February found that 67% of members offer insurance or medical benefits to year-round employees, according to Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, who helped conduct NVG’s survey.

That percentage is much lower than the United States’ general population, of which more than 91 percent have health insurance, according to the census. But it is significantly higher than in most other agricultural sectors, Peri said – a consequence of not only higher profit margins, but a desire for highly skilled workers with whom employers tend to cultivate longer-term relationships.

“These are workers that know how to prune, how to harvest, at a high level,” Peri, a labor economics expert, said of the valley’s workforce. “They also come back to the same job at a rate that’s significantly higher than Central Valley farmworkers involved with less skilled harvests (like) lettuce or fruit.”

Elenes mentioned a handful of Napa Valley growers who he said have stepped up to meet the demands of the moment. St. Supery Estate Vineyards & Winery, for example, had a portion of its higher-risk employees stop working but is continuing to pay them, Elenes said. CK Mondavi & Family has furloughed a portion of its seasonal farmworkers, but is continuing to pay their health insurance. That kind of accommodation is rare in agriculture, Elenes said.

Health care is a costly benefit to offer workers, Peri said, adding that employers might be less inclined to offer health insurance to short-term or seasonal workers. Only 12% of survey respondents said they offered health care to seasonal workers, he said.

“Employers often think, ‘I’ll put extra money into the pay of these people and not offer benefits because they’re working (for just a season),’” Peri explained. He added that some workers – especially undocumented ones – may be “afraid” of having a relationship with a healthcare system. They might prefer having cash in hand rather than insurance, he said, as they’re not likely to go to a health-care facility except in the case of an emergency.

About half of the nation’s farmworkers are undocumented, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though undocumented workers were largely left out of the federal stimulus package.

Among states, California’s workforce has the highest share of undocumented workers, who are also ineligible for things like unemployment insurance. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that California, in partnership with philanthropic organizations, would provide direct financial relief to undocumented immigrants, making it the first state to do so.

Napa County has received funding to provide COVID-19 testing to uninsured individuals, according to Deputy County Chief Executive Officer Molly Rattigan.

Of particular concern for Napa County are its three farmworker housing centers, all of which are near or at full capacity of 60 residents. Residents, who pay $14 per night, live in dorm-style quarters, inhabiting “shared bedrooms, shared bathrooms and a single dining area not big enough to support each diner sitting six feet apart,” Rattigan wrote in an email.

The county has begun re-designing the way residents are served meals to support “grab-and-go” pickups, Rattigan wrote. County officials have also made a request to the state’s Office of Emergency Services for mobile trailers to be used for on-site isolation, if necessary, though the request has not yet been filled.

There are no known cases of COVID-19 in any of the centers at this time, Rattigan confirmed, though the county said it could not provide information about whether or not any residents had been tested.

Bilingual staff have been onsite at each of the centers, Rattigan said, explaining guidelines and answering questions from residents. NVG has also recognized the importance of bilingual communication, Putnam said, and has hired on a translator to help disseminate information directly to its members’ employees.

Protecting farmworkers also ensures that essential agriculture can continue operating, Elenes said. The UFW in recent weeks has written two open letters to American agricultural employers asking to eliminate doctors’ notes for sick leave, implementing mandatory social distancing and extending paid sick leave to 40 hours or more.

The Trump administration’s coronavirus relief bill does make provisions for employers to provide up to two weeks of sick pay, but includes exemptions for employers with more than 500 employees or less than 50 — categories Elenes says many growers fall into. That’s in part why Newsom announced Thursday that California would mandate two weeks of sick pay for the employees of large farming companies, alongside grocers and delivery services—an effort to keep the food supply chain intact.

“The impact (of the pandemic on farmworkers) could be tremendous,” Elenes said. “We’re talking about operations literally having to shut down if a grower fails to take action or be proactive.”

Editor’s note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/.

You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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