Covid-19 rips through motel rooms of farmworkers who pick nation’s produce

Wide angle shot of multiple workers in a field. August 2020

David Rodriguez / The Salinas Californian

California guest worker outbreaks have sickened hundreds and killed at least one, according to an investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian.

Beto V. heard the ambulance pull up to the Colonial Motel where he was quarantined by his employer, police sirens close behind. That was his first clue a fellow farmworker had died of COVID-19.

This story originally appeared in CalMatters, an independent public interest journalism venture covering California state politics and government.

Beto, who used a shortened version of his name for fear of retaliation, was confined to a hotel room one floor below Leodegario Chavez Alvarado, a domestic crew manager and driver who died July 7 amid an outbreak in the agricultural town of Santa Maria where strawberry, lettuce and celery fields stretch for miles. 

Beto contracted the same virus and worked for the same farm labor contractor, Alco Harvesting. He said he felt abandoned and ignored once the hotel door shut behind him. He doesn’t recall anyone from management checking on them.

“Ahí nos dejaron,” said Beto. “Prácticamente nada más nos dejaron. Nos llevaron comida pero no nos hablaron por teléfono, no ‘cómo estás’ ni nada. Nadie sabía cómo estábamos.”

A monthlong investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian uncovered reports of six outbreaks at seven companies that employ guest workers in four counties across the state, sickening more than 350. Companies haven’t always notified local public health departments when they have an outbreak. Without strong state or federal guidelines, some counties struggle to detect or contain outbreaks.

Up close profile of worker in field wearing a mask and gloves with workers in the background. August 2020

Jose Suarez, a strawberry farmworker, has been working in the strawberry fields since 2001. Suarez wears a medical face mask as he stands near rows of strawberry fields in Watsonville, Calif., on Wednesday, July 29, 2020

David Rodriguez / The Salinas Californian

Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Van Do-Reynoso said she didn’t learn of the outbreak at Alco Harvesting until the state agency charged with regulating workplace safety notified her of Chavez Alvarado’s death later that week. 

Only then did her epidemiology team see the pattern: a handful of positive test results, from the same address. Some had written Alco Harvesting’s parent company, Bonipak; others left the ‘employer’ field blank on their paperwork. 

By the time her team realized there was an outbreak, the virus had already begun to spread.

One breath from infection

The Alco Harvesting outbreak, which is still active, has now ensnared 91 workers, the largest outbreak among a single company reporters could confirm to date. Typically, counties define an outbreak as three or more COVID-positive people who were in contact in one place.

Many of those sickened work at three of the five largest guest worker employers in California. Federal documents show they pick produce for some of the biggest names in the U.S.: Trader Joe’s, Sunkist and Albertsons’ store brand, Signature Farms, among them. 

Albertsons owns grocery stores such as Lucky, Safeway, and Vons.

Cal/OSHA, the state agency that regulates workplace safety, is investigating deaths of workers at three guest worker employers in California, including Alco Harvesting, Chavez Alvarado’s employer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has no reports to date that suggest it is possible to catch COVID-19 via food, but the federal agency’s officials have urged the public to wash food and use good hygiene practices regardless.

“We’ve had a lot of questions about the potential risk of the virus via food and to date there is not evidence that that is happening,” said University of California Davis food virologist Erin DiCaprio. 

Californians’ ability to eat ripe, red strawberries, crunchy celery hearts and fresh leafy greens often depends on imported farmworkers so tightly packed into housing that they are one breath away from infection.

Yet, unlike other congregate living facilities like nursing homes, neither federal nor state officials have issued specific safety or reporting requirements aimed at keeping guest workers safe.

“When you have a crowded living condition, when you have a population that perhaps may not have access to health care services, preventive services, social supports, when you have a population that may be socially isolated.”

California employs one in every 10 guest workers in the U.S. this year. While these guest workers make up only about 5% of all farmworkers in the state, they are uniquely vulnerable to the virus because they typically live in tight quarters and may face systemic pressure that keeps them quiet.

Ag industry leaders say they are doing everything they can to protect workers, but say overregulation and a chronic lack of housing in California have left their hands tied when it comes to housing.

Do-Reynoso’s message for other counties was grim: Outbreaks among guest workers are “inevitable.” 

“When you have a crowded living condition, when you have a population that perhaps may not have access to health care services, preventive services, social supports, when you have a population that may be socially isolated,” Do-Reynoso said, “all that makes a perfect storm during a pandemic.”

Isolated, dependent and at-risk

Alco hired Beto in Mexico. According to the company’s work order document, he began work in March, just days before the statewide shelter in place order. The company brought him to Santa Maria to pick lettuce six hours a day, six days a week. 

Daily, Beto and the other workers rose before sunrise to travel to the fields. Once there, they walked slowly through the rows for hours, slicing each head off at its base and trimming the outside leaves for packaging.

At night, he and the 320 other workers bedded down in a hotel, an average of five people to a room, according to Alco’s mandated filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.

More than a week after Chavez Alvarado’s death, Beto commented on a Tu Tiempo Digital news story posted to Facebook about the outbreak. The story reported 14 workers were quarantined at the Colonial Motel. That was wrong, Beto wrote. More than 30 farmworkers were quarantined alongside him.

Beto said he was fired within a day. He told reporters he was framed for his coworker’s drug and alcohol paraphernalia and told to leave quarantine. As he left, Beto said the manager who ejected him told him to stop running his mouth on Facebook. 

Alco Harvesting General Manager Jeremy MacKenzie said via email he could not comment on specific disciplinary actions and that the company “respects and abides by all laws that protect freedom of speech and that we follow all local, state and federal COVID-19 guidelines.”

Beto drove himself home to Baja California, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border 17 days after he entered quarantine and only a few days after his symptoms ceased. 

Guest workers afraid to speak out

Guest workers like Beto come to the U.S. on H-2A visas, which are tied to their employers. From the moment they enter the country, they are often transported, housed and fed by their employer. 

During the pandemic, some employers have ordered workers not to leave their housing after work, further minimizing their contact with the outside world. The majority are recruited from Mexico; many don’t speak English. A growing number solely speak indigenous languages like Triqui, Purépecha or Mixtec, leaving them further isolated. 

This can leave guest workers reluctant or afraid to speak out.

As the number of guest workers recruited by California employers has grown exponentially, from fewer than 2,000 in 2011 to more than 21,300 in 2020, as of July data, so too has the number of labor violations among H-2A employers across the country, according to a recent NBC investigation. 

Even without the power dynamic inherent in the H-2A program, farmworkers are at risk.

Farmworkers were three times as likely to catch COVID-19 as workers in any other industry, according to a California Institute of Rural Studies (CIRS) report based on Monterey County data from late June. Author and CIRS co-founder Don Villarejo estimated that ratio was likely true statewide, an assertion Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot supported.

Farmworkers face the greatest infection risk not at work, but at home, said Monterey County Health Officer Dr. Ed Moreno.

“Lack of housing has been a chronic problem in many California communities, and that has become more challenging as more farmers have begun using the H-2A program.”

In the apartments, motels and labor camps where California guest workers sleep on average five to a room, per an analysis of federal records, “one resident constitutes an outbreak because of the possibility of it spreading like what we’re seeing,” said Do-Reynoso.

Ag advocates said many growers and farm labor contractors have taken steps to combat the spread of the virus in the fields, such as additional handwashing stations, transporting workers in smaller groups and requiring they wear masks to work, as recommended by Cal/OSHA guidelines. Organizations like the California Strawberry Commission have worked to reach non-English speakers, running announcements on Spanish-language radio stations in Spanish and indigenous languages, explaining the importance of social distancing and handwashing, and others, like the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, have stepped up with short-term quarantine housing for domestic and guest farmworkers positive for the virus.

A white bus stops in front of El Dorado Motel with workers exiting. August 2020

Farmworkers exit the bus and make their way inside the El Dorado Motel in Salinas, Calif., on Aug. 1, 2020. Foothill Packing, which houses H-2A workers, confirmed an employee tested positive for coronavirus.

David Rodriguez / The Salinas Californian

However, California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said, employers are hamstrung when it comes to housing guest workers in rural California.

“Lack of housing has been a chronic problem in many California communities, and that has become more challenging as more farmers have begun using the H-2A program,” Johansson said. “Regulations in many California communities make construction of any new housing difficult — especially new employee housing. State law has also created roadblocks to new H-2A housing.

“The long-term inability or unwillingness of public institutions to act on these matters has surely contributed to the problems we’re seeing today.”

State Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) agreed. 

“We need to do a lot better as a state when we provide for ag communities when it comes to safe housing solutions,” said Rivas. “We need to alleviate the critical overcrowding in our communities.

“But,” he said, “you’d think the federal program should be providing guidelines as to how these workers should be housed that reflect the challenges in the essential workforce during this pandemic.”

“Si no tiene síntomas, vete a trabajar” 

Julia, a domestic employee of Alco Harvesting who worked in Santa Barbara with Chavez Alvarado, said in the days before Chavez Alvarado was quarantined he seemed unwell, even feverish. At the time, like Julia, Chavez Alvarado thought the virus wasn’t a real threat, “que no iba a estar tan cerca,” Julia said — “that it wouldn’t get too close.”

CalMatters and The Californian agreed to identify Julia by her sister’s name because she feared retaliation.

Then, Chavez Alvarado died. 

“In accordance with HIPPA laws, we do not know, to this day, what transpired between him and the medical professionals at the clinic,” wrote Alco Harvesting’s MacKenzie.

Their supervisors, she said, had told them, “Si no tiene síntomas, vete a trabajar” — “If you don’t have symptoms, go to work.”

Eight days later, four Alco Harvesting workers called a free local medical clinic on the same day, reported Dennis Apel, a volunteer who helps run the clinic. All said multiple guest workers in Chavez Alvarado’s crew tested positive, but their supervisors ordered them to work if they didn’t have symptoms, he said.

“We are not aware of symptomatic employees who are working,” said MacKenzie. He did not address questions about asymptomatic employees continuing to work. 

“Any employee who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 is automatically quarantined and tested as soon as possible,” said MacKenzie, adding that the company hired medical experts to oversee coronavirus testing and prevention the day after Chavez Alvarado’s death.

Julia was one of the workers who called Apel’s clinic.

A worker with lettuce. August 2020

Julia / Alco Harvesting

A photo taken by Julia, a domestic worker, shows Alco Harvesting workers in her crew picking lettuce in Santa Barbara County.

After watching Chavez Alvarado go from a vibrant, joking man to dying in a few short weeks, Julia now believed in the virus. She had tested negative, but was scared at the thought of working alongside the four H-2A workers she knew had tested positive for COVID-19. Their supervisors, she said, had told them, “Si no tiene síntomas, vete a trabajar” — “If you don’t have symptoms, go to work.”

And so they did, Julia said: “Y ellos fueron a trabajar.”

Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel Valley), whose district includes the fertile Salinas Valley, said the pandemic has “highlighted many of the inequities that exist in our country” for farmworkers.

Panetta demanded more PPE, testing, education and transportation as well as federal funding for additional farmworker housing. Vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and State Assemblyman Rivas joined Panetta in calling for better protections for farmworkers.

”It’s past time that Congress provide protections for all essential workers who bear the brunt of the risk by working every day to keep Americans safe and who help keep food on the table for so many communities in California and across the country,” Harris said in an email.

Records point to multiple outbreaks

The joint CalMatters and Salinas Californian investigation of H-2A employers and review of federal public records revealed at least six outbreaks in four of California’s breadbasket counties: Monterey, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Fresno.

To employ people and bring them into the United States temporarily to work, companies like Alco Harvesting must file documents called H-2A agricultural clearance orders with the federal government. Reporters examined those records to determine where the largest concentrations of guest workers were housed and spoke with workers, activists, and county public health departments in 10 counties to pinpoint and confirm outbreaks. 

The outbreaks involve seven different employers, including three of the five largest guest worker employers in California — Rancho Nuevo Harvesting, Elkhorn Packing and Royal Oak Ag Services — which together employ one in every six guest workers in California this year.

Rancho Nuevo Harvesting, Elkhorn Packing, Venegas Farming, Royal Oak Ag Services, Magaña Labor Services and Wawona Packing did not respond to multiple email and phone requests for comment. 

The outbreaks involve seven different employers, including three of the five largest guest worker employers in California, which together employ one in every six guest workers in California this year.

Santa Barbara and Ventura counties confirmed the size of the outbreaks within their borders, while Fresno County confirmed three or more positive cases among Wawona Packing employees, though officials could not say whether H-2A workers were involved. Monterey County health officials did not confirm specifics of an outbreak there but said in an email that the agency had responded to outbreaks in H-2A housing. Representatives at United Farm Workers and California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), who had spoken to workers involved, said multiple people had reported the Elkhorn outbreak in Monterey County to them. 

“As many as nine workers have fallen ill,” said Cynthia Rice, Director of Litigation, Advocacy and Training at CRLA. “One crew was affected for sure, not sure how much further it went.”

A spokesperson for Sunkist Growers said in a statement that growers that deliver fruit to their packing houses “must follow state and federal laws” and urged “the state to bring mobile and rapid testing sites to all agricultural areas.” 

“The folks that were working in ag, that’s the predicament and environment they’re in. They’re exposed to other individuals that might be infected.”

Spokespeople for Trader Joe’s and Albertsons declined to comment.

A spokesperson for Cal/OSHA said it is investigating COVID-19-related deaths among workers at Alco Harvesting, Elkhorn Packing and Venegas Farming, all of whom employ H-2A workers. 

Hundreds of confirmed cases

Overall, CalMatters and The Californian confirmed more than 350 workers at H-2A employers have been sickened with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Though some may be domestic workers, the total represents a little under 2% of all guest workers in the state. The true number is likely much higher, researchers and medical professionals say. 

Forty percent of people with COVID-19 will be asymptomatic, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many won’t know they have the virus. 

“The big problem is you don’t know who’s infected,” said Dr. Max Cuevas, CEO of Clínica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, a chain of clinics on the Central Coast that treats low-income farmworkers. “The folks that were working in ag, that’s the predicament and environment they’re in. They’re exposed to other individuals that might be infected.”

Work environment, predisposition to certain diseases (such as diabetes or heart disease) among Latinos, lack of access to healthcare and overcrowded housing all mean farmworkers are far more likely to catch COVID-19 and experience complications, Cuevas said.

An empty box that says

A lone box is placed on top of a row of strawberries as the workers stop for lunch in Watsonville, Calif., on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

David Rodriguez / The Salinas Californian

Counties also say they struggle to contact-trace farmworkers.

Tom Fuller, an environmental health specialist for Fresno County’s Public Health Department, said he routinely runs into trouble when trying to get employer or personal information out of farmworkers who’ve tested positive for the virus, even though he doesn’t ask about immigration status. 

“Employees sometimes are pretty reticent about identifying their employer,” said Fuller. “They’ll tell us they work at a certain plant and when we call that plant, they tell us ‘Oh, that’s a labor person, they don’t work here, they work for a labor contractor.’”

Some employers have gone to great lengths to contain outbreaks among guest workers. 

Juan said he was one of about 16 Wawona Packing guest workers who tested positive for the virus. (Fresno County officials confirmed there had been cases among Wawona Packing employees, but did not disclose the number infected and did not know whether any were H-2A workers.) The stone fruit company immediately ordered him to quarantine, along with the five other men with whom he shared an apartment in a small Fresno County town. Later, the men were moved into private rooms. 

During the roughly three weeks he was quarantined, Juan was on paid sick leave for two, as required during the pandemic by California and federal law. He showed no symptoms.

“Pretty much everything we needed we were provided with,” said Juan, who agreed to talk about his experience on the condition that he be identified by his grandfather’s name. He feared he would not be hired back if it became public knowledge he spoke with the press.

Government hasn’t stepped in

Federal law sets a cap on just how crowded H-2A housing can be. Nationally, an average of 7.6 guest workers sleep in one room, according to an analysis of federal records. In California, H-2A workers tend to live about five people to a room. 

This hasn’t changed during the pandemic.

Once the pandemic began, the Department of Labor instead allowed greater flexibility to move workers to new housing sites “to safeguard farmworker health,” even if they had not yet been inspected, a DOL spokesperson said in an email. While restricting other types of worker visas, the Trump Administration encouraged employers to continue applying for H-2A worker visas, citing the importance of “the economy and food security.”

And the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, charged with certifying structural health of H-2A housing with more than five residents, is powerless to require precautions related to COVID, said spokesperson Alicia Murillo.

In Oregon and Washington, state agencies respectively banned bunk beds for H-2A workers and required employers to separate H-2A workers into cohorts that live, work and travel together. Meanwhile, California’s Department of Public Health has remained mum on guest worker housing.

Of the 10 counties that CalMatters and The Salinas Californian contacted, only Santa Barbara indicated any plans to reporters to specifically protect H-2A workers from further outbreaks. 

Ventura County published a letter on its website indicating it is in the process of reviewing guest worker housing inspections

In mid-July, Santa Barbara’s Do-Reynoso said that her team was considering three public health orders to prevent further H-2A outbreaks by requiring that workers live and work in small, stable groups, that employers notify the department of all positive cases and that employers follow the state’s workplace guidelines, or face penalties.

None had been announced at the time of publication.

This story has been updated to clarify that Julia and Leodegario Chavez Alvarado are domestic workers, and some sickened may be domestic workers.

This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

Jackie Botts covers income inequity and economic survival for the The California Divide collaboration. She has reported for the Data and Enterprise desk for Reuters News and for her hometown paper, The Santa Barbara Independent. Her reporting on immigration, the environment, and justice has appeared in Reuters, Pacific Standard, Public Radio International’s “The World,” and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications.

Kate Cimini is a reporter with the Salinas Californian and CalMatters' California Divide project. She covers economic inequality, agriculture, and housing. Previously, she covered national security, natural disasters, and sports. Her work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, USA Today, VICE, The Athletic, Sports Illustrated online, and others.