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SSA to Governor's Council on Health Disparities: Tell the Story of Pandemic's Impact on Farmworkers

August 3, 2020

Dear Members of the Governor’s Council on Health Disparities and Secretary, Department of Health:

The Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance ( (SSA) has been involved in legislative/policy advocacy, protections for children and their families in the school system, examination of police/ICE activities, and direct support for immigrant families. We formed in 2016 in the Olympia/Thurston area out of our concern for immigrant rights.

We have been monitoring the conditions facing the agricultural labor community across the country, and particularly in Eastern WA. We’ve offered support in different ways, including joining striking workers when they came to rally outside LNI on May 26th and being active in statewide advocacy groups such as Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN). We are learning from the communities and organizations involved about farmworkers daily struggles to protect their health in these COVID-times.

We are reaching out to Interagency Council on Health Disparities (ICHD) because of our shared interest in exposing inequities which are solely a consequence of a person’s race/ethnicity.

SSA is reaching out to the ICHD, knowing this group is well aware that there are disproportionately high numbers of Covid-19 infections among Yakima Valley agricultural and seasonal farmworkers who are predominately Latinx. They are under 50% of Yakima County’s population, experiencing over 60% of the infections. Statewide Hispanics are 13% of the population but nearly half of the positive cases.

The Department of Health is frequently quoted in the media with a preface about the shocking and disproportionate levels of infection within the farmworker population. We appreciate that a tone of urgency has consistently been reflected in public comments made by health professionals such as Dr. Kathy Lofy, State Health Officer, Paj Nandi, DOH Director of Community Relations and Equity, Kristen Maki, Institute for Disease Modelling, Dr. Leo Morales, co-director of the Latino Center for Health, U of W School of Public Health, and Dr. Teresa Everson, Health Officer Yakima Health district to acknowledge just a few.

In the DOH July 2 news release, DOH reports that over the time period of the pandemic, the case rates for Latinx are nine times higher than those of white people. Death rates are three times higher. COVID-19 cases are increasingly concentrated within the Latinx population and have accounted for (at a peak point) 58% of COVID-19 cases, whereas they make up only 13 percent of the state’s population. At various times during the pandemic Yakima Co. has had either the highest or second highest per capita rate of virus infections across the West Coast. As of July 29, Yakima Co had infection rate of 377.9 cases per 10,000 residents and the second highest # of deaths--the highest in the state.

While the numbers are currently dropping as cautions and compliance with recommendations are adhered to, we are not surprised to hear the World Health Organization warn us that there WILL be “no return to normal.” It is a safe prediction that the health and safety risks of farmworkers will most certainly continue if we do not address the conditions and inequities that farmworker families have faced year after year. Both the very cyclic nature of the harvest and the historic resilience of farmworkers serve to hide the deeply systemic nature of their risk.

The crisis which the COVID 19 virus laid upon the farmworker community, was so disproportionate that it threw the county into the national spot light. It exposed weaknesses of the entire agricultural labor system. As one advocate cried out “Yakima County is the Achilles heel of the state’s fight against the coronavirus.” Essential agricultural workers were affected in a county which is home to a $10 Billion agriculture industry. The focus of our request is Yakima County, though we acknowledge that as we move into the end of July and August we are seeing spiking of COVID- 19 cases in other agricultural predominantly Latinx communities.

So what are we asking the ICHD to do?

The work of the ICHD is to identify priorities and create recommendations for the Governor and legislature to eliminate health disparities by race/ethnicity and gender in Washington. We believe the ICHD is uniquely positioned to create a monograph/treatise on “Farmworkers during the COVID19 Pandemic of 2020.” What has been highlighted in communications thus far about the impact has been presented in pieces. What is deserved is the complexity shown when you capture the effect upon these essential workers when followed through the full span of the pandemic. The ICHD has an interagency lens; this cross-jurisdictional structure would be helpful in pulling in the threads of related missions, information and possible solutions. Recommendations need substantiating data. ICHD has ready access to high quality and powerful data consistently being gathered by DOH and other agencies during the pandemic. The data has starkly displayed the impact of the pandemic upon the Latinx community. What is the multiplier effect when you look at the full spectrum of the pandemic? How is it different—worse—for this cohort?

Capturing this story would elevate the focus on this vulnerable population. It would highlight the irony of the farmworkers being at the heart of the food economy, yet the least powerful, and the least able to sustainably argue for their own greater economic stability and health protections. Consider the power dynamics and the fact that the growing seasons cycle in and out. They are essential workers yet their voices get lost in that cycle. It is cruelly ironic that the most essential are the least powerful.

In a Lessons Learned section, a ICHD report could capture the critical role of communications, of educating a community when there is inherent lack of trust, real fear of visibility given that approximately half may be undocumented. This fear complicates the communication needed for effective contact tracing. Even in July, we hear that critical information still is not tailored to rural jurisdictions, to populations needing it communicated in their own language through multiple means of reaching them. Not everyone accesses on-line!

Until recently, Personal Protective Equipment has not consistently been provided to farmworkers by their employers. These essential workers lack health care access, paid sick leave, and work that can be done from home. They are unable to quarantine or isolate. In fact, they engage in work that requires them to be crowded into packing sheds, crowded into buses, crowded in marginal housing. Testing is provided during their work hours or requires travel and many do not know testing should be at no cost!

The ICHD is in a position to understand the interconnectedness of the impacts which culture, language, health, racial and ethnic inequities have that interlay the families’ financial stability. You are aware of the health dangers already imposed upon farmworkers due to pesticides, not COVID 19 related, but an additional underlying health risk.

Such a report could be used by decision makers to identify public policy gaps and point to changes which could shift the farmworkers’ ability to elevate their economic and physical health. The cumulative effect of all of these risk elements being laid upon these essential workers and the multiple structural barriers they face, stands as an undeniable health disparity.

A practical benefit of such a monograph/treatise is the real potential for policy makers to be moved to see how lives can be changed forever by examining substantive policy shifts. Some examples of these would be assurance that any services are provided to farmworkers regardless of citizenship status. The cycle of poverty could be broken by considering guaranteed wages for low wage workers. Being ill as a result of COVID 19 compromises workers’ ability to work, yet what is the status of policies around paid sick leave, expanding farmworker Unemployment Insurance Benefits, access and scope of health care coverage, particularly COVID 19 related?

A second action we raise for ICHD consideration is to look to Partners in Health (PIH) as a model for partnerships between community organizations, state agencies and an international organization experienced in strategizing severe health crises. It is with this model in mind that we included Dept. of Health in this communication. Health professionals are well aware of PIH’s work, which tackles complex challenges together with community partners to achieve significant community benefits-- in this instance, with a focus on contact tracing and community involvement. It is our understanding that PIH has already responded to a call to action as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic by working in collaboration with farmworker communities in Florida.

Now is a time to capture the farmworkers’ environmental and economic vortex from the precipitating circumstances of the virus, to the impact during the peak of infection rates, and follow through to the cycle of lessons learned. Connecting with PIH may be a huge leap but we raise it as an opportunity to boldly tackle this obvious disparate story!

Across the world there is agreement that the COVID “virus of the century” is changing systems forever. Our recommendations to the ICHD would move the needle specifically on behalf of agricultural seasonal farmworkers in Washington.

Thank you for your consideration of this work. Members of Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance would be available to respond to any questions at your September 3 meeting, if you would find that helpful.

Colleagues in Resistance,

Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance/Farmworker Support Work Group

Kathy Baros Friedt

Jean Eberhardt

Alejandra Esqueda Hunt

Anne Fischel

Helen Johnston

Peter Kardas

Lin Nelson

Diane Perlman

Steffani Powell

Ellen Saunders

Sherry Sullivan

Francis Tanaka

Bob Ziegler


Kathy Baros Friedt

Lin Nelson

Ellen Saunders

“ If we’re looking to have a healthy, productive economy, it depends on a healthy and viable workforce. If there is nothing being done to protect these workers, it has the potential to crash the whole economy, along with causing a health crisis.” Edgar Franks, Familias Unidas por la Justicia

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