This Undocumented Farmworker Is Worried About How She'll Feed Her Kids If Coronavirus Takes Her Job Away

Maria, an undocumented strawberry picker, looks over a field of strawberries growing in Oxnard, Ca. (Chava Sanchez/Laist)

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California is about to hit the peak of its strawberry season, with an estimated 70-80 million pounds likely to be harvested every week for six-to-eight weeks.

With restaurants, schools, and hotels closed, demand has plummeted, meaning tens of millions of pounds of berries could end up in the trash, and the farms that grow them could be facing financial peril.

But also hit hard are the farmworkers risking their lives picking those berries.

They have to deal with a double whammy: the threat of getting sick as they interact with others; and the possibility of losing their jobs as farms cut back, with little-to-no safety net to save them.

We spoke with one of those farmworkers, Maria, an undocumented strawberry picker in Oxnard who works year-round. She asked that we not use her full name due to lack of legal status and fear for her job.

A row of strawberries growing in Oxnard, California. Millions of pounds of strawberries are harvested each week during the spring. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

SAME GRUELING PROCESS EVERY DAY

Every weekday, Maria wakes up in the dark, drops her three youngest kids off at a friend's house, and heads to pick strawberries in a field nearby.

The sun's only just rising as she bends over and plucks berry after berry, which quickly make their way into plastic clamshells, and then to the market before they start to spoil. Row after row, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., the same grueling process for 19 years.

"Your waist gets tired, your back gets tired," said Maria, in Spanish.

She's been anxiously following the spread of COVID-19 since early March, taking in information from the county, her employer, and Telemundo.

Maria and the other farmworkers are doing their best to stay safe: working more than six feet apart; keeping empty rows between them; covering their faces with bandanas and hands with plastic gloves; wiping everything down with bleach and paper towels — much of which they were doing before.

Other farms, like those that supply Driscoll's, are cleaning the buses that transport workers twice a day, instead of once a week. Some are staggering lunch breaks.

"I keep working, I keep dealing with other people," Maria said. "I get scared. I get worried that one of my children could get sick."

She's a single mom with three kids to feed and bills to pay. She doesn't have the luxury of self-quarantining.


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LOSING HER JOB WOULD BE DEVASTATING

Maria works full-time, year-round, for the company that employs her — a boon for her job security, especially compared to those who bounce from farm to farm doing seasonal work. Through her employer she gets health insurance and 27 hours of sick leave per year.

However, if her hours get cut or she loses her job, which could very well happen due to the collapse of the strawberry market, that security and financial assurance will quickly disappear.

She'd look to other farms to pick up temporary work, like when her employer shut down in 2018 due to the Woolsey fire.

"They did have a ranch that was doing the summer crop ... but they were only giving us two days a week, and four hours. Can you imagine? Eight hours a week. That's what I was working," Maria said.

It's questionable whether that temporary work would even be available this time around, as other farms are facing major market uncertainty as well, cutting hours for employees.

"The godmother of my kids works in a nursery, with flowers, and she told me her work has dropped a great deal," Maria said. "You know how many hours she's working now? Four to five hours. She tells me they are getting out at 11, at noon. She said, 'Who wants flowers?'"

With demand plummeting due to COVID-19, millions of pounds of strawberries could end up in the trash each week. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

WHAT ABOUT GOVERNMENT HELP?

Maria's employer told her to take Paid Family Leave if she or one of her family members caught COVID-19.

If her hours were cut, or she lost her job — as for all undocumented workers in California, who make up an estimated 10% of the state's workforce there's a mish-mash of what can be difficult-to-access financial assistance.

If workers are injured, they can apply for state disability insurance and workers' compensation, though many face big hurdles if they choose to do so.

They don't have access to unemployment insurance, but Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced $125 million in assistance for up to 150,000 undocumented workers throughout the state. They'll receive one-time payments of $500 per worker or $1,000 per household, distributed through nonprofit organizations in different communities.

"If we lose hours, yes, it would be a big help," said Maria, assuming she's able to get it.

Some worker advocates have said it's something, but it's not enough.

The state said the program is expected to roll out in mid-May.

SCRAPING EVERYTHING TOGETHER

Maria's also looking at the 805 UndocuFund, a charity that aims to help undocumented families.

Ultimately, she may have to rely on her community for help. That's what happened the last time she lost substantial work. She had to turn to a local church for money and get loans from friends to pay her rent.

"[The landlord] sent me a piece of paper saying that if by this day you don't pay the rent, they can evict you. Can you imagine how that feels? I would cry, thinking about my kids," she said.

She's worried this year could be a repeat.

"It's not just me, it's thousands of people," she said, choking up.

Interviews in Spanish conducted by Leslie Berestein Rojas