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Immokalee farmworkers are ‘essential workers’ – and they have no way to protect themselves against the pandemic

By Staff | Apr 7, 2020

The 25,000 Farmworkers in Immokalee and their allies are pleading for help from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Cases of Covid-19 have already begun to pop up in their small community and they fear that with their cramped living and working conditions, the pandemic will soon cripple the community.

The closest hospital is nearly an hour away. Most Immokalee residents can’t afford to own a car and there is no access to public transportation to the nearest hospital. This is reality not just for the farmworkers in Immokalee, but for many farmworkers across the United States. A New York Times op-ed was published about the healthcare shortage in America’s farmworker communities by the co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

The CIW sent a letter to DeSantis on April 2, requesting that urgent action be taken to protect Immokalee’s farmworkers and the community at large. In the letter, the coalition placed an emphasis on the need for a field hospital to treat and isolate those who have been infected.

A Change.org petition was created on April 3. Already, the petition has garnered close to 15,000 signatures.

The letter to the governor warns that if something is not done soon, the consequences will be dire for more than just the Immokalee community, but the entire Florida agricultural industry and the food supply for the country as a whole.

Farmworkers are considered essential workers, but their working and living conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, to take precautionary measures to stop the spread of the virus in their communities.

Most Immokalee farmworkers live at the poverty level and live in over-crowded conditions, sometimes 10-12 people in a single-wide trailer with about four people per room and one shared bathroom. They ride to the fields in repurposed school buses that are consistently overcrowded.

It is impossible to self-isolate.

Silvia Perez has lived in Immokalee for 27 years. She worked the fields for 15 of those years and now works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Perez says that most of the farmworkers are primarily concerned about not being able to make money after getting sick, in that order. Their wages are unpredictable from week-to-week, and oftentimes amount to less than minimum wage. Taking time off work is not an option for them.

Perez says that farmworkers get paid per bucket of vegetables harvested, not per hour. She said that the pay can range anywhere from 30 cents per bucket to the highest being 75 cents per bucket.

“We’re in between very wealthy, very rich communities,” Perez said. “In so many cases, we’ve seen them just leave us abandoned. They don’t really take us into consideration.”

Immokalee is in Collier County, which is part of the Naples-Marco Island Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Perez said that historically, after a disaster such as a hurricane, they’ve had to reach out to Collier County instead of the county reaching out to them to offer help. After Hurricane Irma, Immokalee was the last town in the state to have its electricity restored.

“History is repeating itself,” Perez said.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers letter to the governor concludes with: “The only way to break the cycle of infection now, before it is out of control, is by placing a field hospital in Immokalee immediately, where the farmworker community can easily and quickly access effective care and, critically, practice self-isolation that is impossible at home.”