'Our bills won't wait': the Florida town where farm laborers risk their lives to work amid Covid-19
The threat of falling ill haunted Angelina Velasquez as spring spilled into summer. It followed her like a ghost as she boarded a bus alongside 40 other farmworkers every day. “I’ve been worried,” she said. “But our bills don’t wait, and we have to continue living despite the pandemic. We have to keep risking our lives.”
The sound of Mexican corridos blanket the tiny town of Immokalee in south-west Florida every morning. At the center of town, dialects from Guatemala meld with Haitian creole as farmworkers load on to buses and push off into the state’s fruit belt. But since April, a new sound cuts through the quiet streets.
“All our lives depend on you,” the recorded voice on a gravely loudspeaker emanating from a van sent by the county says. “This is your part in reducing the spread of coronavirus.” The message comes first in English then in Spanish, Creole, and Mam, an indigenous language of Guatemala and Mexico, alluding to how these acres set between the Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico are a case study in complexity and contradiction.
In the midst of a pandemic in a rural town where more than 25,000 farmworkers live, the vulnerability of those in the fields has become an increasingly urgent issue. While we deem farmworkers “essential” they garner so little protection in their work that they might appear closer to dispensable. A longstanding lack of access to healthcare coupled with a dearth of testing since March has made Immokalee’s zip code one of the densest concentrations of Covid-19 cases in Florida, morbidly underscoring the point.
In Collier county, where Immokalee is, 53% of people who tested positive for Covid-19 are Hispanic, although they make up only an estimated 28% of the population. And out of the 2,817 cases in the county, 1,172 of them fall within the Immokalee zip code.
After coming to Immokalee from Guatemala 17 years ago, Velasquez, 52, raised four kids as a migrant worker, following the summer harvest to North Carolina and New Jersey each year. But with the spread of the coronavirus, she wasn’t sure whether she would go this year. “I’m too scared,” she said in Spanish, speaking through a translator.
Left: Angelina Velasquez near her home in Immokalee, Florida. The next day she left to follow the summer harvest north to New Jersey. Right: Each morning, roosters announce the first arcs of light as farmworkers and landscapers in Immokalee begin their day
Up north, Velasquez explained, “We have to cram into one small room altogether.” She didn’t know who she and her kids would live with, nor what protections would be in place – if any. And most troubling, her insurance doesn’t cover her two young children once they leave Florida. “If they get sick, where am I going to take them?” she asked.
With the spring harvest drawing to a close, one of Velasquez’s sons, Ever, 29, packed a bag and headed north for the Carolinas to work. When I asked if she would follow, her voice caught as her face tightened. “I don’t know,” she said.
Just as workers leave each morning, Oscar Oztoy, a former farmworker and senior member of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, prepares for the two-hour radio slot he hosts on Radio Conciencia, a local station that first aired in 1999. “We’re right there with them as their day begins,” he says. He queues up the corridos, runs through measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 along with worker’s rights, and tries to lend hope to an otherwise grim set of circumstances. “You are much more powerful than you ever imagined,” he told listeners last Thursday.
When Oztoy left San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, 14 years ago, his memories of Immokalee were inextricably tied to promise. “I was looking for the American dream,” he said, but it soon turned fevered. “I started to witness the abuses that were endemic to industry,” he said. There was rampant wage theft, sexual assault, and, in the worst cases, human trafficking. “You only hear about those types of abuses outside the United States,” he remembers thinking, and if he spoke to any of the farm “bosses,” they would taunt him. “This is how the work is,” they said. “You have to suck it up.”
In a local church in 1993, six workers met in a borrowed room to assemble a community around the idea of workers’ rights that would become the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW). By 1997, their efforts resulted in federal prosecution of farm bosses for modern slavery. Since then, they’ve become instrumental in eight federal cases along with a fiercely effective Fair Food program, which raised tomato harvesters’ wages and lent equity to farmworkers everywhere. By proxy, the CIW became centripetal not only to Immokalee but to farmworkers throughout America.
Oscar Oztoy, a former farmworker, hosts a radio show that educates the residents of Immokalee about workers’ rights and, more recently, about how to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
A lodestar for the movement came in 2007 when undocumented workers escaped a box truck their employer locked them in and sought out authorities. After a yearlong investigation aided by the CIW, Collier county police, and the department of justice, two employers were sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for charges that spanned conspiracy, involuntary servitude and peonage. Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant US attorney, referred to the case as an example of “slavery, plain and simple”, drawing a through-line back to chattel slavery in this very set of acres.
“We used to own our slaves,” one farmer told Edward R Murrow in 1960. “Now, we just rent them.” The seminal CBS documentary that Murrow hosted, Harvest of Shame, is just one point in a constellation that stretches back more than a century in Florida. The neglect of farmworkers in the state was as integral to its character as the confluence of water and land. It’s formed a fault line throughout the state’s history in landmark cases and become a flashpoint in contemporary immigration reform on both sides of the aisle across the country.
“Florida was to Americans what America had always been to the rest of the world – a fresh, free and unspoiled start,” Susan Orlean wrote in The Orchid Thief. For the hundreds of thousands of farmworkers brought to the state through temporary visas, known contemporarily as H-2As, they hoped this would be the case, too. But many believed the sentiment described in Harvest of Shame held true 60 years later.
“It’s a structure that leaves the workers powerless, and the pandemic has made it even worse,” says Daniel Costa, the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. “It’s really hard to enforce your rights, and that’s the way this is set up. If you complain or speak out, the employer can just fire you, and you’ll be deportable before you can pursue a legal claim.”
Left: By 1997, the efforts of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) resulted in federal prosecution of farm bosses for modern slavery. Here, a mural from past protests hangs in their office. Right: News clips that demonstrate the long, fevered battles farmworkers have waged hang in the CIW office.
In the past two decades, the H-2A program grew exponentially, leaving potential US workers overlooked and guest workers exploited for cheap labor, Costa says. In 2003, the US Department of Labor issued 31,892 visas for H-2A workers. In 2019, the amount ballooned to 204,801. “It’s been depressing, because the government has moved heaven and earth to ensure that they can continue processing visas and certifying jobs for H-2A workers, but they’ve done absolutely nothing to protect workers in the field.”
Oztoy echoes the point. “It’s been terribly frustrating to see the slow response by the state to protect the most vulnerable populations in Florida,” he said. “Workers are exposed every day to the threat. There’s been great disrespect. We need more testing, more resources.”
On 3 May 2020, 64 days after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Florida, a testing site sprung up in Immokalee with the capacity to test 1,000 people a day for three days. It took more than 40,000 signatures, the combined effort of the CIW, Doctors Without Borders and the Collier county department of health to finally bring walk up testing to town, which was expanded to three days each week on 31 May. In the course of 25 interviews, everyone advocated for expanded testing, for a more robust stimulus package that would help farmworkers already living on meager wages, but everyone noted that the nearest emergency room remained 35 miles away.
“As much lip service as we’re paying to this important work, they were already some of the most vulnerable in the labor market,” Costa noted. “It’s impossible to see how we get through this without a bunch of them getting sick.” And in the state’s agricultural corridor, that’s evident in that the zip codes of the largest farming communities lay claim to the most cases per capita in Florida – 491 in Homestead, 509 in Belle Glade and 1,172 in Immokalee.
For one citrus grower in DeSoto county, who manages more than 10,000 acres across six counties, the pall of the pandemic grew darker each day as cases rose in rural Florida. For the 448 H-2A workers he employs annually, a dozen two-story duplexes serve as housing where up to 20 men live in each unit. And while he designated one duplex to allow workers to self-isolate, he said, “There’s little we can do.” He feared it would spread like wildfire and acknowledged how difficult it would be to enact stringent measures. “We’re on pins and needles,” he said.
“If someone gets infected in that community, then there’s potential for fast spread, because of the amount of contact people are having,” says Dr Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. Workers cohabitate in close quarters, ride together in buses, and that’s compounded by living in rural areas sometimes an hour from a hospital. And when you pair the lack of personal protective equipment with the inability to practice good hygiene in the fields, the contingencies multiply along with pesticide exposure, a lack of transportation, and a fear of speaking out if you’re sick. “This is a critical population,” Prins says. “But also an unseen population that is vastly underserved and very vulnerable.”
After a volatile night of sleep, Elbin Sales Pérez, 31, a farmworker and landscaper, woke to chills and a fever, a debilitating headache and a pain behind his eyes that he couldn’t gather words for. That morning, he cut west across State Road 82 for 40 miles from Immokalee to a testing site in Ft Myers. He returned home and isolated himself from his wife and two children. “It was a really horrible time for me,” he said.
As the hands of the clock spun, he called the department of health trying to discern whether his results were available, and online, he anxiously reloaded the page, hoping to receive any semblance of an answer. Six days later after a string of unanswered calls, he reached a stranger who told him that he tested positive for Covid-19. As his mind reeled, he thought, “What am I going to do next? Where am I going to go?” He thought of his kids and when he could return to work.
But on the phone, his mother’s voice was omnipresent. His friends became a beacon, and he drew strength from his children – the central force in his life. “That was always on my mind,” he said, “I had to do whatever I could to be able to overcome this. The good news is that the worst of it is over – for now.”
Elbin Sales Pérez, 31, a farmworker and landscaper, poses outside his home with his wife, Yecenia Solorzano, and their two children.
Of course, Pérez informed his employer, and all his co-workers have since been tested and are awaiting results, but as he told me. “We’re still waiting.” His wife, too, was met with recorded messages and an online portal leading nowhere.
Fourteen years ago, he left Barillas in the Huehuetenango province of Guatemala searching for something like hope in Immokalee. He made a home here in America and built out the bones of his life with his hands in the Earth. What shocked him was that with the unprecedented technological advances in America, “There really isn’t a way to get results in a timely manner,” he said. “We need medical attention and resources here in Immokalee. This community is so important, because it’s where a lot of the fruits and vegetables that feed the country come from.”
On 13 June, just as the summer rains took shape in Florida, Angelina Velasquez left Immokalee and headed north – unsure of what lay ahead. That same week Elbin Sales Pérez returned to work and to his children. “Many times people forget about the community here,” he said, noting the access to testing in nearby Naples,