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In Franklin County and elsewhere, farmworkers face barriers to COVID-19 vaccination

Claudia Rosales pointing to the field in western Massachusetts she worked on as an agricultural farmer.
Nirvani Williams
Claudia Rosales pointing to the field in western Massachusetts she worked on as an agricultural farmer.

Undocumented farmworkers face many barriers when seeking health care. The pandemic has only widened this disparity and now, many are hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, including workers in western Massachusetts.

The air is cold and farmworkers in the region have to work through it. One undocumented worker, known as Flori, has dried leaves crunched beneath her boots on a brisk December afternoon. She’s at a farm in Franklin County and said working is very difficult.

In the summertime, it's very hot, Flori said in Spanish, and in the winter, it is very cold. Flori continues, saying, imagine coming in early to cut vegetables and being frozen.

We’re not using these farmworkers' full names, or disclosing where they work, to protect them from losing their jobs. Another farmworker, Perez, is 21 years old and immediately started working on the farm after arriving from Mexico.

Perez said she doesn’t have time to get the COVID-19 vaccine, or adequate information about it. Working more than 100 hours a week for sub-minimum wage, she said she barely has enough time to speak with her family back home.

"Este es el trabajo," she tells her mom. This is the job.

Research by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention found that of 31 states, including Massachusetts, that reported the data, 37% of agricultural workers were identified as Hispanic or Latino, but they represented 73% of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the food processing and agriculture industries.

Perez also said she has heard rumors from other workers that you could die by getting the vaccine. This misinformation is another reason she has not prioritized getting it. She said she is more focused on working to support herself and family.

“Rumors and gossip," said Mary King, director of the Family Center at Montague Catholic Social Ministries. "They emerge in contexts, so if there's a lot of mistrust in government, it may really be deserved.”

King helps Spanish-speaking families and farmworkers in Franklin County access services, such as English literacy programs.

“People use rumors and gossip as a strategy to cope with things, and think of the last two or three years and all the crazy conspiracy themes that are out there,” King said. “I would say that people who work on farms don't have a monopoly on those ideas, you know?”

In Franklin County, 68% of residents are fully vaccinated, which is a little under the state average. Officials say it’s not clear how many undocumented farm workers are included in that data.

Regardless, a major issue is that some farm owners are not educating their workers on COVID-19 or the vaccine, according to Claudia Rosales, co-director of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center.

Owners of many farms have not distributed flyers or any information about COVID, Rosales said, in Spanish, and are not providing protection for their workers, such as gloves, masks or hand sanitizer.

Allison van der Velden, chief executive officer at the Community Health Center of Franklin County, was shocked to hear this.

“I know that there's 50 or 60 farms and you're going to have a wide variation of messaging, but it's good to know,” van der Velden said. “I mean, I'm hopeful that we'll maybe shine a light on the gaps so that...we can't do much in terms of policy — changing the way the policies are on a farm, but we can focus energies on gaps.”

Van der Velden said the health center continues to work with its patients, including farmworkers, to get them vaccinated. They have stopped vaccine clinics for non-patients. She said there just wasn’t demand for it, but she wants to engage more with undocumented farmworkers.

“The dream is to have this robust farmworker program where we have relationships with all of the farms, the farm owners, the workers who return year after year,” van der Velden said. “And we build that trust. We welcome them into the community that we have so that we can guide new folks through and just help people access what they need to be safe and healthy. So that's the dream, you know, but it's never, never there. It's never enough...”

With serious barriers to health care for farmworkers, that is an important dream. Van der velden said there is a tendency to think the virus is the only health problem the last two years.

But it's not just about COVID, she said. "It's everything else."

Corrected: December 16, 2021 at 4:38 PM EST
Due to a production error, the initial web version of this story inadvertently omitted the Franklin County full vaccination rate. The statistic is now included in the story.
Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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