By Whitney Wood, Contributing Writer

KERN COUNTY, CA – With widespread access to free COVID-19 vaccines, Kern County is still facing low vaccination rates among its farmworkers and food processors – the lowest, in fact, of any industry group. Many of these workers are more concerned with keeping a roof over their heads or feeding their families than any threat COVID-19 poses. Lack of healthcare, citizenship status, and access to accurate information in their native languages also contribute to the low rates. This issue, however, is not merely a local one – across the country, agricultural workers remain the least vaccinated group overall.

Despite having the state’s youngest population, the Central Valley still experienced the 3rd highest increase in pandemic-related deaths between 2019 and 2020, ranking only behind Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. These three regions combined accounted for over 2/3 of California’s 45,500 pandemic-related deaths, and 47% of those deaths were among agricultural workers (Source: UC Merced Community and Labor Center analysis of California Department of Public Health – California Comprehensive Death File, March-December, 2019-2020). Though the death toll has been devastating, a high percentage of workers remain unvaccinated today.

Dr. Edward Flores, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced explains: “When we see low rates of vaccination among agricultural workers, this is really a symptom of a much deeper problem than has to do with lacking healthcare and experiencing housing and food insecurity.” Citing data from the IPUMS – American Community Survey, 2014-2018, Dr. Flores goes on to say that agricultural workers have the most disadvantaged profile of any worker group; with a higher probability of being non-citizens, living in overcrowded households, earning low wages, and an often-present risk of eviction.

Analyzing information gathered by the US Census Bureau – Household Pulse Survey, September 2021, Dr. Flores further notes the correlation between food sufficiency and vaccination status in agricultural workers. Persons in households with enough food had a vaccination rate of 88%, while those with “often not enough to eat” had a rate of 56%. Persons in households with the highest level of food insecurity, in addition to lack of health insurance, had vaccination rates of only 39%. The lowest rates of vaccination among workers were those who believed they were “very likely” to be evicted within the next two months – only 35% were vaccinated.

Juana Montoya, Regional Coordinator of Líderes Campesinas, says that one of the greatest challenges her organization faces is combating misinformation circulating in the farmworkers’ communities and social media. “When we are educating the community, we tell them there is no chip to track them, there is no negative effect, you don’t lose your fertility,” she says. “Immigration status is also why many have not gotten the vaccine. Not having legal documents and hearing the word ‘registration’ – there is going to be distrust and fear about giving personal information to the government.”

To increase vaccination rates and slow the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Flores recommends investing in an expansion of the safety net. “Some of these provisions might consist of wage replacement for undocumented immigrants, extending paid emergency sick leave because it lapsed at the state level recently, or improving the distribution of rental assistance to renters who are at risk of eviction.”

Líderes Campesinas, meanwhile, is meeting farmworkers onsite with their Taking It to the Fields Initiative, making healthcare workers available to answer questions about the vaccine and offer support and resources, including community clinics. Juana Montoya explains: “The best approach is bringing education and vaccines right to the community. We strive for equity not just in numbers, but in the quality of care and encouraging people to make informed decisions…We knew Kern County was among the hardest counties being hit and trusted messengers from community-based organizations are highly needed and necessary.”