.Undocumented workers face tough circumstances amid pandemic

Advocates criticize lack of benefits and protections

By Hiya Swanhuyser

Gervacio Peña, who has worked in agricultural fields in Wine Country and elsewhere for more than three decades, says fieldworkers’ lives during the coronavirus pandemic are grim. 

“A majority do not receive any support from the government,” he says, in Spanish. 

Peña is a founding member of the Graton Day Labor Center, a Sonoma County nonprofit which helps undocumented immigrants and others find work. The people the Graton Day Labor Center works with are always vulnerable, but during Covid-19, they are even more so.

“If they don’t work, don’t pay their bills, then they don’t have enough for food for their families,” Peña says. 

The situation is made worse because although undocumented workers pay taxes, they don’t receive any of the unemployment benefits other unemployed workers are now relying on.

Undocumented workers in California pay $3,199,394,000 per year in state and local taxes, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).  The Institute estimates that 26,100 undocumented Californians live in Sonoma County and contribute $16,400,600 into local coffers. In Marin, 8,100 undocumented people contribute $5,032,000 a year to the county, and in Napa, 9,800 individuals generate $5,357,000. 

Furthermore, depending on their employer, some do not receive paid sick leave, and many may be discouraged from using even those services to which they have legal access. 

As the Covid-19 pandemic has already shown, the supply chain is only as strong as the human hands holding it together. 

In the North Bay, undocumented residents play an important role in growing and harvesting wine grapes, but also in a variety of other critical industries. 

Undocumented workers can be found in restaurant kitchens, construction sites and offering home care for many of the North Bay’s elderly residents. And, as another fire season begins, undocumented landscape workers help to complete potentially life-saving, home-saving and business-saving fire-abatement projects.

As Sonoma County begins to reopen some businesses it’s worth noting that some essential workers never stopped working, and many undocumented workers could not afford to take time off due to a lack of any direct government aid. 

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration launched a program to offer one-time aid to undocumented workers but, even on paper, the numbers fell short of providing meaningful help to all undocumented workers. 

Newsom’s Disaster Relief Fund will distribute $75 million in state funds, along with an additional $50 million from nonprofits contributions. Under the program, undocumented workers will be eligible for a one-time payment of $500 with a $1,000 cap per household. 

In the end, the $125 million package only pencils out to $500 for 250,000 undocumented people in a state that is home to an estimated 2 million-plus undocumented people. 

On May 12, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services released figures broken down by race and ethnicity. 

The numbers reveal stark inequality. Latinx residents comprise 26.6 percent of the total number of Sonoma County residents, but 69 percent of Covid-19 cases, as of Tuesday, May 26. By contrast, white people comprise 63.5 percent of the county’s population, but only 25 percent of Covid-19 cases. 

Many things remain unclear based on the numbers the county has released. For instance, Sonoma County has yet to release data by zip code, a step that Santa Clara County took on May 18. The county has also not released data about Covid-19 patients’ income levels or immigration statuses.

The Sonoma County Department of Health Services did not respond to a request for comment on its plans to release additional data.

Salvador G. Sarmiento, campaign director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, spoke during an April 28 online meeting about immigrants’ concerns during the pandemic, focusing on the action—or inaction—of local governments as an important factor moving forward.

“The question for local officials is: What are you going to do?” Sarmiento said. “We know what Trump is going to do. The real question is what are the mayors going to do, what are the governors going to do?”

In February 2017, eight months ahead of the catastrophic wildfires, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed a non-binding resolution committing the county, at least in theory, to “Providing essential services to all County residents regardless of immigration status” and “Developing solutions to ensure respect for the rights of all residents and to take actions to ensure the family unity, community security, dignity and due process for all residents of Sonoma County.”

Yet, in a May 14 interview, Sonoma County District 1 Supervisor Susan Gorin wasn’t able to point to activity on the board’s part to protect undocumented immigrants during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“We’ve been slow to really embrace worker conditions, or safeguards for undocumented workers,” Gorin acknowledged. 

That lack of action was also pointed out by county residents and activists during a May 18 supervisors meeting, the supervisors’ first public meeting after the county released data about Covid-19 disproportionate impact on the county’s Latinx population. Several supervisors spoke in favor of ramping up efforts to support the county’s Latinx communities and, since then, the health department has ramped-up testing in some areas with large Latinx populations. 

Asked how many constituents contact her about the health and welfare of the people who perform their fire abatement, care for their houses and children, tend their vineyards and pick their food, Gorin gave a quick answer: “Not many.”

She also says that some landlords are trying to evict undocumented tenants during the pandemic.

“They can’t complain loudly about living conditions, and they’re desperate for housing, and it’s impossible for them to get additional housing [if they’re evicted.],” Gorin says. “So they’re mostly the silent part of the equation.”

Sonoma County Legal Aid’s caseload is ever-increasing, Gorin says. But, despite passing a local eviction ordinance for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic in late March, the county has not set aside substantial funding to provide legal assistance for renters, documented or not.

Graton Day Labor Center Executive Director Christy Lubin is a vocal critic of the county’s track record so far, saying, “I don’t know that our Board of Supervisors has made any commitment to protect our farmworkers.”

So, with no serious amount of financial aid on the horizon and local plans to reopen the economy rolling out day by day, the Graton Day Labor Center started sending workers out again in early May. 

“Garden, landscape and construction jobs are legal now,” Lubin said on May 14. “No indoor jobs at this time, but everyone who can work is working. There’s a lot of grass to be cut; weed abatement and fire safety.”  

But are the workers the Center sends out safe? 

“I sure hope so,” Lubin says.

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