Known as the lettuce capital of the world, Yuma County continues to produce and harvest the crop despite cases of the coronavirus on the rise and threatening hundreds of workers who balance the health, personal lives and possibility of contagion on and off the field every day.
But the essential workforce is handling the ongoing pandemic.
Everyday agriculture workers cross from the Mexican state of Sonora to San Luis, Ariz. to harvest lettuce fields in Yuma County.
The city of San Luis is more alive at 4 a.m. than any other time of the day. The food trucks play music as workers eat their breakfast on the go, and large white buses fill the parking lots on Main Street.
However, nowadays things look different. All the workers wear face coverings and there are plastic dividers inside some of the buses.
19-year-old Aylin Camerena has experienced the change after starting work in the agricultural fields last year.
“They are more careful whether we wash our hands or not and not a lot of people are letting them work without a face mask and stuff like that,” said Camerena.
The change comes directly from the employers who have made several alterations, like running twice as many busses with half the amount of people, giving workers assigned seats, and providing personal protective equipment.
“On the farm and on the buses, there’s been a lot of initiative to protect the employees," said Paul Brierly the Executive Director for the Yuma County Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture. "Number one because they care and number two because their business depends on having a reliable workforce,”
Keeping infection rates low is essential for the industry since farmworkers who test positive for the virus are not allowed to work. However, the risk of getting the virus sometimes comes after the work is done, according to Alexa Guzman.
She's a senior at San Luis High School and has been working in the fields since March. In Spanish, she explained how workers don't wear their masks and then go to the store and avoid social distancing.
Emma Torres, the Executive Director of Campesinos Sin Fronteras, says this may be because some workers are getting their information from unreliable sources.
“What they knew was mixed information because people are very attentive to their social media and unfortunately the information is not reliable. They were confused and the messages were confusing,” Torres says.
She says her organization is working with growers and farm labor contract companies to bring clear and official information to farmworkers through leaflets and demonstrations.
But even the approach Campesinos Sin Fronteras is taking does not reach everyone.
“Or knowing that if they are sick and they have to go to work, that is really on an individual basis. It is very similar to the general public,” Torres says.
Between the steps growers are taking to keep workers safe on the job and public education programs by groups like Campesinos Sin Fronteras, Ag researcher Paul Brierley says these efforts are important to protect this vital workforce.
“If there is just not enough labor force to tend to the crops or to harvest the crop potentially we may not be able to provide as much crop to the market,” Brierly says.