It was still dark when Veronica Perez arrived at Primex Farms, a nut-packing facility in California’s Kern County. Crickets murmured in the almond and pistachio groves stretching for acres in all directions. Once inside the building’s mirrored doors, Perez would usually stand next to other sorters alongside a conveyor belt, picking out blemished pistachios. But on June 25, at 4:30 a.m., Perez didn’t go in. Instead, for the next five hours, she and about 40 of her co-workers formed a picket line. More circled and honked in their cars. They held homemade signs with the names of co-workers who had the coronavirus. One sign in Spanish read, “The wise see danger and leave, but the foolish go on and suffer the consequences.” The employees chanted, “¡Somos essentials!”: We are essential.
Perez, who is 42, had worked in California packing plants ever since she arrived from Mexico City 25 years ago, but she had never joined a walkout or protest. There hadn’t been many to join. But in recent months, things at Primex had become unbearable. In April, after employees requested the right to bring in masks to wear on the job, the company allegedly prohibited it. When it relented and allowed masks, it sold them for $8 a piece, according to several workers. (Primex denies ever selling masks.)
By May, employees at the 400-person plant were falling ill. Sick workers who stayed home went unpaid, so some kept coming to work with hacking coughs. Primex remained tight-lipped about any illnesses. When Perez asked the HR manager about a colleague who had contracted the virus, she recalled, the manager told her to “go home and stay there and not tell anyone about it.”
Remigio Ramirez, a 54-year-old maintenance worker, told his boss in mid-June that he wasn’t feeling well. The supervisor still encouraged him to come in since the team was already short-staffed. A few days later, Ramirez was diagnosed with covid-19. He stayed home, isolating in his bedroom. “When I got up the next day, I didn’t see anyone— not my wife, not my daughters,” he says. “And I thought to myself, What’s happening? Did they leave me alone? But no, each one was in their room, sick.”
Over the summer, the coronavirus tore through the Central Valley, the vast, fertile interior of California that produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of its fruits and nuts. (Primex processes an estimated 6 percent of the state’s pistachios, most of which are exported.) By late July, the Kern County fairgrounds had been transformed into a federal surge testing site, and more than one in five coronavirus tests in the county were coming back positive. “The problem we’re seeing is not whether you’re going to get infected,” Armando Elenes, the secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers (UFW), told me at the time. “It’s no longer a matter of if—it’s a matter of when.”
On June 23, Primex told a local news channel that 31 workers had tested positive for covid-19. Employees who saw the broadcast were shocked: The company hadn’t told them about the cases, which it had confirmed about two weeks earlier. Ramirez seethed at the betrayal. “They said that they were going to let us know if anyone came down with it,” he says, “but they didn’t.” Primex didn’t comment on the alleged lack of communication to employees, but stated in an email: “We began implementing anti-virus spreading steps long before the CDC guidelines were published. We are proud to say that we are one of the cleanest and most sanitized plants in the industry.”
Barely 5 feet tall, with an often-furrowed brow and a quiet voice, Perez never imagined herself becoming a labor organizer. “I’m not the loudest,” she admits, speaking through a translator. “I believe the message can be better communicated with control and poise.” Yet Perez knew what it looked like when a company turned a blind eye to its employees’ health. Years ago, she was injured at an almond packing plant and fired. A single mom of three kids, she suddenly found herself with no job and no medical help. “They use you until you can’t give any more of you—and once you have a problem, they’ll get rid of you like you’re nothing,” she says. She got through that crisis with support from Líderes Campesinas, an advocacy group for female agricultural workers. But it made her realize just how vulnerable she and her peers on the bottom rungs of the food system were. “I figured that if this happened to me, most likely it’s happening to many other women,” she says. Perez started attending Líderes Campesinas’ workshops on immigration law and workers’ rights, eventually volunteering with the group and joining its governing board.
The day the news of the Primex outbreak broke, Perez messaged the UFW’s Elenes, who created a WhatsApp group, called Justicia en Primex Farms, for concerned workers. (Primex isn’t unionized, but the UFW advocates for agricultural workers regardless of union status, Elenes says.) The next day, 100 people—a quarter of the facility’s workforce—had joined. That evening, they gathered on Zoom, many using the video platform for the first time, to plan a demonstration the following morning.
When dozens of her co-workers showed up for the walkout early on June 25, Perez was thrilled at the turnout and terrified of the possible consequences. She carried a sign listing three demands: sick pay, job protections, and respect. Ramirez, who had tested positive the week before, joined the protest from the confines of his car.
“Most workers prefer to always keep quiet for fear of losing their jobs or for fear of retaliation,” Perez said in a text message. “I was amazed myself at the quick response we got from our co-workers. It may be that everyone is tired of always staying silent.”
“¡Somos esenciales!” is a double-edged phrase: an overdue acknowledgment of the economic role immigrants play and a cudgel with which to keep them on the job. As the country went into lockdown in March, President Donald Trump declared that essential workers, including farmworkers, “have a special responsibility” to maintain normal work hours. Pickers and packers, including Primex employees, started carrying cards or letters from their employers identifying them as essential workers. “I am a farm worker helping to protect our food supply during the coronavirus pandemic,” read the letter a berry picker shared with me. “My job is considered essential so that we can produce food.” In theory, these pieces of paper, tucked away in pockets and wallets, could deter curious cops or ice agents.
The federal government estimates that half of the farmworkers are undocumented. The rate for food packers, like Primex’s employees, is thought to be lower than farmworkers’ but much higher than the overall workforce’s. These workers are critical to feeding the country, but deportable at the drop of a hat. The pandemic has only made this contradiction more manifest. Undocumented workers don’t benefit from federal coronavirus relief measures, such as expanded unemployment insurance. While federal legislation and policy expansions by California Gov. Gavin Newsom eventually granted essential food workers two weeks of paid sick leave, or “covid pay,” enforcement has been spotty. “If an employer is not paying them covid pay, that sends a message to everybody else to not say anything,” Elenes says. And if an undocumented worker loses their job, they don’t get the standard unemployment stipend that federal or state relief promises to citizens. “Most employees accept that they don’t have health insurance. But not having any income? That’s not something they can resolve.”
So begins a potentially deadly feedback loop: The fear of lost wages and deportation breeds silence, which in turn increases the risk of transmitting covid. The mentality is, “If I feel good, even though I have the virus, I’m not going to tell you,” explains one farmworker in the Central Valley town of Lost Hills. “The farm supervisors aren’t interested in if you have it or not. You might feel sick, but it’s fine—as long as you don’t die.”
“People are scared to say anything— or they take it like it’s a common cold, and they continue going to work,” says a 46-year-old I’ll call Esperanza, who works at a nursery near Oxnard. The nursery wouldn’t give out masks, and her co-workers came in sick, knowing they wouldn’t get paid if they stayed home. Esperanza spoke to me over the phone in a quiet, cracking voice; just a couple of weeks before, she had come down with the coronavirus.
Even without this shroud of silence, agricultural workers are especially vulnerable to the pandemic. Some live in dormitories for temporary workers, where the virus proliferates. It’s common to carpool to job sites, which include greenhouses and packing houses with limited ventilation. Oil fields and freeways contribute to the Central Valley’s atrocious air quality; Bakersfield and Fresno have the worst particle pollution in the country. Rates of respiratory ailments like asthma and Valley Fever, a fungal lung disease, have soared. And for much of August and September, a ring of wildfires blanketed the fields in a hot, dense smog.
“They said that they were going to let us know if anyone came down with it, but they didn’t.”
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