Since the pandemic began, local organizations have stepped up their work with farmworkers in Skagit County through educational outreach on COVID-19 with the goal to overcome language and cultural barriers.

Farmworkers, who were deemed essential during the pandemic, support the county’s $300 million-a-year agricultural industry, yet face challenges around access to information and often live in crowded housing situations that put them at higher risk for COVID-19, according to interviews with local organizations.

Some counties have seen large numbers of COVID-19 cases connected to farms and processing facilities, adding to concerns about the spread of infection among those who work and live in close quarters.

Sea Mar Community Health Centers’ Seasonal Farmworker Promotores Program provides health services and outreach to migrant farmworkers and their families in Skagit and Whatcom counties. Program manager Marcela Suarez Diaz said it has been providing education on COVID-19 prevention, symptoms, and what to do if a person gets sick.

Sea Mar estimates about 70% of farmworkers in Skagit County belong to indigenous communities, speaking neither English nor Spanish. Many speak indigenous languages from southern Mexico including Mixtec and Triqui, according to Sea Mar.

“We have created some communication tools for farm workers that cannot speak Spanish or English, only their mother language,” Suarez Diaz said in an email.

Sea Mar has also created audio recordings to share over radio and texting, she said.

Each week, volunteers visit migrant camps and farmworker housing to deliver food boxes to families, share COVID-19 resources and gather information on challenges families face around housing, rent or having children at home, Suarez Diaz said.

Program volunteers — called Promotores — are members of the agricultural community who help families access culturally and linguistically appropriate health services, according to Sea Mar. The program served 500 last year, including those who live in the community year-round and those who migrate for agricultural work.

Suarez Diaz said while many farmworker families have access to health care and COVID-19 testing, crowded housing conditions make distancing difficult.

Although farmworkers are essential workers, many have faced hours reductions or are not working, and many are ineligible for unemployment benefits and economic aid, she said.

Several hundred organizations and businesses sent a letter in April urging Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Legislature to create a $100 million relief fund to assist workers without documentation. The letter states that these workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance, disproportionately lack access to paid sick leave and health insurance, and were left out of the $2 million relief package, which included $1,200 stimulus checks, passed by Congress in March.

“Clearly, COVID-19 has brought general feelings of uncertainty and hopelessness to the general population which results in depression and anxiety,” Suarez Diaz said in an email. “This affects the health of any human and is not exclusive to farmworkers. However, when we consider access to resources and privileges, many farmworkers do not have these privileges.”

As harvest season gets underway, groups are making sure workers have protective equipment for themselves and their families.

Jose Ortiz, director of the Catholic Community Services Farmworker Center in Mount Vernon, said the organization has been collecting face coverings — many of which were handmade by community members — to distribute at the Tri-Parish Food Bank in Burlington, and at migrant camps and farmworker housing.

Ortiz said language and cultural differences can make it difficult to communicate the seriousness of the pandemic.

More food bank clients start wearing face coverings each week after seeing volunteers do the same and after learning more about how COVID-19 could affect their families.

“If we see (clients) without a mask, we give them a mask and remind them this is not just (to protect) us, it’s for yourself and your family,” Ortiz said. “What happens to you if you get sick or die, and what happens to your children. That’s really making a difference.”

Ortiz agreed that crowded housing conditions cause extra challenges and said it’s not uncommon to see two or three families sharing an apartment as well as cramped conditions in migrant camps.

Farmworker unions sued the state in April in Skagit County Superior Court over rules regarding employer-provided temporary farmworker housing.

The state adopted emergency rules in May requiring physical distancing in temporary farmworker housing, work and transportation.

But a second lawsuit, filed in Thurston County this month, contends that bunk beds permitted by the state’s rules won’t allow for adequate physical distancing to reduce COVID-19 transmission in temporary housing facilities.

Skagit County is leasing a Motel 6 in Burlington for some workers regardless of profession or income to isolate or quarantine if they cannot safely do so at home, Skagit County spokesperson Laura Gelwicks said in an email. She said individuals must be referred to the facility by Public Health and be a confirmed COVID-19 case or close contact of a positive case.

It’s unknown how COVID-19 is spreading within the agricultural community, though reports of positive cases have been shared anecdotally.

Gelwicks said the county is not releasing site-specific or industry-specific data due to the “close-knit nature” of Skagit County.

“We’re continuing to see new cases related to close contacts in congregate work or living situations,” she said in an email.

Gelwicks said Public Health is offering mobile testing at work sites at the request of employers, and some employers are sending workers to the county’s drive-thru testing site in Mount Vernon.

Ellie Wylie, temporary COVID-19 farmworker outreach specialist with Catholic Community Services, said in her conversations with farmworkers, many have reported knowing someone with COVID-19.

She said people generally understand what to do if symptoms worsen, but many worry about getting help with finances should they become sick and cannot work.

“Our (harvest) season is just beginning, and we are wanting to do everything we can to prevent large outbreaks,” she said.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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