Program provides hotel rooms for isolating ag workers
BY EMMA GALLEGOS The Record
When he had the coronavirus, Alberto Aguado spent several lonely, harrowing days in the hospital, wondering if he would come out on the other side. When he tried to breathe, he said it was as if someone had their hands around his throat. “I was asking God to take me,” he said. But when he was discharged, his thoughts turned to his family. He lives with his wife and two sons, ages 6 and 8, in an Oildale home where he worried he wouldn’t be able to properly quarantine while he finished his recovery. The house has one bathroom, and he worried that even taking a shower could put his family at risk. The thought of his family experiencing anything like he had just gone through was unthinkable. But while Aguado was hospitalized, his wife received a flyer in the mail that seemed to offer a solution. Housing for the Harvest is a program that offers food processing and agricultural workers who contract COVID-19 a hotel room in which to quarantine for up to 14 days. It’s a state program funded largely by federal money that is operated by select counties with a high number of agricultural workers, including the Central Valley, Central Coast and Imperial Valley. In Kern County, Community Action Partnership of Kern has operated the program since September, and the current contract is ending this month. Participants are offered free transportation to a hotel room, three meals a day and regular wellness checks. Participants are also given a $500 Visa card, since many workers don’t have the luxury of choosing between quarantining and putting food on the table. Aguado didn’t learn about the financial assistance until after he signed up, but he said that the money came in handy after he got laid off following the grape harvest. He worked as a forklift driver loading trucks with pallets of grapes. He suspects he caught COVID-19 from one of the truck drivers. They came from all over the country, and not all of them wore masks. Despite high rates of COVID-19 infection and exposure among workers in agriculture and food processing, few workers in Kern County — or the state — have decided to participate in the Housing for the Harvest program. Aguado is just one of six in Kern County and one of 81 in the state, said Reyna Olaguez, a spokesperson for the program in Kern County. These workers are at higher risk of COVID-19 in a number of ways. They tend to commute to work together in packed vans to remote locations in fields. Many live in crowded homes, sometimes with two or three families, where it can be tough to self-isolate. And many live on tight margins where they feel like they don’t have the option to stop working, even when they are exposed to COVID-19. The Housing for the Harvest program is supposed to interrupt this cycle by offering agricultural workers or those who work in related fields the time, space and money to isolate. It worked exactly the way it was supposed to for Aguado, and he’s become an evangelist for the program. Neither his wife nor children tested positive for COVID-19, and he credits the program. “I tell people to think about it for their family,” he said. “Being in the hotel room gave me confidence that my family will be OK.” Local Housing for the Harvest outreach programs have been robust. The county sent out flyers to census tracts disproportionately affected by COVID, which is how Aguado discovered the program. There has been an ad campaign on local Spanish TV and radio stations, billboards, and targeted social media ads that reached more than 143,000 on Facebook, Olaguez said. There was outreach at CAPK food distribution sites and in the fields, thanks to a partnership with the local agriculture industry. So why so few participants? “It’s hard to ask folks to isolate in a hotel room during this vulnerable state in their lives,” Olaguez said. Olaguez said that people would call 211 and ask about the program. The wraparound services — meal deliveries, wellness checkins and financial assistance — were appealing, but staying alone in a hotel to recover from COVID for up to two weeks wasn’t. But those wraparound services aren’t available without the hotel stay. Housing for the Harvest is a state program, partially funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and its funding isn’t flexible. Olaguez said some people felt like they couldn’t leave their families for many reasons. Some people called when others in their family had already tested positive or been exposed, too. Or some didn’t feel they could leave their families for long. Outreach efforts worked to assure undocumented workers that they would not be asked about their immigration status and that staying in a hotel would not make them a “public charge,” which could hurt an immigration application. But Olaguez said that for many undocumented workers, the decision to leave their families for an extended period can be a hard decision. And isolation is tough not just on the people in quarantine but their families at home. “I felt alone and sad, because he was far from the house,” Aguado’s wife, Maria Arojas, said in Spanish. It wasn’t an easy time for the family but in the end, Arojas said choosing to participate in the Housing for the Harvest program was worth it. “It was the right decision for him to recover and to protect the family,” she said.