CBS News, Politico raise the alarm about vaccination efforts leaving farmworkers behind…

Fair Food Program farmworker harvesting cherry tomatoes (Florida, 2021).

Florida Agricultural Commissioner: “I’ve asked [FL Governor Ron DeSantis] since December to make farmworkers among those eligible next for vaccines, which he refused to do… The lack of empathy and concern for the working people who put food on our tables is appalling.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year — its death toll continuing to rise, claiming the lives of well over half a million mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and cousins — an end to the national nightmare remains frustratingly just out of sight.  With new variants spreading, and many states loosening already-poorly-enforced public health measures, public health experts are beginning to warn of a fourth wave of sickness and death.  But in this dismal landscape, one remarkable development provides real cause for hope: Science and industry, working at unprecedented speed, have produced multiple, highly effective vaccines in record time, and states from coast to coast are mobilizing hundreds of thousands of health care workers to get those life-saving vaccines into the arms of as many people as possible.  After a year of loss and isolation unlike any other in living memory, we all — starting with the most vulnerable among us, and with those essential workers who continue to risk their lives so that the rest of us can live ours in safety and comfort — can finally start to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Yet for some essential workers, that light remains maddeningly dim.  Despite clear federal guidelines defining the proper order of priority for distributing the coveted vaccine — a logical sequencing based on widely-accepted principles of epidemiology and equity — some states continue to exclude millions of essential workers, principal among them farmworkers, from their vaccination efforts. 

In spite of their unique and well-documented vulnerabilities, and despite the disproportionately high toll the pandemic has taken on the 2-3 million workers who plant, cultivate, and harvest our country’s fruits and vegetables, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers remain stuck on the sidelines as states like Florida and Georgia hustle to vaccinate their residents.  Meanwhile, time for Florida’s essential farmworker community is running out.  Florida is an agricultural base state, meaning farmworkers live and work here for nine months of the year, and travel from state to state along the East Coast to follow the harvest during the summer months.  Given the logistical challenges of administering vaccines — the majority of which require two shots spaced 3-4 weeks apart — the time window to vaccinate Florida’s farmworkers is now, and that window is closing fast.  If workers here don’t receive their vaccinations within the next several weeks, the next realistic window of opportunity may not open again until November or December, leaving our state’s essential farmworkers unnecessarily exposed to the deadly virus for nearly a full year.  

Last week, the national media began to sound the alarm about the exclusion of farmworkers from Florida’s vaccination efforts, and today we bring you extended excerpts from that urgent coverage.

First up, Max Bayer of CBS News, who spoke with the CIW’s Nely Rodriguez, and with Dr. Emily Ptaszek, CEO of the Immokalee-based Heath Care Network and a key partner in the CIW’s COVID-19 response efforts:

Efforts to vaccinate farmworkers hindered by eligibility

By Max Bayer
March 17, 2021

As the Biden administration expands vaccine supply across the country, a federal program aimed at vaccinating agricultural workers has hit a roadblock in states where they aren’t eligible, elevating concerns that vulnerable workers are being put on the backburner.

Federally funded health centers, which serve more than 1 million agricultural workers nationwide, have played a key role in inoculating farmers. These centers also serve a significantly larger percentage of people of color compared to other facilities — a trend that’s reflected in vaccine administration, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

In February, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration launched a program aimed at getting 1 million vaccine doses to 250 qualifying health centers. But eligibility constraints in a number of states have stunted the impact of the program and created an ever-shrinking window to vaccinate contract laborers before they travel elsewhere for work, where access may be more difficult. This is the case in the immigrant-driven farming town of Immokalee, Florida.

The town is located in Collier County, where only 7.5% of roughly 24,000 residents are over 65 — limiting the eligibility among residents. This is why only 20 of the more than 1,200 farmworkers in Immokalee have been vaccinated, according to Dr. Emily Ptaszek, CEO of Healthcare Network. Ptaszek said her clinic, which according to HRSA has received 300 doses through the federal program, has inoculated nearly all residents over 65.

“When you have to start finding people to vaccinate to be consistent with the order, it’s probably time to change the order,” Ptaszek told CBS News. “The people doing the work on the frontline shouldn’t have to spend a bunch of time spinning their wheels to find people who are eligible.”

Governor Ron DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment when asked why farmworkers were not yet eligible and if there was a timeframe for their eligibility.

There are concerns in other states where farmworkers remain ineligible, including Georgia, Texas, and New York, said Sylvia Partida, CEO of the National Center for Farmworker Health. “We just need to continue to talk about those challenges and put some pressure and hopefully some of those states will prioritize workers,” said Partida.

In the face of the hampered rollout, Dr. Ptaszek said President Joe Biden’s goal to expand eligibility nationwide to everyone aged 16 or older by May 1 was “transformative,” but that timeline still means there could be hurdles for specific workers. In Immokalee, when the harvest season winds down in May, nearly 1,000 contract farmworkers will leave the state for more work. Ptaszek is worried this could hinder the completion of the two-dose vaccine regimen or force workers to rely on the rollout in unfamiliar communities.

Johnson and Johnson’s one-dose vaccine could give farmworkers a chance to be vaccinated before May, but according to Dr. Ptaszek, her clinic hasn’t yet received any doses and hasn’t been told to expect any in the near future.

In a statement to CBS News, the CDC reaffirmed its recommendation that agricultural workers be included in Phase 1B vaccination plans. The agency said it’s providing support to jurisdictions to “address the potential barriers to vaccinating farmworkers in their area.” 

“All workers, whether they are seasonal or year-round residents, are important and productive members of our communities. Taking steps to include these workers in equitable vaccine planning will help protect the health of every community member.” 

In Immokalee, advocates say farmers and laborers have been called  “essential” throughout the pandemic but are now being left behind. 

“Unfortunately, marginalized communities have often been forgotten in many things – but never forgotten for work that needs to be done, like in this moment, in which we have been named essential workers, yet without any real protection,” said Nely Rodriguez, a staff member at the Coalition for Immokalee Workers and a former farmworker. “Farmworkers are saying they need the vaccine, but there is no answer from the government.”

For those who are eligible, Rodriguez said, the staff has gone “old school” in their outreach — from putting up posters around town to making radio advertisements for the local station run by CIW.  Such efforts come on the heels of at least one vaccination event in Immokalee organized by the county health department that, according to local reporting, resulted in a large portion of reservations by people from out of town. Some came as far as Broward County or Sarasota, almost two hours away. State vaccination data does not filter beyond county-level data, so there’s no official tally on the number of vaccinations among the residents of Immokalee. Dr. Ptaszek estimates her clinic has vaccinated 5,000 people. 

Rodriguez emphasized that when all is said and done, marginalized communities need all the help they can get, whether that comes from DeSantis or Mr. Biden.

“Although we support this country’s economy in a powerful way, there is still a lot of work to do so that we are made a priority,”  she said. “We have been working, and will continue to work, every day so that the country doesn’t fall into crisis.  Now, we need to be protected.”

Meanwhile, Liz Crampton of Politico compared Florida’s decision to hold off making farmworkers eligible for the vaccine to the approach taken in other states where agriculture plays a key economic role, noting, “Of the top 10 states with the highest guest-worker populations in the U.S. on so-called H-2A visas, three have not yet opened eligibility for farmworkers explicitly: Georgia, Florida and Louisiana.”  Here is an extended excerpt, focusing on Florida, but make sure to head over to Politico’s site to read the article in full:

‘There’s tremendous fear’: Farmworkers face vaccine eligibility woes

Many states have been slow to make migrant workers eligible, which has put 3 million people at risk for Covid.

State officials and advocates are racing to overcome obstacles that hamper vaccinating the nation’s 3 million farmworkers before the upcoming harvest season.

The biggest hurdle: Many agriculture-rich states have been slow to make laborers eligible for shots, triggering outrage among activists and lawmakers that farmworkers and other crucial food industry employees have been overlooked throughout the pandemic.

Waiting to qualify is just one challenge with protecting this essential yet hard-to-reach workforce. It’s difficult for health providers to vaccinate this demographic that has had staggeringly high infection rates because it’s a low-income, spread-out population with intense fears about potential repercussions.

More than a half-million agriculture workers have been infected with Covid-19, according to a Purdue University analysis, with the highest numbers in Texas, California, Iowa, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Florida and Minnesota.

Lupe Gonzalo, a farmworker and organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said members of her South Florida agricultural community are feeling “incredibly anxious” about waiting to be vaccinated.

“Right now, there is a lot of urgency in ensuring that farmworkers can become eligible to receive the vaccine,” she said. “We really need that to happen.”

Florida, a state with a large migrant farmworker population who supply much of the nation’s citrus, sugarcane and tomatoes, is waiting for Gov. Ron DeSantis to widen eligibility.

So far, only people 60 and older are able to sign up for vaccine slots in Florida, an age bracket that excludes many farmworkers. State officials also require proof of residency to receive a vaccine — documents that some farmworkers don’t possess.

“From the pandemic’s start, the governor has not made vulnerable farmworkers a priority,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried…

… “I asked him last April to ensure they had PPE and adequate health care and Covid-19 testing, which didn’t happen. I’ve asked him since December to make farmworkers among those eligible next for vaccines, which he refused to do,” she added. “The lack of empathy and concern for the working people who put food on our tables is appalling.”

DeSantis’ office and the Florida health department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Of the top 10 states with the highest guest-worker populations in the U.S. on so-called H-2A visas, three have not yet opened eligibility for farmworkers explicitly: Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. And other states with many farmworkers, like Kentucky and Michigan, only recently expanded eligibility to include them. Washington just made them eligible on Wednesday.

That’s just a snapshot of the entire U.S. farm workforce: Not all farmworkers are H-2A employees and there are farmworkers in every single state…

… Yet time is running short. In states across the south, harvest season will pick up soon, meaning that more workers will be working together in conditions conducive to spreading the virus, like tight quarters in fruit and vegetable packing houses.

Migrant farmworkers will begin to follow the harvest up the coasts, making it difficult to reach them again if they received a vaccines requiring second doses. That’s why farmworkers and other underserved populations are being targeted with the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, although health providers are telling people to take the first vaccine that is made available to them.

More producers have been getting involved in the effort as organizations working on behalf of farmers have been flexing their sizable influence on political leaders. Western Growers, which represents fruit, vegetable and tree nut producers, is lobbying the California governor’s office to establish a vaccine allotment for farmworkers, like the state has done for teachers.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that urgency is there,” said Matthew Allen, vice president of state government affairs for Western Growers.

Labor organizers and growers are also looking to the federal government for assistance. After the Trump administration largely sat on the sidelines while the pandemic raged for an entire year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has indicated that the USDA under President Joe Biden will play a role in getting shots to food sector employees.

“We do have a responsibility at USDA to make sure that farmworkers and others who are now able to get vaccinated are aware of that fact and aware of where and how they might be vaccinated,” Vilsack said in an interview.

Vilsack said he has instructed his team to identify USDA storage facilities that can be used to stockpile vaccines that require sub-zero temperatures and has deployed hundreds of the department’s veterinarians to help administer doses.

The USDA has reached out to farm groups to discuss the importance of vaccinations “so that we can get on the other side of this Covid as quickly as possible,” he added.


In a matter of weeks, Florida’s farmworkers will begin the annual trek north for the summer season, moving from labor camp to labor camp, working long hours and living in remote areas far from accessible clinics, for months on end.  The uncertainty and instability of their occupation will render the prospect of vaccination – especially a two-dose vaccine – extremely challenging, if not impossible.  Meanwhile, the overcrowded housing and jam-packed labor buses awaiting workers over the coming months will provide the ideal environment for the spread of the now even more contagious coronavirus.  

Florida’s elected officials face a decision that will literally determine life or death for countless farmworkers in the months ahead.  The state can either recognize its unique position in the country’s agricultural industry and seize the opportunity to administer the life-saving vaccine to hundreds of thousands of farmworkers now, or let the clock run out on the Florida season and pass the public health buck on to other states, knowing full well that the realistic probability of farmworkers receiving the vaccine once they leave the state is somewhere between slim and none. 

By any reasonable standard — practical or moral — the right thing to do is self-evident.  Only the most cynical calculus could justify the failure to act.  Whatever they decide will leave an indelible mark on their legacies in the eyes of those who care about the well-being of the men and women whose back-breaking labor puts food on all our tables.