Pharmacy manager Sam Rodriguez can’t help feeling a little nostalgic as he preps his team for a community flu clinic at a migrant farmworker camp in California’s Central Valley.
Looking around the multi-acre farm, his colleagues, staff and other volunteers see rows of nondescript beige cabins lining both sides of their booth. They see acres and acres of sweet potatoes, ready for harvest. They see hundreds of farmworkers returning from a hard day’s work.
But Rodriguez sees something a little different. He sees early mornings and weekends spent in the fields and bonding time with his family. He sees his childhood life.
“You get up when it’s still dark outside and you’re ready to be in the field before the sun comes up,” Rodriguez remembers. “If you’re old enough, you’re out there working, and if you’re too young, you’re heading to the daycare facility. Everyone’s back home at 5, ready to do it again the next day. I didn’t even know what a weekend was until I went off to college.”
Rodriguez, the son of migrant farmworkers, first came to the U.S. when he was 7 years old. Previously, his father would spend each summer away from the family’s home in Mexico, earning money in California. But in 1977, he brought the whole family with him and stayed for good.
Now, more than 40 years later, Rodriguez finds himself walking past those cabins once again.
This time, it’s as a Walgreens pharmacist. He’s here to provide flu shots and healthcare education to one of the country’s most vulnerable populations.
Rodriguez and his store manager, Barjesh Kumar, are working with the California Department of Health, Rotary Community Corps of Merced County and the organization behind Merced County Binational Health Week to make sure that migrant workers have access to flu shots, health education and other healthcare resources that are generally difficult to come by for this population.
Rodriguez (seated) and Kumar administering vaccines at the Atwater Migrant Center in Merced County, Ca.
Protecting essential workers
To say that California’s migrant farm workers are essential would be an understatement. According to the Department of Food and Agriculture, the state leads the nation in cash farm receipts – meaning that a large portion of the produce you find at your local grocery stores has come from California. Chances are high that something in your refrigerator or pantry was grown in the Central Valley and harvested by migrant labor.
Most years, there are more than 2 million migrant farmworkers in the U.S. About 10 percent are here on H-2A visas, allowing foreign workers to come to the U.S. seasonally. Most only stay between April and October, when crops are ready to harvest, and spend the rest of the year in Mexico.
The nature of the work and the lack of health education and access to protective gear and medical resources make workers in the Central Valley’s farms particularly susceptible to infectious disease. But because the window to work – and earn – is limited, missing precious harvest days with the flu (or worse) can be financially devastating.
“The last thing you want to do is spent a week or two sick in bed,” says Rodriguez, “because then you can’t work, and you can’t generate the money you need before you head back home at the end of the season.”
Migrant worker health is also a familiar issue to Kumar, who has worked for years to reach out to this community. His current Walgreens store, located in nearby Modesto, sits in the heart of the Central Valley. He started participating in health clinics for farmworkers in 2012, when he was an assistant manager in nearby Merced, and has been running them ever since. Past clinics have been covered by the local Punjabi newspaper, Sanjhi Soch.
Store manager, Barjesh Kumar
2020 is his first year working with Rodriguez at the Modesto store location, and their first year running a clinic together.
"The way Sam connected with them made this a much different experience this year,” says Kumar. “He’s able to communicate with them and give them advice because he comes from a place of understanding them, and so they trust him.”
One of the challenges in the past, according to Kumar, has been generating buy-in among workers, especially when it comes to asking them to trust a person that they don’t know to give them a flu shot.
“A lot of it is really just about getting information to them, meeting them where they are so they understand that we are here to help them,” Rodriguez says. “I’ve been where they are, so the trust just comes naturally.”
And it’s worked. By the second week of October, Kumar reported that they had already surpassed 117 percent of their annual flu shot goal. At community health clinics this year, Rodriguez and Kumar have vaccinated more than 600 workers and their families in Merced and Stanislaus counties, where a majority of the Central Valley’s farms are located.
Laying the groundwork
While generally well-known for their farms, Merced and Stanislaus counties have a somewhat more dubious distinction this year. According to the CDC, these two counties are among the hardest-hit by the coronavirus in all of California, with each averaging between 2,000 and 3,000 cases per 100,000 this fall. And according to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, farmworkers are a significant portion of the growing number of food industry workers across the country to test positive for COVID-19.
The large number and high concentration of COVID outbreaks underscores the fact that the migrant farmworker community is one of the most vulnerable populations in the country when it comes to any disease. But thanks to the groundwork done by this year’s clinics, Rodriguez and Kumar are both hopeful that they’ve created a blueprint for the distribution of a vaccine when it becomes available.
“We are all geared up,” says Kumar. “We’ve already started talking about a COVID vaccine with the workers we’ve treated, and we’ve made it clear that once we have a vaccine, we’ll be the ones to help out with that, too, because we’ve earned that trust.”
Trust that was earned by a pharmacy manager who once walked several miles in their shoes.
“I definitely see myself and my family in the faces of these people,” says Rodriguez. “This is how I first came to this country. It’s hard to put into words how it makes me feel to be able to help them, other than to say it’s rewarding and that I’m thankful.”
Rodriguez with pharmacist Elizabeth Vo (left) and pharmacy technician Jose Mancilla at Atwater Migrant Center