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By Hannah Critchfield
Throughout most days this autumn, Olga would wake up early and head to a pumpkin patch in Swain County, in the westernmost region of North Carolina.
She’d hoist the 10-to-20-pound decorative gourds, destined for Halloween carvings and carefully crafted social media photoshoots, into nearby bins.
Her 9-year-old daughter Aracely would sit along the side of the patch, attempting to complete schoolwork beside her.
“In reality, it’s pretty hard,” said Olga, who spoke through an interpreter and requested North Carolina Health News publish only her first name because she is undocumented. “Because you have to be on watch of the kids and at the same time work.”
Throughout this year’s agricultural season, migrant farmworkers have struggled to find child care for young kids who would usually spend their days in classrooms.
More mothers are bringing their children with them to work as a result, community health providers say, or sending older school-age daughters to work in the fields — driving an increase in child labor — while they stay home to tend to younger siblings.
While child care access is a problem that has plagued many North Carolina parents during the pandemic, farmworker women face added barriers and risks. Migrant families in particular are financially vulnerable to a loss of employment due to the presence of a child, as they tend to have fewer labor protections and receive no economic assistance from federal stimulus packages. Women, who also face high rates of sexual harassment in the field, must shoulder the responsibility for caring for a child while knowing they are likely to be the first to be laid off.
Children who enter the field risk exposure to harmful pesticides — and those who take up jobs lose educational opportunities and are often stymied from future economic advancement.
Fewer resources, higher demand
The novel coronavirus pandemic shut down schools just as the agricultural season began, with salad greens emerging from the dirt and strawberries in need of plucking.
Simultaneously, almost half of all North Carolina’s child care centers closed their doors, adding to an already challenging pre-pandemic shortage in child care centers throughout the state — particularly in rural areas where many migrant farmworkers reside. By late July, as sweet corn, cucumbers and watermelons ripened while cradled in the state’s thick midsummer heat, one in four centers remained closed.
“We definitely have more children and families on the waitlist waiting for center-based services than we’ve had in the recent past,” said John Menditto, general counsel for the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, which provides holistic services for children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina, including child care.
The organization reopened its day care centers in mid-June. Menditto said the ongoing risk of COVID-19 compounds the issue.
“What will happen is a staff member will get a positive diagnosis, and then we’ll have to close the center, depending on the guidance of the local county health department,” he said. “There will be a series of working days where we’re closed and everyone’s getting tested. And then if a child or family member tests positive, that whole process happens all over again.”
In August, the Governor’s Office, in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, set up a hotline to connect North Carolina families struggling to find licensed child care centers to options in their communities. DHHS also offers a subsidized child care program for individuals who may not be able to afford the costs associated with these centers.
But the vulnerable citizenship status of many workers, coupled with concerns about a lack of culturally or linguistically competent services and a general distrust of government programs, means many migrant farmworkers may be wary of leaving their kids with strangers at a formal day care, community advocates said.
“They were saying that there was a day care, but I don’t have any documentation,” said Olga. “So I didn’t bring her in.”
So children are showing up to the fields, conducting class work on school-provided tablets in warehouse rooms or while exposed to the elements, as Olga said was the case for Aracely, while their parents pluck, wash and package.
Agriculture is North Carolina’s leading industry, representing close to a fifth of the state’s overall economic activity. It’s home to the sixth largest population of migrant farmworkers, who travel to the state for a number of months to work the fields during peak growing season. Some are here on H2A visas, some are undocumented.
They join seasonal farmworkers, who live in the community full time, to make up the estimated 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina — nearly 95 percent of whom speak Spanish as their primary language. While there are currently no official breakdowns of these workers by gender, according to DHHS, about 19 percent of the people who received services from the agency’s Farmworker Health Program last year were women.
Olga, who is 31, traveled up with Aracely from Georgia. It was her first agricultural season in North Carolina.
“Before [the pandemic], when I would work in Georgia or Florida, kids would go to school, so I only had to find a little bit of time for someone to take care of her,” said Olga. “Now, she does school in the fields.”
Child care shortages disproportionately impact women and girls, community organizers said, who often assume caretaker roles when another chaperone is absent.
“Women are taking their children to work because they need to — many of these women are the head of households,” said Mily Trevino-Sauceda, executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a national organization of farmworker women which advocates for gender justice in the field. “Even if both members of the couple are working — that’s the only way that they can have enough to be able to sustain a family.”
The alternative, in which a farmworker must leave the field to care for children at home, poses its own challenges.
Migrant farmworkers who lacked U.S. citizenship were not included in the federal pandemic stimulus relief package earlier this year, despite being deemed essential workers.
“Most of the time, women are the ones that have to decide to stop working, because they are afraid of their 11-year-old or 9-year-old taking care of their infants,” said María De Luna, national policy and advocacy coordinator for Alianza.
Older girls pick up the slack
In their absence, to make up for the financial loss, some families are sending teenage children to work instead.
“We’re seeing an increase of children brought to work, but also an increase of child labor in agriculture,” said De Luna. “It’s always been an issue, but with the pandemic, and the fact that there were huge immigration exclusions in the last few federal COVID relief packages, families have had to make ends meet in other ways.”
This burden is also more likely to fall on girls, she said.
“If they can afford to extend one of their children’s education, some families are having to face a choice on who that is – girls, who already face so many barriers to education, are often the ones who end up going to work,” De Luna added.
Jessica Rodriguez, outreach coordinator at Vecinos, a nonprofit which provides health care to farmworkers in western North Carolina, recalled a farmworker who usually came up from Florida to work the state’s peak spring season and faced this exact dilemma.
“Her kids were usually in child care through the Migrant Education Program, but due to COVID all that was put on pause,” said Rodriguez. “She had to stay home and she just sent out her teenage daughter to go out to the field and work instead. So her daughter doesn’t have to stay home alone with the kids, but she has to go work in the field.”
Olga said the partial reopening of schools has helped slightly — now, her daughter spends two workdays a week in the classroom.
For other women, the start of the school year may also be driving their decision to bring their children to work.
Many parts of rural North Carolina still lack reliable broadband access, a complication that has plagued many children attempting to attend classes remotely this year.
Early on in the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services provided internet hot spots to many agricultural fields to allow farmworkers to better access COVID-19 prevention and quarantine information. They continue to distribute them to fields where incoming workers are arriving in western North Carolina for the Christmas tree season, according to Rodriguez, who helps set them up on-site.
As a result, kids may be better equipped to do schoolwork in the field than at the places where they live.
Migrant education organizations in some counties, such as Haywood, have also provided hotspot routers for students to work at in their living quarters, Rodriguez said. But reports from the general population about connectivity issues with such home routers remain, raising questions about whether steady internet access on the worksite is playing a role in the presence of kids at agricultural workplaces.
‘What choices do you have?’
It’s hard to get concrete numbers on exactly how much child care shortages during the pandemic have impacted farmworker women.
There’s currently no available data on how many women bring their children to work, or how many children are laboring in the fields. All of the organizations NC Health News spoke to anecdotally said they’ve seen these issues in the communities they serve.
“When you talk to a lot of farmworker women in some of our counties, they say, ‘I just take my kids with me [to work],’” said Robin Lewy, director of programming at the Rural Women’s Health Project, an organization which aids migrant farmworker women in North Florida, where winter growing seasons are gearing up. “Many were relieved to be returning to Florida [from North Carolina] because schools are fully open here. They’re sending their kids back to school because they don’t have any other options. It’s a scary thing, because many of the families have already experienced COVID, and many have lost family members. But what choices do you have?”
Migrant women in other industries said they’re also struggling to find care for their children while working.
“It’s been very scary and difficult,” said Jessica, 50, who cares for her 14-year-old son and a 5-year-old nephew in addition to working at a meat processing plant in Mount Olive. Like Olga, she requested only her first name be published. “In the past, it used to not be like that. But now, an adult needs to always be there now that they’re going to school online.”
Still, as people who have long endured few labor protections, tenuous working conditions, and little financial or health care assistance from the country in which they work, migrant farmworker women are resourceful.
Many are relying on informal networks of support to share the burden of care.
“There were days where this other woman [in the field] would take care of her as well,” said Olga.
Of the around 20 people in her pumpkin patch, she said, three were women. It’s not clear if this other farmworker lost wages while watching Aracely.
“It’s very scary, and it’s very difficult because we are trying to kind of rotate in our shifts so our kids don’t have to leave our network, our homes,” said Jessica, who said she and her sister are coordinating their work schedules for this effort. “So one week we’ll work this, another we’ll work this, kind of keeping it in the close-knit community. It’s been really hard to find other people to take care of our kids. So we’re doing it within ourselves.”
By mid-December, most of the agricultural season in North Carolina will be over.
In April, it will start again.
A COVID-19 vaccine may be widely available by then, according to statements made last week by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. And it’s unclear where these workers will be on the priority list for vaccination.
It’s quite likely the need for child care for migrant farmworker children during school days will remain.
“This pandemic is only going to aggravate the inequities that have long existed for Black indigenous people of color communities, including immigrants,” said De Luna. “We need to specifically center the needs of farmworkers in legislative responses to this pandemic. Because the struggles that farmworkers face do not start and end with them.
“It’s intergenerational. And it’s just not getting the attention that it needs.”
Juan Diego Mazuera contributed to this reporting, providing Spanish-English interpretation.
This article included sources who North Carolina Health News chose to grant a degree of anonymity. Both of the women, identified in print only by the first name, provided their full names to the reporter. NC Health News also spoke to employees at Vecinos and the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry who knew these individuals in their capacity as migrant workers to further corroborate the identities