For the next year, my ability to Google will be ensured by the fact roughly 200,000 people across 50 countries are working from home.
And, I can like your Facebook posts for, well, forever, because Mark Zuckerberg “guesses as much as 50 percent of the company’s 45,000-person workforce could be working entirely remotely in the next five to 10 years.”
These may be private sector decisions. But they impact the public’s understanding of immigrants and immigration. And that leads policy makers to value the Google’r much more than the farmworker.
Look, as COVID-19 cases keep growing across California, the state’s tech industry and its nearly 1.8 million workers in 2018 — with over 805,000 of those jobs in San Francisco and San Jose — is doing fine. Their companies are growing, their bottom lines look great.
And, with the exception of those on the sector’s retail or gig front line, most are working from home.
The breathless media coverage leads us to think that this is the new reality for most workers. It is not.
Among U.S. workers, 11 percent are employed in the agricultural and food sectors — almost twice as many as those who work in tech. Of the approximately 22 million full- and part-time jobs in the ag and food sector, about 2.6 million are direct on-farm jobs, and nearly 13 million are jobs in food service, eating and drinking places.
These workers are not earning six-figure salaries. And they definitely are not working from home. (If they are working at all.)
In fact, go about two hours east of the work-from-home Silicon Valley and you find yourself in the hot fields of the Central Valley where more than 250 different crops, with an estimated value of $17 billion per year, are grown. In total, the Valley supplies 8% of U.S. agricultural output (by value) and produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40% of our fruits, nuts and other table foods.
Over 675,000 people work in the agricultural industry up and down the Central Valley.
In California, like across the country, these are the jobs that require workers to go to the “office.” But, for these workers, the office is a field, a farm or a ranch where something needs to be planted or picked, cared for, or caught.
Everything surrounding these jobs puts people at risk. Sharing a ride to work, close quarters at the workplace, homes that do not afford any modicum of social distancing. As a result, the rate of positive coronavirus tests in the Central Valley could be as high as 17.7% — more than double the 7.8% statewide average over the last seven days.
While California works to get financial and medical resources directly to these agricultural communities, the federal government turns a blind eye. Under the CARES Act, both parents must have Social Security numbers for the family to receive relief. This makes entire families, including U.S. citizen children and spouses, ineligible for much-needed COVID-19 economic assistance.
This is a dynamic playing out in communities across the country. Immigrant families, even those with U.S. citizens among them, are going without any sort of relief.
These are trying times that require all of us to sacrifice. For some, the sacrifice is social distancing and working from home, while raising a family. For others, it is losing your job altogether.
And, for others, it is doing a job that is essential to the health of the country — but detrimental to your own health.
As we approach six months of this national crisis, it is easy to lose perspective and think that our own reality is the reality of others, to believe that our protection from COVID-19 is the same protection others have.
We begin to think COVID-19 is a disease “they” get. “They” did something to put themselves at risk. “They” were not healthy enough to fight off the disease. “They” live somewhere else, do something else.
Well, more than we probably realize, “they” are putting food on our table. And, “they” are most likely to be people of color and/or immigrants.
This lack of perspective leads the nation down a slippery path where economic and social divisions widen, where moral leadership is replaced by transactional leadership, where the bottom line is more important than people.
It’s a dangerous path that leaves the least among us without support — left to fend for themselves without health care or financial relief.
There is still time for the country to get off this path, and for Congress to ensure that all of us can access the relief and support we need.
The fact is that the skilled farmworker, documented or not, putting food on our table is just as, if not more, important to our lives and livelihood as the skilled engineer putting Google on our screens.