I was the only legal worker in a greenhouse during the pandemic. Here’s what I saw

Inside of a Greenhouse/ Image By: Emily Hernandez

They are the people who go unnoticed. The ones who work for minimum wage and will never ask for more. They are the workers who sweat through dizzying heat to make your “plant parent” memes a possibility during dull quarantine days. They are a workforce almost entirely made up of undocumented workers. Their needs go unnoticed; their daily struggle is invisible. 

And for five grueling weeks during the height of the pandemic, I joined them. 

Nearly one in ten residents of Orange County is living and working without documentation, records show. Many of them find jobs in industries experiencing labor shortages, like agriculture, where about half its workforce are estimated to be unauthorized. During the pandemic, unemployment among all immigrants was about 5% higher than among the native-born population.

So, day by day my coworkers rose early for a job that would pay them. Some drove as far as Pasadena, Riverside, and L.A. to take shifts at our small greenhouse in Orange County.

I was an unemployed college student just grateful to have a job as record-high unemployment and uncertainty became the new normal.

At first, I saw the job as a gift, an end to nerve-wracking Zoom interviews and countless job applications. My ten-year-old self liked to indulge in the fantasy that fairies lived in greenhouses, among the lizards and the centipedes that burrow in the dirt. I imagined myself among these colonies of plants, feeling the soil in my fingernails and wiping the sweat off my brow with a satisfactory smile.

Oh, how idealistic and naive of me.  

The Greenhouse turned out to be gruesome physical labor. The work consisted of grueling heat, a zero-complaint policy and all the painstaking manual labor required to care for hundreds upon hundreds of plants that need to be planted, nurtured and shipped off punctually. 

This beautiful torture chamber ticked off all the boxes: blood, sweat, and tears. 

Every morning, I walked down the wide path of the driveway that led to a rectangular building where all employees gathered to clock in at the beginning of each workday. My shoes were already stained with dirt and well worn. I carried two bottles of water in my hand. 

By observing my coworkers, I learned to keep one bottle in the freezer and one with me at all times. Around noon, when the sun crept over us, in order to endure the blistering waves of heat, we grabbed the extra bottle from the freezer to quench the dryness in our throats and sprinkle icy water on our necks.

Eventually, I learned to bring other items from home for my shift. A coworker advised me to bring a chair from home so that I could feel more comfortable at my workstation while planting. 

With worry in her eyes, she told me to bring a personal fan for the heat. She noticed I was looking sickly when she said in Spanish, “Why don’t you have a fan with you. You know you can bring one from home right?” 

If the managers had any sympathy for the daily struggle of greenhouse work, they never showed it. On one occasion, the boss called for an all-staff meeting to “reinforce the companies’ expectations of employees.” 

I sat on a wobbly brown bench with two older gentlemen on either side. They wore their masks around their necks. They were both veterans there, 30 years each of sweat-soaked work. 

A coworker volunteered to translate for the boss. During his talk, the boss asked her to explain the word “playful.” She began to explain the word playful in Spanish to the staff and the boss abruptly stopped her. In a loud, sharp tone he said, “Don’t adlib for me.. please.” 

His words echoed throughout the stillness of the warehouse so that even the plants could hear. Even without a translator, his message was clear: 

Workers are expected to be self-sufficient. (“If you need me here every day, you won’t have a job here every day.”) Getting fired is easier than getting hired. (“Everyone is replaceable.”) Most important, complaining is not acceptable. (“I know it’s hard work but just put your head down and do it”).

He asked my coworker to translate so that everyone could understand what he meant. 

She said, “Agachan su cabeza y trabajen.” Lower your head and work. Everyone shuffled back to their workstations and continued without a word. 

For many of my undocumented coworkers, options for change are limited by their need for reliable income. Some will take the chance and leave for better jobs, but many endure the difficult workplace conditions that are placed upon them, even when their bodies refuse to do any more. 

Two new employees were hired after I was. One quit after her first eight-hour shift. Co-workers whispered among themselves. They overheard she didn’t want to work in the heat and sustained bruises from pulling the wheel barrels full of dirt.

For others, old age catches up with them, dampening their quickness. I witnessed their discomfort as they tried to mask their aches and pains while moving plants and material around the greenhouse. 

Still, they did the work — always with a firm nod and a “Yes, sir” to the boss. 

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