Without Federal Protections, Farm Workers Risk Coronavirus Infection to Harvest Crops

12 mins read

Victoria Knight August 10, 2020

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s a busy time for the tomato-producing farms on this a part of the state. Farms have staffed up with tons of of staff, most of whom are Latino. Some dwell domestically. Others are migrant staff who journey from farm to farm, chasing the summer time rising seasons. Still others come from Mexico or Central America on short-term agricultural visas to work at sure farms.

But, this 12 months, the season is happening beneath a cloud of coronavirus worries that, for these agricultural staff, hit shut to dwelling.

“Almost every part of the process for picking tomatoes needs to be considered in light of COVID-19,” stated Ken Silver, an affiliate professor of environmental well being at East Tennessee State University, who research migrant employee well being on Tennessee tomato farms.

After all, the employees dwell in shut quarters, sleeping in bunk beds, and sharing loos and kitchens. They journey crowded buses to fields and infrequently work in teams. And though farm staff are deemed important staff, they usually don’t have medical insurance or paid sick depart.

Farms have already reported outbreaks amongst tons of of staff in states that embrace California, Washington, Florida and Michigan. And but, the federal authorities has not established any enforceable guidelines both to shield farmworkers from the coronavirus or to instruct employers what to do when their staff get sick. While migrant employee advocacy teams say this enables farms to reap the benefits of their staff and improve their threat of publicity to the coronavirus, farms say they’re doing what they’ll to shield staff with the restricted sources they’ve, whereas additionally getting their crops harvested.

The scenario actually isn’t clear-cut, stated Alexis Guild, director of well being coverage and applications on the advocacy group, Farmworker Justice.

Leaving It Up to the Farms

In June, 10 short-term staff out of about 80 on the Jones & Church Farms in Unicoi County, Tennessee, examined optimistic for the coronavirus. Another farm in that county had 38 staff check optimistic across the identical time.

“This was the scariest thing that could happen,” stated Renea Jones Rogers, the farm’s meals security director.

Nationally, there have been at the least 3,600 instances of farmworkers testing optimistic for COVID-19, in accordance to media reports gathered by the National Center for Farmworker Health.

Add to this that farm employers and staff alike acknowledge that even probably the most fundamental interventions to cease transmission — social distancing and mask-wearing — usually aren’t possible, particularly within the sizzling temperatures.

Saul, 52, is a short lived farmworker who has traveled from Mexico to Virginia yearly since 1996 to harvest tobacco. In a WhatsApp message interview, he stated masks are uncomfortable on the job as a result of he’s working outside, writing in Spanish, “En el trabajo es incómodo porque trabajamos al intemperie.” (Kaiser Health News is just not publishing Saul’s final identify in order that he received’t be recognized by his employer.)

Saul stated he does fear concerning the coronavirus, however as a result of he lives at his job on the farm, he feels secure.

When he arrived within the U.S. in April, the farm offered him with details about the pandemic, masks and hand sanitizer, he stated. Nobody takes his temperature, however he works in a crew of eight, lives with solely three different staff and no one on the farm has but been identified with COVID-19.

In Tennessee, the Jones & Church Farms put its personal employee security protocols in place originally of the season. These included rising sanitation, taking each day temperature readings and preserving staff in teams in order that they dwell and work with the identical folks.

After the ten staff examined optimistic for COVID-19, the farm stored all of them in the identical housing unit and away from the opposite staff — however those that have been asymptomatic additionally stored working within the fields, although they have been in a position to avoid others on the job, stated Jones Rogers.

While the Department of Labor has not supplied enforceable federal security requirements for COVID-19, it did collaborate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to publish a set of voluntary, agriculture-specific guidelines. Those have been launched in June, simply days after Jones & Church turned conscious of the farm’s outbreak.

Much of what had already been completed at Jones & Church, although, tracked carefully with these suggestions, which additionally instructed that staff be screened day-after-day for COVID-19 signs and that those that develop into sick be given their very own area to get better other than others.

Other solutions within the CDC and Labor Department directive, geared extra towards indoor food-processing factories corresponding to tomato-packing crops, included putting in plastic shields if 6 ft of distance isn’t attainable between staff, placing in hand-washing stations and offering private protecting gear or fabric face coverings.

Advocates say these pointers are sound, in idea. Their obvious flaw is that they’re voluntary.

“We don’t believe that the health and safety of workers should be left to the goodwill of employers,” stated María Perales Sanchez, communications coordinator for Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, an advocacy group with places of work in each Mexico and the U.S.

A Department of Labor spokesperson supplied a unique take. “Employers are and will continue to be responsible for providing a workplace free of known health and safety hazards,” the spokesperson stated, including that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s preexisting general-safety standards and CDC pointers are used to decide office security violations. OSHA is an company throughout the Labor Department.

Farm trade teams are apprehensive of any elevated federal regulation.

“I don’t think OSHA would be able to have some sort of mandatory regulation that wouldn’t disadvantage some farmers,” stated Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Farms have already put many COVID-19 protections in place, she stated, “and if these actions are taking place in a voluntary way, we don’t see that we need to have a mandatory requirement.”

Difficulties in Accessing Health Care

Migrant farmworkers, regardless of occupying a necessary hyperlink within the nation’s meals provide chain, usually aren’t supplied with office advantages like medical insurance or paid sick depart.

Saul, the Virginia tobacco farmworker, stated he didn’t consider he has any medical insurance. If he will get sick, he would wish to inform his farm employer, who would then have to drive him to the physician. The closest metropolis to the farm is 15 miles away. Who is chargeable for these prices — the employee or the farm — relies on particular person circumstances.

Many farms make use of largely Latino staff, and CDC data illustrates that it’s more likely for Hispanic or Latino folks to be contaminated, hospitalized or die from COVID problems than white folks. Experts additionally warn that as a result of the COVID pandemic is disproportionately affecting folks of coloration, it might widen preexisting well being disparities.

Also, searching for a physician’s care can really feel dangerous for migrant farmworkers. Workers who’re undocumented could fear about being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whereas staff who’ve inexperienced playing cards could also be involved concerning the Trump administration’s “public charge rule.” This controversial rule weighs immigrants’ use of public applications, together with well being care, in opposition to their functions for citizenship. However, the federal authorities has stated searching for therapy for COVID-19 wouldn’t fall beneath the rule.

And whereas contact tracing is essential to cease the unfold of COVID-19 amongst farmworkers, many well being departments don’t have translators on employees who can communicate Spanish or Indigenous Central American languages, nor has there been a scientific nationwide monitoring of farmworker outbreaks to this point, as has been completed with long-term care services outbreaks.

So “it’s really hard to get a grasp on how many farmworkers specifically are testing positive,” stated Guild, with Farmworker Justice.

That could possibly be a difficulty for tracing outbreaks, particularly because the harvesting season ramps up for sure crops and farms bolster their workforces.

At the tip of July, virtually 90 extra short-term staff arrived at Jones & Church Farms to assist harvest tomatoes via October, stated Jones Rogers. Though the ten staff who had COVID-19 have recovered, she stated she’s scared that if extra get the illness, there received’t be sufficient housing to hold sick staff separate from others or sufficient wholesome staff to harvest the crops.

“Tomatoes don’t wait until everyone is feeling good to be harvested,” stated Jones Rogers.

Reporter Carmen Heredia Rodriguez and Katie Saviano offered Spanish translation help for this story.

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