As Hundreds of Farmworkers Test Positive for COVID-19, Many Remain Unprotected

Farms and labor companies are working to protect farmworkers as they head into a busy harvest season. But some experts say it's not enough.



At the end of April, 71 fruit-tree workers at a large orchard in central Washington state were tested for COVID-19. None showed any symptoms of the novel coronavirus, except for four with a mild cough. But more than half tested positive, and the farm turned out to be one of the first confirmed clusters of the virus among agricultural workers.

The laborers were mostly guest workers from Mexico who were brought to the state under the H-2A visa program. They are believed to have caught the virus in the U.S., despite the fact that their employer, Stemilt Ag Services, one of the state’s largest ag labor employers, had from the start implemented extensive safety measures to minimize their risks.

While farmworkers are at risk for COVID-19 due to their living and working conditions, until recently relatively few have tested positive for the virus. To health officials and labor advocates, the Stemilt case signaled that the virus may be more widespread in the agricultural industry than is being reported. It also showed that the guidelines for preventing coronavirus spread in agriculture—most of them voluntary measures—are likely insufficient.

“Stemilt has actively implemented social distancing, symptom monitoring, and other recommended COVID control measures at its work and housing sites,” Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator Barry Kling said in a statement. “What these test results tell us is that asymptomatic cases are so common that these measures are not sufficient in these settings even when implemented well.”

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The company told Civil Eats that after the outbreak it has continued to adopt all recommendations from federal and state agencies and has intensified its sanitation and social distancing measures.

But Edgar Franks, political director with Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, a farmworker union in Washington state, says most agricultural employers are not nearly as scrupulous and many aren’t taking the necessary precautions.

“I haven’t seen much enforcement of existing guidelines in the fields,” said Franks. “No social distancing, no giving out masks, too little spacing between rows and trees, and everyone huddling close together during crew meetings.”

Labor advocates warn that the virus could severely impact agriculture as tens of thousands of workers across the country take to the fields when harvest season begins this summer. And while no one is counting exactly how many farmworkers have contracted the virus, in recent weeks, several COVID-19 hotspots have come to light, revealing how the agricultural system could expose workers’ lives to the disease.

Despite Hundreds of Positive Tests, Real Impact is Unknown

Farmworkers have been designated “essential workers” by the Department of Homeland Security and they continue to report to work. And while working outside puts them at less risk than if they were in a meat packing facility, labor advocates say these workers are very vulnerable to the virus because they often work in close proximity, live in cramped, communal housing conditions, and commute to the fields in crowded vans and buses. Many also have pre-existing conditions and some have no sick leave or health insurance.

In Washington’s Yakima Valley, a major agricultural region and one of the rare localities where the public health district publicly tracks farmworker COVID-19 cases, at least 240 people who work in the food and agriculture industries have tested positive for coronavirus. With more than 1,600 confirmed cases and nearly 60 deaths, the county has the highest COVID-19 rate of all West Coast counties. While people in long-term care facilities account for about a third of the county’s cases, health experts say the large agricultural workforce is the main driver.

To stem the tide of infections, the Yakima Health District and industry groups have created a technical assistance team to work with ag employers. The team will visit worksites, observe prevention measures, and provide recommendations for improvement. The district is also working with local care providers to increase testing capacity in case there’s an outbreak at a guestworker housing camp.

Oregon’s Marion County, which is in the heart of the agriculturally rich Willamette Valley, also has the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the state. And while the county doesn’t release data about the employment of people testing positive, the two towns with the highest infection rates—Woodburn and Gervais—are also at the center of the state’s farmworker population.

In the San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation’s largest agricultural production areas, a rise in positive coronavirus cases in rural towns has led Congressional leaders to urge the National Institute of Health and Governor Gavin Newsom to prioritize COVID-19 testing for farmworkers and others in the food industry.

And in Monterey County, known as America’s Salad Bowl, health officials have reported that dozens of farmworkers have been infected. Ag workers compromise 35 percent of the county’s cases, Karen Smith, a spokesperson for the county health department, told Civil Eats. Last week, it received 750,000 masks from the state specifically for these workers. It also has added two new community testing sites.

But the outbreaks haven’t been contained to the West Coast. In upstate New York, 169 of 340 workers at Green Empire Farms, a giant greenhouse that grows strawberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers, tested positive for the virus earlier this week. Although two were hospitalized, the vast majority of the workers, most of whom are guest workers from Mexico, Haiti, and other countries were asymptomatic, health officials told Civil Eats.

The outbreak occurred despite the fact that Mastronardi Produce, the Canadian company that owns the greenhouse, had instituted a string of protective measures, including mandatory face coverings, social distancing, and sanitizing. Most of the workers, who live in hotels multiple workers to a room, are being quarantined there, said Samantha Field, Madison County Health Department spokesperson.

In New Jersey, 59 migrant workers at an unidentified farm in Salem County tested positive for the virus. Thousands of foreign guest workers arrive to the area every year for spring and summer harvest. In response, a local health center has launched testing of farmworkers in tents at various farms and in mobile testing vans; local health officials said they are planning more tests.

And in North Carolina, farmworkers at several strawberry farms also tested positive, including eight at Rudd Farm, which had mandated the use of gloves and masks for farmworkers and implemented a drive-thru service for customers. The farm, which had temporarily closed at the end of April, is back in business.

Labor advocates say it’s likely that this list of known cases is only the tip of the iceberg. Many workers don’t report feeling ill because they can’t afford to miss two or more weeks of work, said Marley Monacello, a spokeswoman for the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The organization knows of one Immokalee farmworker with COVID-19 who is in the hospital on a ventilator, but “we don’t have a long list of workers who have tested positive,” Monacello said. “Up until last week, the threshold for getting a test was very high.”

The group has been pushing for more testing and the state finally opened a new testing site in Immokalee last week, Monacello said. She said the hope is that farmworkers who test positive will receive the care and economic support they need.

“They’re feeding all of us and they deserve so much better,” Monacello said.

States Respond, But Guidelines Not Enough

Since the start of the pandemic, advocates have been putting pressure on local, state, and federal officials to find ways to protect farmworkers.

In Oregon, the response has involved a temporary rule that requires ag employers to identify a social distancing and sanitation officer to ensure at least six feet of separation during work activities, breaks, and meal periods, as well as in employer housing. Companies have also been required to increase the availability of toilet and washing stations, and bunk beds—long a common feature of farmworkers housing—have been prohibited. The rule, which will be implemented on June 1, also requires that workers and drivers wear facial coverings and sit at least 3 feet apart in employer-provided vehicles.

And in California, Governor Newsom issued an executive order that requires those who employ more than 500 food sector workers to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to workers affected by COVID-19.

The order is a significant win for farmworkers, said Armando Elenes, the secretary-treasurer with the United Farm Workers (UFW), because California’s agricultural operations tend to employ thousands of workers.

“Now we need to make sure the law is real, that it’s enforced,” Elenes said. “And that workers know about it. If the workers don’t ask for the leave, the employers won’t volunteer it.”

Despite these wins, most ag states and localities have only issued recommendations on preventing the virus from spreading among farmworkers—and some haven’t even gone that far. Voluntary guidelines have come from Cal-OSHA, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Monterey County on California’s Central Coast, and Washington state, among others.

Labor advocates say such guidelines are not enough to protect workers. Some workers have gone on strike asking for more safety measures, including most recently at Allan Brothers Fruit, a Washington state packing house.

Lawsuit Seeks Emergency Rules on Transportation, Work Conditions

In mid-April, two farmworker unions—the UFW and Familias Unidas por la Justiciasued the state of Washington for mandatory, stringent, and enforceable rules.

“Lack of enforceable rules regarding social distancing, protective face masks, access to soap and water, and to environmental cleaning allows conditions to continue in which the virus can spread easily and quickly” and “imperil the lives” of workers, reads the complaint.

As a state with a number of large agri-businesses producing labor-intensive crops such as apples and cherries, Washington brings in the most foreign guest workers. Through the end of March, more than 11,000 guest workers were sent to the state and another 15,000 or more will likely make their way to the state for harvest in the next few months, according to last year’s data.

Enforceable regulations are crucial during the pandemic, said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who represents the unions, because many farmworkers don’t know the legal system. “The only way they know their rights is if the rules are crystal clear and specific,” she told the judge at a hearing last Friday.

Farmers have a vested interest in protecting workers, said Sarah Wixson, an attorney who represents several grower organizations who intervened in the lawsuit.

“There’s a farm labor shortage,” said Wixson. “No farmer wants their farmworkers to get sick and not be able to perform their jobs.”

A week after the lawsuit was filed, Washington’s Department of Health and the Department of Labor & Industries released a draft of emergency rules on farmworker housing that will be finalized in the coming days. They included cleaning and distancing plans and procedures for educating workers as well as identifying and isolating those who get sick.

But labor advocates said it makes no sense to improve housing while workers are still traveling and working in close proximity. So, the lawsuit asks the state to adopt emergency rules in those two additional areas.

Washington officials had indicated they were not planning such rule making. And Tim Church, a spokesman with the Department of Labor & Industries, declined to say whether the state would adopt additional emergency rules. But on May 1, a judge said he wanted to see the state make progress on transportation and work site rules by May 14. If not, he said he will consider issuing an injunction to force such rules.

Stemilt Case Provides Insight Into COVID Impacts

Worker advocates say time is of the essence when it comes to saving farmworkers lives and they point to the Stemilt case as a sign that more needs to be done to track the disease.

Stemilt Ag Services is an orchard management subsidiary of Stemilt Growers, one of the nation’s largest fruit producers. Every year, the company hires approximately 2,000 workers to work in its approximately 9,000 acres of apple, pear, cherry, and stone fruit orchards, and the majority are brought in as H-2A workers.

In early March, court documents show, the company adopted the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and separated the workers into several distinct crews that work, commute to work, and live in isolation together.

At that time, one of Stemilt’s domestic farmworkers tested positive for COVID-19; he and his five fellow crew members were asked to self-isolate at home for two weeks. A month later, six guest workers at one of the housing camps exhibited symptoms and all tested positive. In total, court records show, 53 guest workers tested positive while one domestic worker did.

The isolated workers didn’t exhibit major symptoms, none required hospitalization, and only one lost his sense of smell and taste. All of the workers are now out of isolation and back to work, the company’s spokesman Roger Pepperl told Civil Eats, and Stemilt currently has zero positive cases. In response to the outbreak, the company says it’s cleaning its housing more rigorously, has increased communication with workers about preventive measures, and continues to work on all aspects of social distancing. “We do have to remember that it is a 24-hours-a-day issue … not just at work and not just after work,” said Pepperl.

But health officials said those measures, no matter how well executed, may not be enough. Instead, testing farmworkers on a larger scale is what’s needed.

“We need to think differently,” said Kling, the Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator. “We also need to greatly increase testing of workers so that isolation and quarantine can be used when needed, and uninfected workers can continue to work.”

With Voluntary Guidelines, Workers Have No Recourse

Labor advocates hope more testing will eventually protect workers. In the meantime, a ruling in Washington could spur other states to adopt similar mandatory rules to protect farmworkers.

Mandatory regulations could be a game changer for workers, said Nayamin Martinez, director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. The group organizes workers in the San Joaquin Valley and has been educating them about COVID-19.

Last month, said Martinez, a group of workers in the rural town of Madera was temporarily laid off after they insisted on working 6-feet apart from others in the mandarin orchards. “[The lay-offs] were in retaliation for asking that they be allowed to practice social distancing,” said Martinez. “Their field crew boss told them, ‘If you don’t like it, you can go home. I have others who are ready to work.'”

Martinez said she filed a complaint with the Fresno office of Cal-OSHA because the workers were too scared to do it, fearing they would lose their jobs. Although Martinez provided the agency with the address of the field where the crew was working, the agency declined to investigate. Cal-OSHA’s Fresno office did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Civil Eats.

“People are scared. Next time, they won’t report anything, since no one is enforcing the rules,” said Martinez. “And we’re talking about a disease that puts people’s lives at risk.”

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