As Summer Season Heats Up, Migrant Workers Confront Compounded Coronavirus Risks

From Florida to New Jersey, workers and doctors are worried about more outbreaks during the summer harvest.

Alejandrina Carrera Juarez knows at least a dozen people who have had the coronavirus in Immokalee, a largely poor, agricultural community in Southwest Florida that the pandemic has hit hard.

Many migrant farm workers from that area are now heading north to follow the summer harvest to Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. Carrera Juarez fears not only for the health of her fellow Immokalee laborers, but for all the migrant camps along the East Coast that will fill in the coming weeks.

“The ones that leave here go there,” Carrera Juarez, 38, who also travels as the harvest dictates, said in Spanish. “And sometimes those that leave from here are infected. They get there, get another person sick, and that can move around to another place or back here. The sickness keeps on moving.”

There are plenty of reasons why migrant farm workers are particularly susceptible to contracting the coronavirus. They tend to live together in packed trailers or apartments due to their low wages, or in dormitories on the farms themselves. They often share kitchens and other common areas and take crowded buses and vans to and from the fields each day. They work inside packing houses where they stand shoulder to shoulder. And many lack access to health care and face language barriers that can make outreach and education more difficult.

If Immokalee is any indication, the farming communities in other parts of the country may see a spike in new COVID-19 cases if they haven’t taken safety precautions. As The Washington Post reported last week, the positive rate among those tested in Immokalee is vastly higher than in Florida generally ― 36% versus less than 6%. The more well-to-do pockets of Collier County, which includes Immokalee, have been largely spared from the virus.

As the administrator of the county’s health department recently put it, “Immokalee is an entirely different thing.”

Nely Rodriguez, a former farm worker now employed as an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said the response of the local government has improved after a sluggish start when the virus first appeared. Testing has ramped up, and the county is now setting aside dormitories to isolate those who don’t have the money to do so themselves.

Even so, living conditions remain a problem there. And they’ll be a problem elsewhere, too.

“You can find two or three families in a single trailer … And that’s where the vulnerability for workers starts, by living piled up on top of one another,” Rodriguez said. “And then you have to get into that bus and sit one one top of the other for them to take you to work.”

A farm worker helps harvest zucchini on the Sam Accursio & Son's Farm in April in Florida City, Florida.
A farm worker helps harvest zucchini on the Sam Accursio & Son's Farm in April in Florida City, Florida.
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Keeping Workers Healthy

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been doing outreach to workers on the coronavirus since March, when it began passing out literature in Spanish and Haitian Creole on social distancing and protective equipment. It has also pushed for more testing and resources from local and state officials in Florida, which is now setting new records for daily confirmed cases as the state reopens. Rodriguez wonders what lies in store for other communities to the north as the tomato harvest in Immokalee winds down.

“Here, at least, we know people; folks know where they can find help,” she said in Spanish. “But when we’re hearing that they go to other states, we get worried that it’s another route for COVID infection … and we don’t really know what resources they’ve got over there in other states.”

Living conditions for migrant farm workers are often cramped or inadequate already, and the virus could make the situation worse, said Alexis Guild, director of health policy for Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates on behalf of migrant and seasonal agricultural laborers. She said she’s hearing about more and more COVID-19 outbreaks at farms and fears that trend will continue.

“If you put a pandemic on top of it,” she said, “it certainly exposes them to more danger than they already are in.”

Farm owners and operators also face unprecedented challenges. Unequipped to deal with a deadly virus outbreak, they've had to figure out how to keep workers safe while also maintaining production — often with limited or conflicting information.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many states have issued guidance for agricultural workers and employers, there is no federal regulation specifically created to protect farm workers during COVID-19.

Advocates say this has resulted in some farms failing to implement safeguards, and farm workers having to supply their own masks and hand sanitizer. Farmworker Justice has partnered with other advocacy groups to both secure personal protective equipment and better educate farmworkers about ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To date, the organization has helped distribute 3,500 masks by connecting volunteer mask makers to community-based farmworker organizations.

“We should all care about farm workers,” Guild said. “Keeping farm workers healthy and preventing widespread illness will ensure a safe food supply and stability in the food chain. That’s important.”

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest arrive for their shift on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California.
Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest arrive for their shift on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California.
Brent Stirton via Getty Images

‘Incredibly Dangerous’ Lack Of Information

Southern New Jersey will soon begin its blueberry harvest, bringing thousands of workers from out of state. New Jersey launched a campaign aimed at testing all migrant farm workers in the southern part of the state, which revealed troubling outbreaks similar to those in Florida. More than 50 workers at a single farm in Gloucester County tested positive for the coronavirus last month.

Doctors and farm worker advocates voiced concern about the situation on a call Wednesday hosted by the Migrant Clinicians Network, a health care nonprofit devoted to treating migrant workers. Dr. Lori Talbot, a family physician in the New Jersey town of Bridgeton, said she expects between 8,000 and 10,000 workers to show up to her area in the coming weeks to pick and pack fruits and vegetables.

After seeing her first case in early May, Talbot set up a test site at her office, with a line of farm workers snaking out the door. She tested some 200 workers over the course of five days and found a 17% positivity rate. She personally knows and treats the farmers in her area and spoke to them about developing plans to isolate workers who carried the virus.

“I haven’t had any more positives,” Talbot said on the call. “I think I was able to contain the area that was in my sphere of influence. I don’t have thousands and thousands of workers. Acting right away and testing them quickly, I think I was able to help stop the spread.”

But Talbot said she worries the virus will not be headed off so easily in other areas. She said the state has issued well-meaning guidelines meant to create social distance within living quarters, but she knows in reality they remain crowded. And even though testing has picked up, the capacity is not where it needs to be for an influx of workers.

She has also encountered farmers who were reluctant to get onboard with mass-testing of their workforces, since they don’t want to make the news for a sky-high infection rate.

“They’re refusing to let them come onsite to test,” she said.

The concerns aren’t limited to farms on the East Coast. Last month, all of the nearly 200 employees at a Tennessee vegetable farm tested positive for coronavirus, and a separate strawberry farm in the state confirmed this month that dozens of its workers were infected. There have been similar outbreaks at agricultural operations in California and Washington. Produce workers in Yakima County, Washington, went on strike last month to demand better workplace safety and hazard pay.

“What we are hearing is that farm workers don’t feel that they have been equipped with either the appropriate information or the equipment for their own protection,” said Diana Tellefson, executive director of United Farm Workers Foundation. That ongoing lack of information, including about access to paid sick leave, is “incredibly dangerous” and has left many workers confused about what to do if they contract the virus, she said.

Limited Options

How well protected workers are often comes down to individual growers. Seth Holmes, a physician and medical anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said during the call hosted by the clinicians’ network that he’s seen a wide range of health precautions taken at farms during the pandemic.

On some of the repurposed school buses workers take to and from the fields, virtually all workers were wearing masks, Holmes said. On others, almost no one was. He even saw some workers climbing into the unventilated cargo area of a U-Haul-style truck, the pull-down door closing behind them.

Holmes said isolation remains a critical problem for those who test positive in places like Immokalee.

“Many I’ve met want to isolate,” he said, “but they don’t have a place to go.”

The pandemic has left some workers unsure of whether they should even travel for the harvest this year, pitting their need to earn money against a desire to stay home and safe. That includes Carrera Juarez. Her partner, also a farm worker, has already left to go north this summer. But Carrera Juarez worries about taking her three children northward as the pandemic continues to unfold.

She has decided to remain in Immokalee this year, even if it means financial hardship.

“It’s not fear, but at the same time it is,” she said. “Because you can get [the kids] sick, and then you’ve got to be going all over the place trying to get them to a doctor and there’s so many people sick at the same time. It’s risking the health of my kids. It’s the reason I can’t stand it anymore.”

Roque Planas contributed reporting.

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