As growing season commences, health pandemic raises big concerns for NC ag industry, farmworkers

By: - March 26, 2020 6:00 am
Image: Adobe Stock

The fields, rested over the winter and moistened by recent rains, are waiting and ready. Thousands of farmworkers, many on H2A visas from Mexico, have begun to arrive by bus, shoulder to shoulder, 40 at a time, to eastern North Carolina, like they do every year, to take on the backbreaking jobs that few other people want to do. In the spring, they plant crops, such as tobacco and sweet potatoes, work in greenhouses and nurseries, where they are often exposed to pesticides. At summer’s peak, they begin harvesting in the relentless heat before retreating to crowded, unair-conditioned barracks.

But 2020 is not like every other year, and this will not be like every other season.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns among farmworker advocates that these employees — who could have underlying health conditions, who are not entitled to workers’ compensation, who are easily exploited, who live in close quarters where sanitation is unpredictable — could become ill with the new coronavirus. Growers, too, are worried that the virus could take hold and race through the camps.

“The first H2A worker who comes down with the coronavirus could shut the program down for a year,” said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association. “Growers are also worried that [the federal government] will shut down the border. If you can’t plant, you can’t harvest.”

The NC Department of Health and Human Services has acknowledged that farmworkers could be vulnerable to COVID-19, especially if they have underlying lung problems associated with exposure to common agricultural hazards such as pesticides and fungi found in crops. But the agency’s guidance to address a potential outbreak is not realistic, said Edna Rodriguez, executive director of RAFI, short for Rural Advancement Foundation International.

For example, DHHS recommends that growers provide disinfectants that can kill the coronavirus, to call local health clinics if a worker becomes ill and and to isolate sick workers in separate housing. But at season’s peak, surplus housing is rarely available. Growers are also directed to “create a plan for what to do if many workers are sick at the same time,” but the agency provides no detailed guidance on what such a plan would entail.

“We’re pushing DHHS to take this on rather than the employer,” Rodriguez said. While the Growers Association is a formal network of farms and H2A workers, there are also individual contractors, sometimes based out of state, “who are impossible to track down.”

Farmworkers don’t receive paid vacation or sick leave. Those who develop symptoms have an incentive to keep working, regardless. “They could be too scared to go to the doctor because they’re afraid of missing work,” Lariza Garzon, executive director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, said.

(Update: Under the new Families First Act, farmworkers should qualify for the emergency paid sick leave of 80 hours if they are sick, seeking a diagnosis or treatment, as long as their employer has no more than 500 workers.)

The worker camps are small and have only basic facilities and a shared bathroom and kitchen. “Where will sick workers be housed?” Garzon said. “Who is responsible for the cleaning supplies? It’s complicated.”

Garzon said farmworker advocates and growers need more help from state government to protect farmworker health. That includes not only those on H2A visas, but the scores of undocumented workers who could also fall ill.

Wicker of the Growers Association said it has housing for 39 workers in Vass, and could help secure hotel rooms to isolate sick people. But farmers are responsible for ensuring the health of their workers. Since the season is just starting, most growers have more housing available than they have workers, which can reduce crowding. But at the peak of the season that’s not possible. “The farm level is the containment zone,” Wicker said. “The Growers Association can’t come and get everybody.”

The journey to the U.S. often starts in the small villages of Mexico, where recruiters enlist potential workers. From there, they travel to Monterrey, a travel hub and city of 4.6 million people about 150 miles south of the U.S. border. They receive their visas at the consulate, then wait for the bus to take them to America.

Wicker said the Growers Association is asking recruiters to distribute information in Spanish from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to the workers. The association is also encouraging workers to limit traveling while in Monterrey.

Workers are having their temperatures taken before leaving Monterrey, Wicker said, and then they are checked again at the border. Once they arrive in Vass, they are again reminded to stand six feet apart as they fill out paperwork. Only 16 people are allowed in that area at a time, Wicker said, adding, “We have to train them to take this seriously. This is a crucial time and we have to be proactive.”

However, like the general public, there is no routine COVID-19 testing for farmworkers.

The Growers Association provides the farms with CDC documents to be posted in English and Spanish in public areas of the camps. The association is also asking growers to order supplies for the workers, such as through the Walmart app, and then deliver them, rather than the workers venturing into nearby towns themselves. “If the workers didn’t have COVID-19 when they arrive, the won’t get it unless they go out,” Wicker said.

But it’s difficult to keep the workers confined on their day off. “These guys want something to do on Sunday,” Wicker said. “They’re not prisoners.”

It could also be risky for workers to leave their farms because some members of the public are wary of, even prejudiced about foreigners and international travelers. “We tell the workers, ‘This is not a time to be out. Everybody needs to maintain a low profile. We want to keep you safe.'”

If workers do become infected, Wicker said, they will stay in the U.S. while they recover.

“We will not be sending people back to Mexico,” Wicker said. “For legal reasons, but also because it’s not the right thing to do.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.