As many as 3 million migratory and seasonal laborers work on American farms. By one count, more than 100,000 of them have now been infected by the coronavirus. Yet the federal government has made no effort to test, trace or even document these cases. Instead, state and local officials have once again been asked to manage a pandemic that flows across their borders, damaging lives, communities and potentially the nation’s food supply.
The toll has been rising since spring. In Wasco, California, more than 150 workers were infected at a pistachio processing plant; in Ventura County, 188 others tested positive at a berry farm. Similar outbreaks have been reported in Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and elsewhere in recent weeks.
Even in the best of times, the life of an American farmworker is not an easy one. Most are foreign-born, primarily from Mexico, and at least half are undocumented. Wages are low, days are long, and benefits, including health insurance, are rare. Still, work is steady, and a committed farmhand can spend much of the year following the harvest seasons for different crops. It’s an often-social lifestyle in which families travel, live and work together, typically in close quarters.
And that’s why Covid has hit so hard. Hispanic communities appear to be particularly vulnerable. Workplaces and living conditions in which social distancing are difficult heighten the risks. And many undocumented workers, fearful of revealing their immigration status, are hesitant to report symptoms, ensuring that outbreaks remain unaddressed until it’s too late. Even workers who have green cards may worry that they could become entangled in Trump administration rules making it difficult for immigrants to obtain permanent status if they’ve received public assistance.
It’s a familiar problem. Early in the pandemic, the U.S. confronted dozens of outbreaks at meat and poultry plants, which share many of the characteristics that make farms so susceptible. That crisis didn’t last long, though: Meat and poultry are highly consolidated industries, dominated by a handful of big companies that can afford to test, trace and treat workers while reconfiguring job sites for safety.
That’s far more difficult to do with America’s approximately 2 million farms, many of which are small businesses that lack the resources to prevent outbreaks. And unlike meat and poultry operations, which run year-round, farms are seasonal. As a result, the outbreaks associated with them haven’t occurred all at once, but rather spread out over time, as different harvest seasons arrive. It’s easy to see how health officials might’ve missed a crisis in the making.
To be fair, vulnerable farmworkers haven’t gone totally unnoticed. In March, the Trump administration designated them as “essential workers” (even the undocumented ones). But aside from offering some voluntary Covid-related safety guidelines, it made no effort to protect them. Masks, testing and health care for sick workers are the responsibility of employers and the states that choose to intervene.
The good news is that some states have in fact acted, and with a bit of success. In California, which has had some of the worst farmworker outbreaks, private-public partnerships have played a key role in procuring needed masks and sending Spanish-speaking doctors into farmworker communities, rather than waiting for migrants to seek out testing and health care on their own. Equally important, the state is securing hotel rooms for those who need to isolate, thereby ensuring they don’t return to crowded housing conditions.
Not every intervention is so helpful. Michigan recently required new workers at some agricultural businesses to test negative before starting the job, and then be tested again 10 to 14 days later. It was a well-intentioned measure that will likely encourage workers to move to states that lack such requirements (while leaving farmers scrambling to procure already hard-to-obtain tests during a financially ruinous year). Absent a national test-and-trace program, and more direct interventions in migrant communities, these outbreaks will continue, putting the food supply and rural communities at serious risk.
At a minimum, Congress should offer funds to help purchase and distribute PPE to farmworkers. It would also help if the Trump administration followed through on its “essential worker” commitment and shielded these laborers from immigration enforcement actions during the pandemic — especially when they’re seeking testing or treatment.
It’s too late to prevent the damage the pandemic has already unleashed on these farms. But it’s never too soon to begin working toward a more equitable and just health system for the millions entrusted to harvest America’s food.