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Migrant farm workers’ pandemic safety

Jeff Platsky, John Christensen
New York State Team, The Chronicle-Express

Jeff Platsky

New York State Team

John Christensen

The Chronicle-Express

To prevent another virus outbreak among highly susceptible farm workers, activists are calling on New York legislators to adopt laws establishing specific protocols for testing and protecting essential workers.

The massive greenhouses at Green Empire Farms in Oneida where 173 farm workers tested positive in May.

Anxiety runs deep among those working on dairy farms, and picking and packing produce across upstate New York because of close quarters common among the crews, farm workers said during an online news conference Tuesday organized by the Workers Center of Central New York, an economic justice campaign based in Syracuse.

“We’re all called essential workers, but we are forgotten because we are working without protection,” said Luis Jimenez, a Livingston County dairy worker, speaking through an interpreter.

Based on observations from at least four farm workers who participated in the news conference, it will be only a matter of time before another outbreak spreads across upstate New York farms if more stringent worker protections aren’t required.

“Despite a series of COVID-19 outbreaks in farms and greenhouses since March, there are still no mandatory protections for farm workers in New York state,” said Crispin Hernandez, from the Workers Center of Central New York.

IN YATES COUNTY

John Martini of Anthony Road Wine Co. says of their employees, “We have eight H2A workers that we share with Red Tail Ridge and Heart & Hands. They are housed in Geneva in a Dept. of Health approved house, [and] we have given them cars to get to the vineyards. We purchased a thermometer, provided masks, etc.” Vineyard Manager Peter Martini has posted the safety protocols on the doors in the machine barn. 

“As is always the case, there are poor actors out there that cause issues,” says John. “We are trying to keep or team healthy and safe. We need the labor. All problems are not caused by the employer—how do you keep your people apart and protected when they go home or out?”

Scott Osborn of Fox Run Vineyards in Yates County says they too are being careful about the protocols. “Here at Fox Run, all our employees including the vineyard crew fill out a daily wellness form,” he says. “All employees including the vineyard crew participated in a COVID-19 training seminar consistent with New York State and CDC recommendations for training. All employees have been provided masks and there is hand sanitizer and soap and water for washing that is accessible to all and for the vineyard crew in the farm vehicle they work from. Ruth and I are extremely concerned with the safety of our employees during this pandemic and update them on any changes or information they need to know to protect themselves and their families.”

Hunt Country Vineyards founder Art Hunt has worked with migrant workers for many years. 

“Having seen several stories about this situation nationally, I suspect that the majority of the cases have gone unreported because of the need to work. In the Finger Lakes grape industry, we are fortunate to have a different situation with our farm workers. Most family units live in apartments in Geneva, Penn Yan, and other towns. A few own their own homes. Most have worked in the area for over a decade and are highly skilled and dedicated workers. Thanks to Literacy Volunteers, many have become U.S. citizens. 

“Most of the grape growers need help for only part of the year. Many of the vineyard workers are managed by labor contractors who are licensed by both the N.Y.S. and U.S. Depts. of Labor. They coordinate the workers to keep everyone employed and to fill the grower's needs. Some of the workers work full-time year-round for larger growers and the arrangement works well for both parties. With vineyard work, there is physical separation because each worker generally works on their own row. The rows are usually nine feet apart and there is usually a wall of grape leaves besides. Each family group generally has their own vehicle and maintain separation during breaks as well.

“I don’t know of any serious situations in the local area where there is not the opportunity for social distancing and masks to be used in farming operations. I believe there is a need for both state and federal leadership and guidance on this critically important issue. It cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ regulation, but a protocol that works for each type of operation. Farm wineries are still smarting from being lumped in with full-service restaurants, for instance.”

Organic farmer and seed processor Klaas Martens agrees with Hunt. “I believe that if we look closely though, we will find that each farm is different and the relative safety and working conditions range from very safe to very dangerous. 

“Our milk company gave us posters with basic information about COVID-19 safety that were written in Spanish to put up in the working areas. Our one former dairy employee worked by himself and was very safe from COVID-19 transmission. His biggest risk was from friends visiting and from attending church which stopped with the pause. In general, farm workers on small dairy farms have very low-risk work environments for COVID infection. I think that the milk buyers made a reasonably good effort at distributing information in Spanish. Smaller dairy farms may be an exception. They have a very low turnover of help and there is little contact between their farmworkers and the outside world. Very large dairy farms with large numbers of immigrant workers and a higher turnover of workers face much more difficult situations. Some of the housing is very crowded, workers work closely with each other, and workers are expected to be there to work even when they are sick.” 

“Farmworkers are very reluctant to seek medical attention and many can’t afford to miss any work days. Undocumented workers are afraid to go to doctors or hospitals because they don’t want to be reported to immigration authorities. This combined with large numbers of highly mobile workers who work close to each other in the fields and move with the work harvesting fruits and vegetables creates a lot of risks. I have been surprised that the level of transmission has not been higher than it is among farmworkers.

“Lack of testing has been an ongoing problem with managing and preventing outbreaks and spread of coronavirus. I think each workplace needs to be evaluated for risk and that help should be made available to employers to develop and implement safe procedures for working. We already have plenty of rules regarding COVID-19. What is needed is help and information with following the rules. Our county health nurses are spread very thin and are doing a great job despite the lack of resources they have to work with. Giving counties more resources for testing and to help and protect workers would do a lot more good than passing additional laws.”

A USA Today New York Network probe of an outbreak at the Green Empire Farms complex in Oneida, New York, indicated congregant housing may have touched off a May outbreak among 176 workers. A second outbreak at an Oswego County apple processor infected 82 mostly immigrant workers.

Other workplace outbreaks, unrelated to agriculture, were reported at a Fulton County aluminum factory and a Washington County quarry.

More thorough worker protections must be mandated by the state Legislature to protect the largely immigrant work force, some of whom may find themselves working through the disease to maintain a weekly paycheck.

New York needs “prevention, not intervention after an outbreak has occurred,” said Jessica Maxwell, of the Workers Center. “Four months into the pandemic, it is shocking to hear about workers who are still not receiving information.”

According to the latest data available, New York had 33,000 farms in 2017, according to the state Department of Agriculture & Markets, with sales of $5.7 billion.

Rather than voluntary measures to provide masks, hand sanitizer and testing, more specificity is necessary, worker representatives said.

Farm workers cannot access testing, and if they are asymptomatic, are unable to afford testing, worker representatives said. Maxwell wants the state to establish mobile testing units that can travel to sites for comprehensive free testing. Further, she asks the state Legislature to adopt a consistent set of standards and enforcement measures for employers who disregard basic protection measures.

“Workers are not receiving the protection they need,” Maxwell said.

Of the 5 million coronavirus cases reported in the United States, 41,000 were in the meatpacking industry, 8,000 in food processing, and 6,000 farm workers, according to the Food Chain Workers Alliance.