Harvest of shame: Farmworkers face coronavirus disaster

“Within days of the coronavirus pandemic taking hold, the Trump administration had to confront a reality it had long tried to ignore: The nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers, about half of whom the government estimates are undocumented, are absolutely critical to keeping the food system working. It was a major shift for a president who continues to reduce any debate about immigration to stoking fears about border defense and crime. But the Trump administration and Congress have done little to help keep farmworkers safe on the job. 

 Six months into the pandemic, according to a POLITICO analysis, these workers appear to be victims of the worst of the Covid-19 crisis. For several weeks, many of the places that grow the nation’s fruits and vegetables have seen disproportionately high rates of coronavirus cases — a national trend that, as harvest season advances in many states, threatens already vulnerable farmworkers, their communities and the places they work.” 

“The pandemic’s impact on farmworkers underscores how a worst-case scenario can develop when an essential but extremely vulnerable workforce is ignored. The Trump administration has repeatedly declined to impose mandatory safety requirements for agricultural workplaces. No federal assistance has been designated to help farmers obtain personal protective gear for their laborers, like it has for other essential workers like nurses and police officers.

The Trump administration haslargely left state and local governments to fend for themselves in addressing coronavirus. Yet critics say that state officials have also failed to adequately confront the virus.”…
“As farmworkers unwittingly infect each other, their families and their broader communities with coronavirus, the situation exposes the extent to which rural areas are ill-equipped to deal with a public health crisis. A lack of access to testing and protective gear, an aging and consolidated health care system and rampant fear of the Trump administration’s strict immigration policieshas createdideal conditions for the virus to spread across farmworker camps and small towns, according to interviews with more than two dozen people familiar with the situation across the country.

After months of requests from advocates, the CDC in June issued safety recommendations specific to farmworkers. The CDC guidance detailed how employers should protect their workers by taking steps such as taking temperatures, allowing for six-foot distancing on the job where possible and grouping healthy workers into cohorts to minimize spread.

But the Labor Department, which has the power to make such standards mandatory, declined to do so. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an arm of the Labor Department, argues that the government already has requirements in place that broadly ensure workplaces are safe.”

Just eight states, including Washington, California and New Mexico, have some form of mandated protections for farmworkers including access to testing, hand-washing stations, social distancing and education. Major agricultural states including Idaho, South Carolina, Texas and Arizona have either no regulations or only some recommendations, but no mandates.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently visited Okanogan County in central Washington, which has become a Covid-19 hot spot, and acknowledged that agricultural workplaces continue to be a serious public health problem.

Inslee suggested that several coronavirus outbreaks in the state have followed harvest periods.

“The labor intensive agriculture presents environments that are just ripe for high transmission rates,” he said, noting that the state has seen more transmission of the coronavirus where crops require the most labor.

A few days later, Inslee announced that farms will now be required to test their employees if there’s an outbreak at their operation above a certain threshold. One large orchard at the center of a major Covid-19 outbreak, in which three workers have died, has been ordered to test all of its employees, state officials announced.

The state recently set aside $43 million in federal aid money to help undocumented residents who do not qualify for unemployment or stimulus checks. The tranche of funds includes $3 million earmarked for helping agricultural workers in the state who lack legal status.

Having money to directly aid workers could help individuals properly isolate if they test positive. As it stands now, many low-income laborers are resistant to taking tests because if they are positive, they may lack the resources or living space to self-quarantine for two weeks, according to advocates. They may also fear losing their job or being stigmatized in the workplace, especially if they are the sole breadwinner for their extended family.

But unlike Washington, most states do not have funds targeted at their farmworker populations, nor do they have comprehensive plans about how to stop the spread of the coronavirus in communities that are already suffering from health issues at disproportionately high rates.”

“State and local health departments often lack even basic knowledge about their farmworker populations, including where they are migrating from or where they are headed next as the harvest seasons change — a blind spot that has only made controlling the spread of coronavirus more difficult, Ramírez said.

“This shouldn’t be a state to state issue,” she said, noting that the fact that workers move constantly means their problems can’t be solved by any state alone.”


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