Farm Workers Risk Coronavirus Infection To Harvest Crops

It’s a busy time for the tomato-producing farms in eastern Tennessee. Farms have staffed up with hundreds of workers, most of whom are Latino. Some live locally. Others are migrant workers who travel from farm to farm, chasing the summer growing seasons. Still others come from Mexico or Central America on temporary agricultural visas to work at certain farms.

But, this year, the season is taking place under a cloud of coronavirus worries that, for these agricultural workers, hit close to home.

“Almost every part of the process for picking tomatoes needs to be considered in light of COVID-19,” says Ken Silver, an associate professor of environmental health at East Tennessee State University, who studies migrant worker health on Tennessee tomato farms.

After all, the workers live in close quarters, sleeping in bunk beds, and sharing bathrooms and kitchens. They ride crowded buses to fields and often work in groups. And even though farm employees are deemed essential workers, they often don’t have health insurance or paid sick leave.

Farms have already reported outbreaks among hundreds of workers in states that include California, Washington, Florida and Michigan. And yet, the federal government has not established any enforceable rules either to protect farmworkers from the coronavirus or to instruct employers what to do when their workers get sick. While migrant worker advocacy groups say this allows farms to take advantage of their workers and increase their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, farms say they’re doing what they can to protect workers with the limited resources they have, while also getting their crops harvested.

The situation certainly isn’t clear-cut, says Alexis Guild, director of health policy and programs at the advocacy group, Farmworker Justice.

“I do think some employers are putting in necessary protections,” Guild says. But she has heard of workers who, after testing positive for COVID-19, were still required to work or were sent back to their countries — an economic threat that creates a strong incentive for workers not to report mild symptoms. “I think it’s hard to generalize. It really varies employer by employer.”

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Leaving it up to the farms

In June, 10 temporary workers out of about 80 at the Jones & Church Farms in Unicoi County, Tenn., tested positive for the coronavirus. Another farm in that county had 38 workers test positive around the same time.

“This was the scariest thing that could happen,” says Renea Jones Rogers, the farm’s food safety director.

Nationally, there have been at least 3,600 cases of farmworkers testing positive for COVID-19, according to media reports gathered by the National Center for Farmworker Health.

Add to this that farm employers and workers alike acknowledge that even the most basic interventions to stop transmission — social distancing and mask-wearing — often aren’t feasible, especially in the hot temperatures.