Natalie Keshing, Editor-in-Chief, Nats.news
A critical issue that must be addressed before opening the country to go back to work. Protecting farmers, farmworkers and meat processing company workers to prevent them from facing their own COVID-19 crises is critically important to providing Americans with enough food to go back to work.
All farmers and meat processing companies throughout the US should be provided with a nearby makeshift field office with health care workers and an Abbott Laboratory 5 minute test kit to consistently test workers for COVID-19.
For farm workers in the fields, the Department of Labor should immediately provide a substitute worker for those workers who test positive to quarantine and recuperate.
Meat processing companies should be preparing for worker shortages by hiring more employees and cross-training existing employees to do current and additional jobs to prevent panic, anxiety and worry about losing their jobs.
FEMA should provide to all farmers, farmworkers and meat processing plant workers with enough personal protective equipment; especially masks and latex gloves. Strict guidelines should be put in place to keep restrooms readily available and clean for workers to wash their hands before putting on latex gloves and new masks. ~ Natalie
Considered not only essential but critical, there are millions of farm workers who are picking America’s fruits and vegetables helping the country to sustain, remain safe and at home during this pandemic crisis. Their labor in the fields, orchards and meat packing plants is keeping food on America’s tables.
Farmers, farm workers and meat processing company workers are starting to experience the threat of COVID-19 spreading within their own working environments. While most of the country has had to adhere to the strictest guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus these workers are considered essential and can’t stay home.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, outbreaks could hit farm worker communities particularly hard. Many of the farm workers are living and working in conditions that put their health at risk while continuing to do their jobs.
Growers and farmers say they’re doing everything they can to keep production going and keep employees safe, including scaling back the number of workers they’re transporting on buses, spacing workers out more as they harvest, and increasing the number of hand-washing stations.
But workers and advocates shared serious concerns about lapses in on-the-job safety, such as some farms that lack soap and protective equipment, and others that fail to enforce social distancing guidelines. Limited access to medical care and crowded living conditions are also major hurdles to keeping workers healthy.
Greg Asbed fears it’s not a question of if, but when, a devastating outbreak will hit. As a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which represents thousands of farm workers in Florida, he says rural communities like his aren’t prepared for a health crisis. “Once the virus takes root in a town like Immokalee, it will take off like wildfire,” he says. “That’s our fear that we will see this problem explode.”
Erik Nicholson, Vice President of United Farm Workers, says it’s not a hypothetical. In the last two weeks, he says he’s heard about dozens of farm workers testing positive for COVID-19 in Washington state, where he is based.
Nicholson said, “We’re living this in real time and the fear and the anger is rising.”
Workers Bring Supplies From Home, Hoping They Won’t Get Sick
At one orchard where cherries, pears, and apples are grown in Washington’s Yakima Valley, workers recently began bringing their own soap from home to wash their hands because the company wasn’t providing any.
This shouldn’t be happening and it is the responsibility of the farm owners and the government in conjunction with FEMA to set up field offices to provide protective PPE, clean restrooms and sinks with plenty of soap and hot water to wash their hands thoroughly before they put on their PPE.
One woman working at an orchard said, “We are feeling very desperate, very helpless, very disillusioned, because no one was supporting us or giving us anything to protect ourselves. No gloves, masks or disinfectant; nothing. We feel forgotten, and really terrified and afraid.”
Some workers fear repercussions at work if they say anything and share their frightening stories.
Some workers are reporting that over the past two weeks they’ve watched the number of workers at the orchards drop, day by day, amid growing concerns about their safety and many have young children at home. They’re scared for themselves and their families at home constantly thinking they’d bring the virus home to their families. Staying home isn’t an option for them. They continue to work among their fears and continue to pray that they will remain healthy and able to provide for their families.
Some workers fear getting sick and going to the hospital not knowing who will take care of their children. Some fear the medical debt they will incur if they get better at the hospital.
A workers at a strawberry farm in Oxnard, California, said they have been trying to remind people about social distancing guidelines, but fellow workers aren’t heeding the warnings and the company isn’t forcing anyone to stay six feet apart.
The Department of Agriculture will have to police and make sure farmer owners are adhering to the safety and health guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.
One worker started carrying a document that states as an agricultural worker the government considers them “essential” A description authorities have used to describe the work of employees and businesses that are too critical to stop during this crisis. Some workers hope it will help if they are stopped by police or immigration authorities.
Farmers Doing Everything They Can to Protect Workers
At least half of farm workers are undocumented immigrants, according to government estimates. Many don’t have health insurance or receive sick leave.
Nicholson of United Farm Workers said, “recently passed federal legislation make farms with less than 50 workers or more than 500 workers exempt from requirements to provide paid sick leave.”
Nicholson said, “Neither of these exclusions make common sense when you’re talking about protecting the food supply. There’s a significant economic disincentive for workers to do the right thing.”
But Dave Puglia says even growers who aren’t required to extend sick leave provisions are doing so. Dave Puglia is the President and CEO of Western Growers which represents farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico. He says they are doing everything possible to protect workers and is a top priority. So far, he says, major outbreaks haven’t been reported at produce farms, but he says the possibility is something that has many growers “walking on eggshells.”
Puglia said, “It’s a huge concern. The nation needs farmers and farm workers to continue providing food, and obviously if the virus sweeps through the workforce, that will inhibit our ability to continue to providing food to the country. A lot of people are going to great lengths to keep those workers safe.”
Whenever possible, social distancing measures are being implemented, he says. But Puglia says, the way some crops, like lettuce, are harvested, requires workers to stand closer together.
Mike Carlton, Director of Labor Relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association said, “In Florida, some growers have started buying groceries for their workers, trying to limit their trips to the store. Others have set up additional handwashing stations and have been regularly briefing employees about how to stay safe.”
Carlton said, “Fortunately, we are in a position where we are able to continue to harvest at this point. The best we can do is take the most active measures we can to protect those workers. The only other measure is to stop them from working, and we can’t do that and continue to supply the country with food.”
Mary Zelazny, CEO of Finger Lakes Community Health said, “In upstate New York, COVID-19 cases among farm workers are starting to appear and the concern is growing. Farmers there are trying to protect workers but aren’t always sure what steps to take. On a recent call with farmers in the region, questions came up about whether gloves should be worn during harvests and best practices for disinfecting trucks that have multiple drivers. There is fear on everybody’s part.”
Cramped Conditions Are ‘A Recipe for an Outbreak’
A product packing employee couldn’t believe her eyes watching a large bus full of workers pull into a Walmart parking lot area in eastern North Carolina. The crowded bus was a troubling sign that other employers and workers aren’t taking the situation as seriously.
For weeks, the employee had been taking extra precautions to protect herself and so had her employer, a produce packing company, where employees have been encouraged to wear protection and wash their hands often.
As the harvest season kicks into high gear, buses and vans packed with workers are going to be a typical sight in farming communities across the country. There are camps often located on farm property where workers live in cramped conditions.
Nicholson of United Farm Workers says, “It’s a recipe for a widespread outbreak.”
Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said, “Living conditions for migrant workers are chronically and extremely overcrowded. Up to 10 to 12 people are housed in one single-wide trailer.”
The organization has been posting flyers in stores and on social media to educate workers about risks the virus poses.
Asbed added, “It’s a simple fact that if somebody living in a situation like that contracts the virus, it’s just a matter of time before everybody else in that same housing unit does as well.”
Zelazny says, “That raises another question that health officials in upstate New York are watching and weighing.” The local health center has been helping with virus testing in farm worker communities. When farm workers test positive, where can they go to quarantine and recuperate?
Zelazny added, “We’re very worried about what are we doing with these guys as they convalesce? They’ve got to go somewhere. And there’s no place to go.”
Farmworkers Have Hard Time Getting Medical Care
Sylvia Partida, CEO of the National Center for Farmworker Health says, “On top of all of the environmental risks farmworkers face, she’s been hearing troubling reports from community health centers she works with across the country. Some are worried they may have to curtail the services they offer to farmworkers because of funding shortages, she says, and it couldn’t come at a worse time.”
Partida added, “Clinics might not be able to function. There’s going to be an impact in the access that farmworkers have to healthcare services, and really also to information that will help protect them and provide them with information about how they protect themselves.”
While the massive aid package Congress recently passed provided money to community health programs, Partida says it didn’t specifically earmark funding for farmworker health. That, she says, means mobile clinics and other crucial programs for migrant workers could very easily get lost in the shuffle of competing priorities for limited resources.
“It’s already happening,” she says. “Health centers have had to furlough staff. They’ve had to close some of their sites.”
Mónica Ramírez was already concerned about the toll the virus could take on farmworkers. Learning that some clinics are scaling back services made her even more worried. “I was shocked,” says Ramírez, the president of Justice for Migrant Women, which advocates for workers’ rights. “They are being put out on the frontlines to continue feeding this country,” she says, “and we cannot stand by and allow them to go without the care they need.”
Being proactive is the only way to deal with this insidious virus.
In Florida, Asbed is pushing for officials to set up a field hospital in his community while there’s still time.
“It is quite possible that in a matter of a couple weeks here in Florida we may NOT have enough people to harvest the state’s fruits and vegetables,” he says. “That’s just an absolutely predictable outcome of the current configuration of things.”
On the national level, advocates said several policy changes could have a significant impact on the situation:
• Requiring farms—no matter their size—to provide sick leave for workers
• Earmarking federal funding to guarantee healthcare services for migrant farmworkers
• Covering the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment regardless of immigration status
Some are hoping for a longer-term solution will emerge from this crisis, a way for undocumented farmworkers to come out of the shadows.
Being officially deemed “essential workers” was a small step in the right direction, she says. But officials shouldn’t send mixed messages.
“It’s contradictory. It’s an achievement that they’re calling us this. But without any benefits, it’s like saying, ‘you are good, but you are not important.’”
Once the pandemic passes, she says, President Trump and other leaders in Washington should remember that they stayed in the fields and didn’t falter.
But no matter what, workers are getting up in the early morning hours and heading back to work. These workers are just as essential as the front line workers, doctors and nurses in the hospitals.
Meat Processing Plants Suspend Operations After Workers Fall Ill
Several meat processing plants around the U.S. are sitting idle this week because workers have been infected with the coronavirus. Tyson Foods, one of the country’s biggest meat processors, says it suspended operations at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than two dozen workers got sick with COVID-19. National Beef Packing stopped slaughtering cattle at another Iowa plant, and JBS USA shut down work at a beef plant in Pennsylvania.
Most farms and food companies are continuing to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s concern that the coronavirus could spread among workers doing some of the most labor-intensive jobs, including meat processing.
Christine McCracken, a top meat industry analyst with RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness, told NPR via email that these plant closings aren’t yet having a significant impact on the overall supply of meat to consumers, but there’s increasing concern in the industry about worker shortages.
“Most processors I work with have seen a significant increase in absenteeism,” McCracken wrote. “Whether that is due to actual COVID-19 issues, childcare issues (with the closure of schools) or even fear of contracting the disease it is unclear. In some cases, the decline in available workers is severe.”
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In a statement released Monday, Tyson Foods said it is taking a variety of measures to reduce the risk of infection. The company is buying protective face coverings for employees, increasing the spacing or erecting dividers between workers inside its plants, and setting up tents or outdoor spaces for employees to use during breaks. In some cases, these measures are slowing down production.
A handful of workers at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo., have tested positive for the coronavirus. According to the Greeley Tribune, hundreds of workers didn’t show up for work on Monday in protest of the lack of protections for workers.
McCracken said meat processors are trying to prepare for worker shortages by hiring more employees and by cross-training existing employees to do additional jobs but that the companies have had “limited success” with these measures.