“Every Single Worker Has Covid at One U.S. Farm on Eve of Harvest.” Read that headline one more time: “Every Single Worker Has Covid at One U.S. Farm on Eve of Harvest.” That farm is in Tennessee. A farm in New Jersey has more than 50 workers with the virus, and in a neighboring county nearly 60 more on another farm have been ill. An Oneida, New York greenhouse operation growing tomatoes and strawberries reported nearly 170 infected workers.
These are among the most vulnerable essential workers in the U.S. Essential because they’re providing our food. Vulnerable because so many are noncitizen immigrants who don’t have access the medical care and live, work, and travel in cramped, crowded situations. Advocates are sounding an alarm bell—it’s going to get worse as the harvest around the country ramps up. “We’re watching very, very nervously—the agricultural harvest season is only starting now,” Michael Dale, executive director of the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project in Portland, Oregon, told Bloomberg. “I don’t think we’re ready. I don’t think we’re prepared.”
“There is woefully inadequate surveillance of what’s happening with Covid-19 and farm workers,” echoed Erik Nicholson, an official with the United Farm Workers. “There is no central reporting, which is crazy because these are essential businesses.” Henderson Farms in Evansville, Tennessee—where every worker has the virus—said they tested the workers out of an “abundance of caution,” and now all of them are in isolation on the farm. Most are asymptomatic. “We take our responsibility to protect the essential workers feeding the nation through the pandemic seriously,” Henderson Farms Co. said in a statement to Bloomberg. “In addition to continuing our policy of providing free healthcare, we have implemented additional measures to support workers directly impacted by Covid-19, including those in isolation as per the latest public health guidelines. We are working closely with public health officials in Rhea County, Tennessee, to ensure we can continue to deliver our high standard of care as we support our workers and our community through these unprecedented times.”
It does reflect well on the farm that they cared enough to test the workers—that’s not likely to be the case on all farms across the country, barring a requirement from state or federal governments that they do so. Which of course isn’t going to come from the Trump administration. These workers—some permanent residents, many from Mexico and Latin America and about half undocumented—will follow the harvest. They’ll be transported in buses, and housed in worker dormitories with many people sleeping in the bunkhouse-style rooms. Many don’t speak English and aren’t receiving information on how to protect themselves, much less getting access to the gear to do so.
Beyond the human toll the pandemic could take through the community, it could mean another economic hit for farmers if their crops can’t be harvested, and for consumers with rising produce prices. “The cost will go up, and there will be a little bit less available,” said Kevin Kenny, chief operating officer of Decernis, an expert in global food safety and supply chains. “You really will see some supply issues coming.”
The only action the Trump administration has taken has been to waive interview requirements for guest workers coming into the U.S. and to exempt farmworkers from the temporary immigration ban it has imposed. There are not specific protections in place for the migrant farmworkers. Last week, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a California Democrat, and 71 of his colleagues wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, urging that protections for them be included in the next response bill. They want free testing for all farmworkers, training and education in every applicable language, personal protective equipment including masks for every worker, and hand-washing stations.
“The COVID-19 pandemic highlights how valuable farmworkers are to our economy, but also how vulnerable they and their families are to the disease,” the lawmakers wrote. “As crops across this country are being harvested, we must act quickly and swiftly to ensure that farmworkers are protected. The USDA can provide those protections with sufficient funding for farmworkers and their families, which, ultimately, can strengthen the food security of our nation.”