The potential dangers of COVID-19 in restaurants, bars, schools, and gyms have been highly publicized and debated, but there’s one place where coronavirus vulnerability has been overlooked: farms.
Many might be tempted to dismiss farming as a dangerous activity due to its outdoor setting, but the truth is that the coronavirus has the ability to run rampant in the farming community. This has been seen plainly in the outbreaks among hundreds of farm workers across California, Washington, Florida, and Michigan.
Without protections from the federal government, farm workers are more vulnerable than most people realize.
The Challenges of Farming During COVID-19
Farms are often staffed with Latino workers. Some live locally, but others are migrant workers who travel from farm to farm to follow seasonal work. A portion of farm workers also come from Mexico or Central America on temporary agricultural visas.
These workers live together in close quarters. They sleep in bunk beds, share bathrooms and kitchens, ride crowded buses to the fields, and work in groups. Due to hot temperatures and other limitations, basic interventions such as social distancing and mask-wearing aren’t feasible.
Yet most don’t receive health insurance benefits or paid sick leave. This is an issue on its own, but in the era of COVID-19, it carries even heavier implications. Farm workers are caught in a dangerous situation, risking the coronavirus to harvest crops and continue making a living.
Farms say they’re doing as much as they can to protect workers with limited funds and resources, while also sticking to critical crop harvesting schedules. Migrant worker advocacy groups, on the other hand, claim that farms are taking advantage of their workers and increasing their risk of exposure.
However, the federal government has not established any enforceable rules to protect farmworkers from the coronavirus or require employers to respond a certain way when workers become infected.
Farms Formulate Their Own Policies
Until federal regulations are developed and implemented, farms have the latitude to respond to the coronavirus in their own way.
Given that at least 3,600 cases of farmworkers testing positive for coronavirus have been reported, there are certainly many farms grappling with the best defense system in the face of COVID-19.
For example, in early summer, 10 of the 80 temporary workers at the Jones & Church Farms in Unicoi County, Tennessee tested positive for the coronavirus. Another farm nearby reported 38 positive test results around the same time.
“This was the scariest thing that could happen,” said Renea Jones Rogers, the farm’s food safety director. Especially since Jones & Church Farms took proactive measures to combat COVID-19 at the beginning of the season. The farm increased sanitation, implemented daily temperature readings, and kept workers in small cohorts to work, live, and eat.
The efforts taken by Jones & Church Farms closely matched the voluntary agriculture guidelines published by the CDC. The problem, advocacy groups point out, is that the guidelines aren’t mandatory.
“We don’t believe that the health and safety of workers should be left to the good will of employers,” says María Perales Sanchez, communications coordinator for Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, an advocacy group with offices in both Mexico and the U.S.
More than six months into the pandemic, the answers still aren’t clear, but farms across the nation are adapting to the threat of the coronavirus and, despite a lack of federal protections, are taking actions to protect farm workers and the crucial job they perform.