The three million farmworkers in the U.S. who help feed the country are, understandably, deemed essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are no federal regulations to keep them safe, and there have been virus outbreaks in fields across the nation.
It’s difficult to obtain accurate numbers on how many agricultural workers have tested positive for COVID-19 because of the widespread nature of farm work and the fear by workers of testing positive and being fired, advocates say. That also makes contract tracing challenging if there is an outbreak. “Right now there aren’t any federal requirements in place, so across the country we’re looking at a complete patchwork of different laws and regulations, whether it is mandatory or voluntary guidance,” says Jared Hayes, a policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., consultancy.
In June, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Labor issued joint guidance targeting worker safety for the agricultural sector that states can use, but the recommendations are not obligatory. Approximately 10 states have some kind of farm worker protections in place now, but it’s still mainly up to employers to set the safety standards.
U.S. farmworkers tend to be either seasonal workers with H-2A visas or migrant workers. Some stay in one state, but many travel from state to state, following the growing season, Hayes says. That can cause confusion among workers who don’t know their rights as they travel to states with different safety protections, he says. Living and working conditions can vary greatly, but many times, workers live together in cramped housing, commute to the fields in packed buses and often work side-by-side, all of which can be conducive to spreading the virus, Hayes says. Some companies have started spacing out workers more in buses and in the field, given them masks, and installed hand-sanitizing stations, he says.
Recent cases in California and Florida exemplify the risky conditions workers face. An investigation by Cal Matters and The Salinas Californian newspaper found reports of six outbreaks at seven companies across four counties in California that sickened more than 350 guest workers. The companies didn’t always report the cases to public health officials, making it difficult to detect or contain outbreaks. “Due to their low wages and the cost of housing, farmworkers do tend to live either in multiple families in one unit or multiple workers in one unit,” says Alexis Guild, director of health policy and programs at Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.
The 150,000 or so farmworkers in Florida are in the off season now, but there were rumors of earlier outbreaks at tomato and other farms in the state that were hard to confirm, says Jeannie Economos, coordinator of the pesticide safety and environmental health project at the Farmworker Association of Florida, a farmworker advocacy group in Apopka, Florida. Without federal regulations in place, she’s worried about the coming harvest this fall. “There are no OSHA requirements, there’s no enforcement, and there’s no carrot and stick for employers to do anything,” Economos says. “We don’t know what the season is going to look like. We’re very concerned about it.”