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Published in Food/Agribusiness

Pandemic exacerbates concerns for migrant farm workers

BY Sunday, June 21, 2020 03:55pm

Dozens of crops grown in West Michigan are hand-picked by seasonal and migrant farmworkers. 

While those who work in agriculture are considered essential to critical infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic, picking the produce that consumers are now buying in high numbers could come at substantial cost to farm workers’ own health.

That’s according to Teresa Hendricks, senior litigator and executive director of Grand Rapids-based Migrant Legal Aid

“I anticipate farm workers being forced to work in dangerous conditions because they don’t want to lose their job, they don’t want to get retaliated against and they can’t afford not to work,” Hendricks told MiBiz.

The highly contagious coronavirus has spread rapidly around the world since it was first recognized late last year. Most reports of person-to-person transmission have been among household units or in other congregate situations where the secondary attack rate has been estimated to exceed 10 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Michigan’s agriculture industry employs migrant farmworkers each year in planting, cultivating, harvesting and packaging meat and produce. As key vegetables and fruits come into season over the next few months, farms will increasingly need migrant and seasonal workers to take on many labor-intensive jobs.

“The first crop that brings in a lot of workers is asparagus, which usually runs between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day,” Hendricks said. 

Throughout the summer and into fall, hand harvesting crops like blueberries, cherries and apples takes a lot of workers who often come into close contact with one another in the field. Asparagus is usually picked from a trailer where farmworkers sit six in a line, shoulder-to-shoulder. Blueberry farms use common weigh stations. People who harvest apples normally work in teams. 

“If all of the guidelines are followed and you do social distancing, we’re going to be producing half the amount of food,” Hendricks said. 

On top of dense working conditions, many migrant and seasonal farmworkers also live in communal spaces. Approximately 900 migrant housing sites are licensed in the Lower Peninsula, including 4,500 living units with a capacity for 25,000 people, according to the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development

People who live in migrant housing often share living, sleeping and bathroom facilities, making it almost impossible to follow social distancing guidelines, sources say. In addition, migrant workers have historically been vulnerable to unsafe and contaminated living conditions as well as systemic wage theft, labor trafficking, child labor and dangers posed by pesticides. 

“Based on my experience with compliance with regular obligations for field sanitation and working conditions, we already are having to do a lot just to support those, and now you add these additional requirements and I don’t think it’s going to be any better,” Hendricks said. “It’s more likely to be worse because the way we harvest our crops and the way that we have our workers has just never been designed to be done in a way that makes it safe under COVID-19.” 

Following guidelines

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order on June 1 that covered temporary new requirements related to the housing and working conditions of migrant and seasonal agricultural workers during the pandemic.

As part of the new rules, living units must have beds that are separated by at least 6 feet or more in all directions when possible, and camp residents are encouraged to sleep head-to-toe. Whitmer also ensured priority COVID-19 testing for migrant workers and people in food processing facilities, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services expanded testing criteria to include migrant farmworkers even if they are asymptomatic.

Sparta-based Schweitzer Orchards hires 25 to 30 migrant farmworkers each year, according to operator Nick Schweitzer. Many of the farm’s seasonal workers have long-lasting relationships with Schweitzer, who is a fifth-generation apple grower. 

Taking preventive measures now will help keep workers safe as well as keep the business running smoothly, he said. Fortunately, during the apple harvest, each individual worker keeps and cleans his own set of equipment and people in the field already stay generally socially distanced, he said. 

Workers arrive at the family farm in early August and stay in 13 living units on the property through November. Schweitzer’s main concern is with the existing living units and some communal spaces within them. 

“We do have one issue with part of our campus setup because there’s a community bathroom,” Schweitzer said. “We have some units that have their own bathrooms within the housing unit, but in these other ones, you have to go to a community-based bathroom and shower room. So, that could be a problem.” 

The farm is also required by the new executive order to keep “isolation housing” for people who are suspected to have the virus but have not yet received a positive result from a COVID-19 test, which could become problematic during the peak harvesting season in September when the largest number of people are living on the farm. 

The Schweitzers had planned to build a new building with four units this spring which “would have helped,” Schweitzer said, but the project was postponed earlier in the year due to a non-COVID medical emergency in the family. Now, those resources are freed up for the updates that are necessary to older units. 

‘They just feel unsafe’ 

However, geographic and community isolation is already one of the many reasons why migrant workers are more vulnerable to mistreatment and unsafe working conditions, according to Migrant Legal Aid’s Hendricks. 

“I’m getting calls now that are from people who are absolutely frightened out of their minds that they might endanger their family,” she said. “They have children with immunocompromised conditions. They have elderly parents living with them. They have a lot of people living in their household and then they have 15 or 17  people on their job that have tested positive for coronavirus. They just feel unsafe, unprotected and afraid to speak up.”

Hendricks added that already “three out of four calls” she gets are about workplaces that she considers “problematic.” 

There are already reports of farm workers catching and spreading the deadly virus in a number of other states that started harvesting crops earlier in the year and during the early crop harvests in Michigan. 

In April, Pero Family Farms LLC in Benton Harbor, which employs migrant and seasonal workers in food processing, shut down for two weeks to sanitize for safety in light of positive tests. The operation’s response to the outbreak was an example of a company “doing the right thing,” Hendricks said. 

Outside of potential deadly consequences for families in Michigan and further strain on the health care system, virus outbreaks across farms during harvesting periods would further disrupt the state’s food supply chain. 

Nationwide, immigrants make up close to half of all field workers in the agriculture industry, according to data from immigration research and advocacy organization New American Economy. To address labor challenges stemming from travel restrictions related to the global spread of the virus, the Department of Homeland Security introduced a temporary rule to allow farms to employ immigrant workers who are already in the country and allow those temporary workers to stay beyond three years, which is the usual maximum length of stay in the country.

However, without the proper safeguards in place, more workers simply translates to more potential victims, according to experts. 

“I think we are going to have food shortages,” Hendricks said. “We haven’t yet seen how bad an outbreak can be at a particular place and how much certain food types are going to be affected.” 

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