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Harvest During the Pandemic: In America's Rust Belt, an Essential but Vulnerable Workforce Is Left To Fend for Themselves

An image of the bathrooms farmworkers share in a migrant camp in Delta, Ohio. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

An image of the bathrooms farmworkers share in a migrant camp in Delta, Ohio. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

Pictured above are the sinks migrant farmworkers use while staying at the housing facility. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

Pictured above are the sinks migrant farmworkers use while staying at the housing facility. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

A worker hangs his laundry outside to dry in the migrant camp where he resides. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

A worker hangs his laundry outside to dry in the migrant camp where he resides. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

Migrant farmworkers usually live in close quarter housing like the one pictured above, sharing bathrooms and laundry facilities. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

Migrant farmworkers usually live in close quarter housing like the one pictured above, sharing bathrooms and laundry facilities. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

Some of the facilities outside migrant housing include a "No Trespassing" sign in Swanton, Ohio. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

Some of the facilities outside migrant housing include a "No Trespassing" sign in Swanton, Ohio. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

Between four to six migrant farmworkers live in housing like the one pictured above. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

Between four to six migrant farmworkers live in housing like the one pictured above. Image by Areeba Shah. United States, 2020.

For more than 15 years, Juana (who prefers not to give her last name) has worked on Michigan farms, picking peaches, tangerines, cherries, grapes, and, most recently, packing eggs.

In March, when COVID-19 infection rates surged across the country and families sheltered in their homes with food at their dinner tables, Juana still reported to work without access to safe working conditions, and protected only by a mask she had bought for herself.

Her company had declared her an “essential worker” at the beginning of the pandemic, but her circumstances shifted very little. There was no increase in protections offered to her, and her paycheck stayed the same.

A few weeks into the pandemic, her coworkers started missing workdays. She suspected they had contracted the coronavirus, so she suggested they get tested. But without health insurance, the tests would be costly they told her, depleting their meager wages.

Then came April, and Juana fell sick for a month and a half. She was unable to work and hence unable to cover her monthly rent. She was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Unlike other essential workers who have received federal assistance in obtaining personal protective gear and earning hazard pay, farmworkers have been left to fend for themselves. Many farms have experienced disproportionately high rates of coronavirus cases, threatening the lives of already vulnerable migrant farmworkers and their communities.

But a lack of COVID-19 protections only scratches the surface of a long line of injustices suffered by migrant farmworkers who have long lived in unsafe and contaminated conditions, faced labor exploitation, lacked access to healthcare, and worked in fields while being exposed to dangerous pesticides.

“Farmworkers deserve equal pay because they are risking their lives to feed America,” Juana, 39, said through a translator during a call organized by Michigan farmworker advocates. “If there were no farmworkers, what would happen to our families? No one would have anything to eat.”

The pandemic has revealed a new set of fears for migrant workers living on the financial fringe. Under an executive order in Michigan, farm employees are eligible to receive pay while quarantining for 14 days. But advocates reported that many workers are not paid for that period, and many workers are unaware that they are entitled to pay while quarantining.

Meanwhile farm owners have failed to provide workers with personal protective equipment or housing where they can be socially distanced from others to avoid spreading the virus, advocates say. And farmworkers often avoid getting tested since they fear testing positive and losing their only source of income.

Michigan is one of few states that have passed orders to keep agricultural workers—a predominantly immigrant and often undocumented workforce—safe. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has not issued an executive order to protect farmworkers, as advocacy groups have demanded since April. The Ohio Department of Agriculture has responded only by distributing face masks and informational handouts in migrant worker camps, while workers have continued to harvest crops—standing shoulder to shoulder—travel in buses and live together in close quarters.

“So it really is the perfect storm, between working, living, and transportation conditions,” said Teresa Hendricks, executive director of the Migrant Legal Aid organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “On top of the usual pesticide exposure dangers, now we have the pandemic."

Michigan farms, which draw between 40,000 to 45,000 migrant farmworkers annually, rely heavily on the labor of H-2A workers, who come on guest-worker visas from Central America; undocumented workers; or seasonal workers who travel from Georgia, Florida, and Texas. The workers harvest the majority of the state’s fruits and vegetables, bringing in about $1.4 billion annually, but have endured exploitative labor practices for decades.

Farmworkers are exempt from the labor protections that are afforded to other workers under federal law, a fact that has made it harder for them to demand protections from coronavirus.

“It is a racist legacy because in 1935, most of the agricultural workers were Black ... So (the government) excluded agricultural workers from the right to organize, and we've lived with that racist legacy ever since because now most agricultural workers are brown,” said Baldemar Velasquez, founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

Velasquez, who was raised in the fields as a migrant worker, has spent the last few decades fighting for workers’ rights, but has seen little change since then-President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty back in the ‘60s.

'The Perfect Storm'

“The COVID-19 outbreak has not only exacerbated some of these ongoing concerns about worker safety protection, but it also shed light on some of the new guidelines that should be implemented,” said José López, paralegal at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Weeks into the pandemic, workers phoned into the hotline López manages, asking for help securing health and safety protections.

Undocumented workers who traveled from out of state inquired about their rights if law enforcement pulled them over.

Guest-workers on H-2A visas meanwhile face a new set of challenges during the pandemic. Their visa is tied to their employer, and if they lose their job they also lose their temporary legal status, making them especially afraid of testing positive for COVID-19.

“They're torn between putting their families at risk and going without income, which can lead to homelessness and poverty because they're already living below the poverty level,” Hendricks said.

In Michigan, foreign workers on guest-worker visas earn $14.40 per hour under their contracts, yet advocates have found undocumented workers earning less and some employees being cheated out of their wages.

Hendricks says workers are more frightened than at any time in her 25-year career. Part of this fear stems from farm owners, who have failed to provide personal protective equipment or housing where workers can maintain social distancing. Even though Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order requires workplace safety measures and isolated housing for COVID-positive workers, Hendricks finds enforcement to be spotty.

“Nothing is very organized and uniform throughout the farming and food processing industry, and it's very chaotic,” she said.

Michigan’s main asparagus production region, Oceana County, experienced coronavirus outbreaks at farming facilities in late May and June. At least 127 COVID-19 cases were linked to five farms or manufacturing facilities in the county.

Early in the pandemic, the state health department overseeing 10 major agricultural counties mailed instructions to growers about mitigating the virus’ spread and hosted video calls to offer resources. But only a handful of farm owners attended, said Jeannine Taylor, the public information officer.

“This was early on in the pandemic, so it's very possible that many didn't think it would be as big of an issue as it turned out to be,” Taylor said. “We are working with the farms themselves directly, just to assist them, but really it's up to them to implement the guidance.”

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), which is in charge of monitoring farms, conducted COVID-19 outreach visits to review farms’ mitigation plans. Since July 27, MDARD has conducted close to 1,000 COVID-19 outreach inspections per Gov. Whitmer’s June 29 executive order.

Living in Close Quarters

Offering isolated housing in camps remains a top challenge for Michigan, said MDARD spokesperson Jessy Sielski in an email interview.

The traditional barrack-style migrant worker homes with shared laundry and bathroom facilities pose inherent risks during the pandemic. If one employee tests positive, everyone else in the unit also has to quarantine. On average, four to six workers live together, sharing bunk beds and common eating areas.

“For a long time, we have been discussing the issues farmworkers (experience) as poor working and living conditions, and these are not only precarious conditions, this is really labor exploitation,” said Lisbeth Iglesias-Rios, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan. “So we need to call it what it is.”

Iglesias-Rios and Alexis Handal, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, conducted a study on the working and living conditions of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Michigan last year.

Their findings revealed that workers lacked access to clean bathrooms and soap at farming sites, where workers spend most of their day. They slept on “dusty and dirty mattresses,” and some labor camps offered no washing machines.

These workers, who are considered “essential” and whom Americans depend on to harvest crops need to be treated like human beings, Handal said.

“(They need) the same rights and privileges that we have for all of us in this country,” she added.

Advocating for Change

In Ohio, where 33,000 migrant farmworkers make up the labor force, advocacy groups like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Justice for Migrant Women, and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality have echoed a similar sentiment, asking state leaders to improve safety precautions for agriculture workers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Mónica Ramirez, founder of Justice for Migrant Women, has been visiting migrant camps, handing out PPE and information pamphlets. On her visits to these sites, she has encountered “no trespassing” signs and hostility from crew leaders who are in charge of overseeing farmworkers.

During one phone call, workers reached out to her worried about the COVID-19 symptoms they were experiencing. Ramirez reported the concerns to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an arm of the Department of Labor, to help the workers get tested. But the agencies were reluctant to get involved because they were concerned about their outreach workers’ health, Ramirez said. Eventually, federal employees did end up visiting the labor camps to administer tests, and multiple workers tested positive, Ramirez said.

“There's this major disconnect where you're saying there are certain groups of workers who are essential, but those workers don't get any rights,” Ramirez said. “And then when they become sick, we don't have the mechanisms in place to send people out to investigate the matter in a timely manner.”

Gov. Mike DeWine has issued mandatory health requirements for businesses like casinos, golf courses and nail salons, but nothing for farms where workers continue to toil in the fields in close proximity to one another, harvesting the food that keeps Americans fed.

In July, Huron County, Ohio saw surging COVID-19 cases, and it was one of seven counties labeled code red for high exposure and spread of the virus. Buurma Farms, Holthouse Farms and Weirs Farms experienced outbreaks at their facilities, with 54 total confirmed positive cases.

“It is important to note that not all 54 confirmed cases (were) workers at the farms,” said Melanie Myers, Huron County Public Health spokesperson. “These individuals can also include family members or other close contacts outside of work.”

The first farm-related confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported to Huron County Public Health on June 12. Zero deaths were reported linked to the outbreaks at the local farms. Since then, each farm has remained in contact with HCPH to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and has followed guidelines, Myers added. HCPH recommends workers arriving from out of state quarantine for 14 days, but the requirement is not mandatory.

FLOC organizers Lorenzo Zamora and Braulio Franco have visited over 40 migrant camps in Ohio since May where they have found workers avoiding getting tested since they fear testing positive and losing their jobs.

In August, they set up a mobile clinic in a Champaign County migrant camp and tested over 100 workers. Over half of them tested positive with COVID-19 and still continued to work, according to Franco.

On most visits to these camps, farm owners and crew leaders disapprove of FLOC members speaking with their employees and have threatened to call the police, Zamora said.

Existing Issues Grow During the Pandemic

Another long-standing issue that has been magnified during the pandemic is the problem of workers losing their status if they lose the job that their guest-worker visa is tied to. In that case, workers are required to return to their home countries.

Dorian Slaybod, a staff attorney at Michigan’s Farmworker Legal Services, has seen some workers leave halfway through the season after abruptly losing their jobs.

“I have talked to people who have quarantined for longer than two weeks because they feel like they're still symptomatic, and it is heartbreaking to see how tenuous it is for them to make ends meet when they're not able to work,” Slaybod said.

The U.S. has a long history of exempting farm workers from key labor laws, including protections for workers who want to form unions, and guaranteeing overtime and minimum wage.

“Those workers are so-called essential workers and they do the job… . The question is, why can't they make a living from the hard work that they do?”

Velasquez experienced exploitation, as he sees it, first-hand during his childhood, when he worked in the fields with his parents. By the time he turned 10, he was competing with older teenagers, filling as many hampers of tomatoes and lugs of cherries as them.

His parents were paid $20 an acre for hoeing sugar beets. The farmer had told them they were being paid for hoeing 35 acres. When Velasquez calculated, he realized the field was 40 acres long.

“The thing that stuck with me is the total disregard and lack of respect and the mistreatment,” Velasquez said.

Since then, not much has changed because the policies continue to institutionalize the exploitation of agricultural workers, he added.

Juana, who has experienced the impact of these policies both mentally and financially, is one of those workers. Only now, she has to deal with existing issues that have magnified during the pandemic.

"While most people in the country are sheltered in their homes with their family safe without missing something to eat,” she said, “we are working.”