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Protection Gaps Raise COVID Risks for Migrant Workers

Truck with tomatoes
Migrant farm workers harvest tomatoes on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, summer 2020. (Photo courtesy of farmworker)

This story was reported by Christopher Tyree,  Lynn Waltz and Alan Rodriguez Espinoza as part of a collaborative project between the  Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism, VPM and James Madison University.

Tristan Lorei and Katelyn Waltmeyer of James Madison University contributed to this report.

Geovanni Miranda Garcia labored through an apple orchard in the Shenandoah Valley one recent warm October afternoon, sorting freshly picked apples. One after another, for hours on end.

It is a job he has done at Turkey Knob Growers in Rockingham County, Va., for several years. His whole family back home in Monterrey, Mexico, depends on his income.

Earlier this year Garcia faced a difficult decision about taking the annual journey north as a migrant farmer under the U.S. government’s H-2A visa program.

With COVID-19 cases in the U.S. among the highest in the world, his family questioned whether the 50-hour bus ride to Shenandoah Valley to pick apples would be worth the risk. They wondered if his employer would take safety precautions to keep him and his coworkers safe, and what government rules were in place to assure his safe arrival back home after the harvest season.

While he knew the risks of coming, in the end, it was never an option for him to stay home.

“Never. No, never. I always thought of coming,” Garcia, 23, said in Spanish. “It didn’t matter the situation in the United States because it’s a great opportunity that you can’t waste.”

Garcia is one of more than 10,000 migrant farmers who travelled to Virginia this year during the deadly pandemic to plant and harvest crops at more than 250 Virginia farms and orchards, according to the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC). Despite the health crisis, the influx of migrants this year changed little from previous harvests, according to VEC estimates.

The immigrant workers -- overwhelmingly Latino -- drive one of the commonwealth’s key industries. Now, they face some of the greatest risks of COVID infection through crowded work and living conditions.

Although Virginia leaders have acknowledged the health hazards to farmworkers and enacted broad guidelines for their work laboring in the fields and orchards, advocates say the state has not done enough to protect and monitor the health of vulnerable workers.

The exact impact of the pandemic on the industry and its workers is difficult to measure.

Several farm communities have seen a disproportionate number of Latino residents affected by the virus. For example, in Northampton and Accomack counties, Latinos make up roughly 9% of the population but about 18% of reported COVID cases in the Eastern Shore communities.

Though data on this year’s harvest of crops hasn’t been calculated yet, the pandemic has likely slowed production in Virginia. Farmers were in largely uncharted territory making decisions in the spring about how much to plant and how to harvest.

“This year has been really different because we haven’t harvested a lot of tomatoes,” said Oscar Fajardo Mar, who is in his fourth year working for the same farming outfit. “The company didn’t take risks and didn’t plant as much. Here in Virginia, we honestly haven’t worked much. We work every other day. This year has been really different.”

Migrant workers are generally paid by what they pick, and when there is nothing to pick, there is no pay.

“The pandemic has really hit us where it hurts most, because if we don’t work, if we don’t generate, then we don’t have anything and it’s harder on us,” Fajardo Mar said.

Virginia has struggled to draw safeguards for farm workers amidst the health crisis.

The Virginia Department of Health, which oversees general safety requirements of migrant camps, like water quality and sanitation, made COVID-19 health recommendations to migrant camp operators earlier this year but lacked any authority to have those operations comply with these new recommendations.

Worker advocates and industry groups lobbied for different standards.

After a fractious debate, members of the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Board approved emergency safety guidelines on July 27th -- well into the growing season. Agricultural labor was designated as “Medium” exposure risk, requiring masks, sanitizer stations, social distancing and other hygiene protocols for workers while they are in the fields and orchards as well as livestock processing plants. However, these regulations do not apply to migrant camps.

While there have been reported outbreaks of coronavirus at some migrant camps, the health department said they aren’t actively monitoring them.

“The Virginia Electronic Disease Surveillance System does not capture the level of detail about [migrant] cases that are reported to us by physicians, persons in charge of medical facilities, or laboratories,” Julie Henderson, director of the Office of Environmental Health Services at VDH, wrote in a September response to a Freedom of Information request by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism.

These gaps in state COVID tracking measures have left migrant farm workers and their communities vulnerable to this growing season, according to health and immigrant activists. They warned severe outbreaks could jeopardize the food chain and spread in rural communities where worker camps are located.

Earlier this year, about  700 workers at processing plants on the Eastern Shore tested positive for the virus, according to Dr. Jonathan Richardson, CEO for the Eastern Shore Health District.

Kim Bobo, director of Virginia Interfaith Center, blamed lobbying from the poultry industry for the “step backwards” in protecting workers, she said. More than 1,100 poultry workers have contracted the virus statewide and ten have died, she said.

Thousands of additional summer agricultural workers flocked to the shore to pick tomatoes and potatoes, harvest crabs, and work in nurseries with low wages and harsh work conditions.

Advocates say the tight work and living conditions have contributed to the high rates of infection among the Hispanic community. Despite making up about 10 percent of the population in the Commonwealth, earlier this summer Latino Virginians made up 45.3 percent of the cases for which Virginia has demographic data, and 35 percent of hospitalizations.

In Virginia, about half of farmworkers are on a temporary visa, called H-2A, enacted in 1986 to allow farmers to fill temporary jobs. The majority of those visa holders are from Mexico.

Scarcity of U.S. farmworkers has driven an increase in H-2A visas from 48,000 in 2005 to 258,000 in 2019.

Latino farmworkers not n the H-2A program are mostly undocumented immigrants, according to federal estimates.  They often fear seeking medical care, rarely have insurance and are reluctant to take unpaid leave for illness.

Fajardo Mar, 36, left Veracruz, Mexico, in January before the pandemics’ reach was known, first stopping in Florida before making his way to the Eastern Shore in June to harvest tomatoes. He says that he’s been healthy the entire time, partly due to the fact that he’s been with the same men.

“The idea is that since we’re all already isolated, we’re safe. There’s rules in place before we get onto the bus. We have to use hand sanitizer and use a face mask at all times,” he said in Spanish.

Still, living conditions are tight.

Fajardo Mar says the workers live in a large housing unit, divided into four rooms with 11 people per room. The unit also has a kitchen and a bathroom. His room has nine people, he says, spread out on bunk beds. For the most part, if the migrants aren’t working in the fields or orchards they are stuck in the camps.

“We can’t leave the camp. We don’t have authorization, unless someone from the company goes out with us,” he said.

The pandemic has left big producers and small farmers scrambling since March. Conflicting guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the H-2A visa program and state agencies meant many farmers had to rethink their production and distribution practices, said Michael Wallace, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Many farms added extra protections for workers, such as extra busses for transportation and additional living space, he said.

Jaime Williams, president of Turkey Knob Growers, has drawn strict lines to keep production steady during the crisis.  “There's no ifs, ands and buts with us,” Williams said. “We grow apples [and] we gotta get those apples to market, so we've got to implement these procedures in order to get it harvested and packed. Therefore, we’re going to have to make sure we've instituted safe practices to social distance and do lots of those things.”

Many worried the impact would only worsen as agricultural workers are crowded into labor camps. They often work shoulder-to-shoulder in the fields and packing houses, an ideal atmosphere for transmitting the virus, advocates say.

“In poultry, companies did not take a proactive response, then faced historically high numbers,” said Jason Yarashes, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which petitioned the governor to protect agricultural workers. “Meanwhile, farm workers are here, and we have an opportunity to be proactive.”

Yarashes expected the highest number of cases on the Eastern Shore. “But this is an issue throughout Virginia,” he said. “When people think these are just projections, they’re not. This is not hyperbole. It will happen. Nothing is more ripe for a potential disaster.”

Yarashes and other legal aid attorneys have been able to visit some of the camps, thanks to an attorney general opinion last year.

Yarashes said conditions are generally poor. “Even before COVID, you have old stoves, dormitory bedrooms, single showers and bathrooms,” he said.

While Yarashes and his team can access labor camps to help workers with legal matters, religious and charity advocates report being shut out on the Eastern Shore.

“We try to take food and clothing out to the camps and they won’t let us in,” said Terry Strub, who coordinates the Migrant Ministry at St. Charles’ Church with her husband, Mike, in Cape Charles, Va. “The priest goes to the camp, stands outside and tries to minister, but isn’t allowed to have contact with the workers.”

Strub said that most of the ministers are over the age of 50 and are afraid of getting the virus. Still, they wish they could help the workers in the camps as they have in the past.

“Our hands are tied,” she said.

Fajardo Mar said visits to the camp have been strictly limited and must be scheduled and approved.

His coworker, Angel Hernandez, 31, also from Veracruz, Mexico, laments that he’d like to go out and see other people and places. But, he added, “The more we take care of each other, the quicker we’ll be out of this.”

Hernandez says he’s been approached by outside groups to get tested for COVID-19, but like many farmworkers, he’s afraid. He says he feels safer at the camp than going to a clinic where there is more of a risk of exposure.

That lack of testing data and tracing also has been a hurdle, advocates say.

“Access to information remains challenging,” said Amy Liebman, director of Environmental and Occupational Health at Migrant Clinicians Network in Salisbury, Md.  “While a handful of states have issued emergency order or temporary standards to protect farmworkers, employers are largely running the show.”

She believes the number of farm worker COVID cases -- estimated at more than 150,000 nationally -- has been undercounted.  

Liebman said the industry, workers and healthcare providers need to draw up stronger safety requirements to prevent major outbreaks in rural areas.

The present guidelines are not working, she said. “If we don’t throw our workers under the bus,” she said, “we can make a difference on the number of people infected.”

Most of the seasonal workers VCIJ spoke with said they feel relatively safe because they are around the same group every day and have little to no outside contact.

“Up until now, I feel safe, thankfully. I don’t know about later on, but for now, the safety protocols that our company and our coworkers are carrying out have been effective,” said Hernandez.

“If it wasn’t for this job, I don’t know what I would have done or what would have happened,” Fajardo Mar said, “Thankfully no one here has gotten sick, we’re doing everything well. Hopefully this will all end soon because we want to have our social life back, and for work, which we urgently need.”

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