But they also expressed some worry about procuring enough PPE for their labor force, noting that “farmers have some reserves of these supplies but as this crisis lingers, we are concerned about the ability to secure supplies in the future.”
Some of the largest produce growers in the country have dramatically changed their operations in recent weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, recognizing it as an existential threat.
But these companies have more resources than most, in some cases going above and beyond CDC guidance. Farmworker advocates at every level are urging state and federal policymakers to be more aggressive and impose enforceable standards to ensure operations of all sizes are keeping their workforces healthy.
“We’re hoping that some agricultural employers that have not yet woken up to the reality are going to realize that their business is in danger if their workers get ill,” Goldstein said.
A patchwork response
Even the most progressive states are struggling to figure out how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among this vulnerable class of workers.
In Washington, which is a major producer of tree fruit like apples and cherries, farmworker unions and advocates sued the state last month to press for mandatory Covid-19 protections.
State officials initially produced fact sheets with suggestions for how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on farms and in packing houses, but advocates criticized the documents as confusing and unenforceable. Labor groups want the guidelines to be legally required, so if workers raise concerns they have clear requirements to point to.
“The agencies aren’t big enough nor do they have resources to be out there protecting workers,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a firm representing farmworker groups in their litigation.
Even though Gov. Jay Inslee has been sympathetic to the farmworkers’ concerns, there are no easy answers. It’s not just workplaces but housing, churches, buses and everything in between that present a possible risk for spreading the coronavirus in the agriculture industry.
Since the lawsuit, the state’s labor and health departments have proposed some emergency rules for agriculture aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19, but they have not yet been finalized.
The proposals include a temporary ban on the use of bunk beds in guest worker housing to allow for more distance between laborers, something that agriculture industry groups have strongly pushed back on, arguing that it’s expensive and unworkable.
“They’ve at least taken action here,” Morrison said. “They care, but the feds haven’t done anything.”
The Wenatchee Valley, a large fruit growing hub, is already hosting thousands of H-2A guest workers to help manage its extensive orchards and other farms, but within weeks as many as 20,000 more workers are expected to arrive as the harvest kicks off in earnest, which means worker housing is soon expected to become even more densely populated.
“You have to do something,” said Morrison. “It can’t just be business as usual.”
In Oregon, state agencies have imposed sweeping new requirements on farms, including a temporary ban on the use of bunk beds to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
California, which supplies much of the country’s vegetables, has been the most active in extending assistance to farmworkers, who have been given two weeks of paid sick leave from an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom. State lawmakers are currently debating legislation that would provide laborers with hazard pay, child care help and temporary housing to prevent crowding.
Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation, said that for the most part, farmers in the state have been working hard to ensure there are limited outbreaks, like taking steps to improve housing circumstances.
Some farmers with employees that have tested positive have rented hotel rooms for them to recover in isolation where they receive medical checkups and meals delivered, he said. Other producers are exploring renting additional housing so that workers are not living in such close quarters.