Farms Face Challenges Getting and Protecting Workers During The Pandemic

Photo: Tiffany Thompkins, Bradenton Herald

by Zoey Shipley

As Our Daily Planet has reported, farmers and farm communities have in recent years been devastated by intensifying storms, flooding, droughts, and unpredictable seasonal changes. These climate-related crises have pushed many farmers out of business or made it much harder for them to get by, and there is an even greater disruption to food supply chains and seasonal harvests due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, according to The Wall Street Journal, there are growing issues surrounding seasonal workers entering (or not) the U.S., protecting farmworkers from becoming ill, and if they do, finding replacements to ensure crops are harvested before they go bad.

Why This Matters: The lack of resilience in our food system is showing. Almost 250,000 jobs were filled with migrant workers in 2018. But the Trump administration has created worker shortages when in the past it restricted the H-2A visa program out of concerns over illegal immigration. The pandemic has only made this concern worse. The New Republic detailed that “U.S. consulates in Mexico are closed indefinitely, which means a suspension of in-person interviews for the H-2A visa program. If that doesn’t change, only seasonal workers who have received worker visas in the past can come to the U.S. this harvest.” But finding workers and convincing them to come back to America during a pandemic is proving to be a challenge.

What Are Farms Doing to Protect These Workers?

Farms are adopting various strategies to help prevent the spread. Wall Street Journal wrote about how one farming company has “bought and delivered nearly $120,000 of groceries and personal items” to minimize workers going into local towns, another has cut back on staff and staggered schedules, and hand-washing stations have been brought to fields to encourage workers to practice self-hygiene.

But workers are still concerned about what will happen to them if they get sick? “Farmworkers would qualify for the additional sick leave provided through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but most would probably struggle to pay the resulting healthcare costs,” the Guardian explained. But their problems are much more complicated.  Many do not have healthcare at all, can’t get masks and gloves that help prevent exposure to pesticides, dust, and the virus, and many have limited flexibility to social distance from fellow workers. Though the stimulus package provided billions for agriculture businesses, there is little help for the workers that continue to walk the fields and keep our grocery shelves stocked.

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