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Migrant Farmworkers Considered 'Essential,' But Are Vulnerable To Covid-19

Samantha Calderón-Colón
BPR news
Migrant farmworkers typically live in communal housing, like this small cabin near a strawberry farm in Franklin, NC that sleeps ten.

Farmworkers are among the laborers deemed “essential” in the age of coronavirus, for their critical role in supplying produce to the nation's grocery stores and farmer’s markets. But these workers face conditions that put them at risk of contracting and spreading the disease. 

For farmworkers who travel to Western North Carolina to work seasonal harvests -- social distancing isn’t an option.  Migrant farmworkers share living spaces. It can look like a cabin with a dozen bunk beds, or an entire floor of a motel -- sometimes with six people to a room. 

"For one person to get the coronavirus, it basically means everyone they live with is going to get it," Marianne Martinez,  executive director of Vecinos,  said. The Cullowhee-based non-profit provides healthcare to farmworkers in the state’s eight westernmost counties. She says particularly for those who travel long distances for the job and are sending money back home, taking a sick day is out of the question.

"While not everyone will show symptoms, the people that do show symptoms will continue to work because that’s why they’re here. They’re here to work, they’re not going to let some cold symptoms stop them,” Martinez said. 

Credit Samantha Calderón-Colón / BPR News
BPR News

The nation’s agriculture sector already faces a labor shortage. Last month, the federal government suspended interviews for H-2A agricultural visas in Mexico -- only returning applicants were accepted. The US has since backtracked and reinstated the Visa program, following outcry from farmers and lawmakers, fearing for the impact on the economy and the nation’s food supply. 

Martinez says, if Coronavirus spreads among the farmworker population, the consequences will be dire, for everyone. 

"We’re already seeing, especially in our region, in Georgia, cabbage rotting on the ground, blueberries rotting on the bush because there’s nobody to pick them," Martinez said. "We’re already short on labor, imagine if those camps and those growers get infected." 
Martinez points out, despite the increased risks of exposure on the job,  migrant farmworkers won't see the benefits of the federal stimulus package.

The North Carolina Farmworker Health Program is issuing guidance to outreach agencies, as well as the growers who employ farmworkers, on how to inform and prepare this season's labor force. The NCFHP says workers recently arriving from other countries might not have access to the latest or most accurate information about the disease. 

Because of Covid-19, Vecinos is limiting its in person contact with patients. The organization is focusing on efforts to prevent the spread of the disease by providing clorox wipes, hand sanitizer and facial coverings to worker’s camps.

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