President Donald Trump may have made railing against undocumented immigrants central to his political brand, but during the pandemic even his administration has been forced to acknowledge the essential work they do, particularly in keeping the country fed during a crisis.
Within days of the coronavirus pandemic taking hold, the Trump administration had to confront a reality it had long tried to ignore: The nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers, about half of whom the government estimates are undocumented, are absolutely critical to keeping the food system working. It was a major shift for a president who continues to reduce any debate about immigration to stoking fears about border defense and crime. But the Trump administration and Congress have done little to help keep farmworkers safe on the job.
Six months into the pandemic, according to a POLITICO analysis, these workers appear to be victims of the worst of the Covid-19 crisis. For several weeks, many of the places that grow the nation’s fruits and vegetables have seen disproportionately high rates of coronavirus cases — a national trend that, as harvest season advances in many states, threatens already vulnerable farmworkers, their communities and the places they work.
From Oregon to North Carolina, counties with the highest per capita rates of coronavirus are some of the top producers of crops like lettuce, sweet potatoes and apples. In California, six out of seven of the state’s most Covid-ridden counties, per capita, are in the Central Valley, which produces the lion’s share of America’s fruits and vegetables.
Further south, Imperial County, Calif., which borders Mexico and Arizona, has by far the highest per-capita rate of cases in the state — 5,930 cases per 100,000 people and 296 deaths, according to CDC data. The county is home to a fertile valley that grows vast quantities of vegetables as well as melons and chili peppers.
Just to the east, Yuma, Ariz., a major leafy greens and vegetable growing region, is the county with the second-highest rate in the state — 5,737 cases per 100,000 people and 320 deaths, according to CDC data.
The pattern follows in other parts of the country, including Washington state, where Yakima and Franklin counties — two apple and cherry-rich areas — have nearly double the per-capita cases of most other counties in the region. Yakima County has a per capita case rate that is five times higher than King County, the first place in the country to battle a major coronavirus outbreak.
The vast majority of states, county and local health departments are not collecting data on how many individual farmworkers have tested positive for coronavirus, nor how many have been hospitalized or died from the virus. The Food and Environment Reporting Network estimates that at least 57,000 food system workers, including 6.700 farmworkers, have tested positive for Covid-19 nationally, but that’s just a partial snapshot because testing is limited. The lack of data makes it impossible to quantify the impact on workers in each state and county, even as POLITICO’s analysis of key agricultural counties shows the disproportionate infection rate extends across multiple states.
The pandemic’s impact on farmworkers underscores how a worst-case scenario can develop when an essential but extremely vulnerable workforce is ignored. The Trump administration has repeatedly declined to impose mandatory safety requirements for agricultural workplaces. No federal assistance has been designated to help farmers obtain personal protective gear for their laborers, like it has for other essential workers like nurses and police officers.
The Trump administration has largely left state and local governments to fend for themselves in addressing coronavirus. Yet critics say that state officials have also failed to adequately confront the virus.
“We are entering a large health crisis and there is no one with the moral authority within the government to define a clear strategy that makes sense,” said Carlos Marentes, founder of the Border Agricultural Workers Project. “Recommendations are made, but not mandates. And the most affected are those in poverty, agricultural workers and rural areas.”
Millions of farmworkers toil daily for little pay to hand cut broccoli, collect milk and pack strawberries that consumers are able to buy without much thought at the grocery store. The government estimates that half of these workers are undocumented and most lack access to health care. Roughly 10 percent of the workforce is in the country on H-2A visas, which allow foreign workers to come to the U.S. and work seasonal farm jobs. Most are from Mexico.
Trump’s silence on the immigration status of farmworkers, critics say, is one of political convenience as farmers, a rock-solid part of the president’s base, freely admit there’s simply no way to harvest the country’s crops without help from foreign workers, whether they live in the U.S. without legal status or come in for several months on a work visa.
And while the House last year passed a bipartisan bill that would give farmworkers a path to legal status and ease the agricultural labor shortage — a major step after decades of deadlock — that effort has fallen flat in the Senate: Republican leadership refuses to entertain the House bill, and there is no sign of a bipartisan deal. Congress has been similarly paralyzed with taking any action to help the agricultural workforce handle the coronavirus pandemic in federal aid packages.
“This pandemic has made the American people realize how our health is intertwined with our neighbors’ health,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat who represents the Coachella Valley, which grows a slew of labor-intensive crops, including citrus and table grapes.
Ruiz, the son of farmworkers and an emergency doctor by training, has been volunteering to provide health care and coronavirus testing for agricultural laborers in his district.
He says most of his colleagues in Congress don’t seem to realize that allowing Covid-19 to spread uncontrolled in agricultural areas is a threat to Americans everywhere.
“We cannot end this pandemic for our country if we do not end the pandemic in every community,” Ruiz said. “All it takes is one high-risk, vulnerable community without a containment strategy in place, for one outbreak to cause another surge.”
Workers infecting workers
As farmworkers unwittingly infect each other, their families and their broader communities with coronavirus, the situation exposes the extent to which rural areas are ill-equipped to deal with a public health crisis. A lack of access to testing and protective gear, an aging and consolidated health care system and rampant fear of the Trump administration’s strict immigration policies has created ideal conditions for the virus to spread across farmworker camps and small towns, according to interviews with more than two dozen people familiar with the situation across the country.
After months of requests from advocates, the CDC in June issued safety recommendations specific to farmworkers. The CDC guidance detailed how employers should protect their workers by taking steps such as taking temperatures, allowing for six-foot distancing on the job where possible and grouping healthy workers into cohorts to minimize spread.
But the Labor Department, which has the power to make such standards mandatory, declined to do so. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an arm of the Labor Department, argues that the government already has requirements in place that broadly ensure workplaces are safe.
“OSHA is acting to keep America’s workers safe and healthy during the coronavirus pandemic,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement provided to POLITICO. “OSHA has preexisting requirements and standards that not only remain in place and enforceable, but also apply to protect workers from the coronavirus. OSHA utilizes existing safety and health standards and the statutory General Duty Clause, and considers CDC guidelines, when determining violations of workplace safety requirements as they relate to Covid-19.”
The agency said it has received 27 complaints related to coronavirus in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting establishments from February through Sept. 2. Three inspections have been opened but no fines issued.
In August, OSHA officials acknowledged in court proceedings they don’t have the statutory authority to require companies like meat processors to follow CDC guidelines.
Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama, said he has become increasingly alarmed about reports from hospitals in places like the Imperial Valley in California, where hundreds of coronavirus patients have been airlifted to hospitals elsewhere with more capacity to handle them.
“If you don’t know many people who have Coronavirus, it’s because you don’t know the people who pick the food you eat,” Slavitt wrote on Twitter this summer.
Slavitt said he’s particularly concerned that political leaders and many voters are completely insulated from the fact that food system workers, who are disproportionately Hispanic and Latino, are paying such a price during the pandemic.
“My fear is that we are going to approach the point where the majority of people who are getting new coronavirus cases and the majority of deaths are the Hispanic and Black community,” he said.
People of color in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to have contracted coronavirus, according to a report from Johns Hopkins University. The rate of infections is highest for Latinos, with 73 cases per 10,000 people, according to the university. The rate for white people in the U.S. is 23 per 10,000 people. The hospitalization rate for Latinos is more than triple what it is for white people.
“It’s not acceptable to decide who we want to save and who we don’t,” Slavitt said. “When Trump says a lot of the country is fine, what he’s really saying is there aren’t as many white people dying.”
States follow the feds — in dropping the ball
With no coronavirus-specific action from the federal government, despite months of pleading, advocates have turned their attention to the states, pressing for worker protections in fields and packing houses and trying to mandate more space in barracks-style farmworker housing to allow for social distancing.
Just eight states, including Washington, California and New Mexico, have some form of mandated protections for farmworkers including access to testing, hand-washing stations, social distancing and education. Major agricultural states including Idaho, South Carolina, Texas and Arizona have either no regulations or only some recommendations, but no mandates.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently visited Okanogan County in central Washington, which has become a Covid-19 hot spot, and acknowledged that agricultural workplaces continue to be a serious public health problem.
Inslee suggested that several coronavirus outbreaks in the state have followed harvest periods.
“The labor intensive agriculture presents environments that are just ripe for high transmission rates,” he said, noting that the state has seen more transmission of the coronavirus where crops require the most labor.
A few days later, Inslee announced that farms will now be required to test their employees if there’s an outbreak at their operation above a certain threshold. One large orchard at the center of a major Covid-19 outbreak, in which three workers have died, has been ordered to test all of its employees, state officials announced.
The state recently set aside $43 million in federal aid money to help undocumented residents who do not qualify for unemployment or stimulus checks. The tranche of funds includes $3 million earmarked for helping agricultural workers in the state who lack legal status.
Having money to directly aid workers could help individuals properly isolate if they test positive. As it stands now, many low-income laborers are resistant to taking tests because if they are positive, they may lack the resources or living space to self-quarantine for two weeks, according to advocates. They may also fear losing their job or being stigmatized in the workplace, especially if they are the sole breadwinner for their extended family.
But unlike Washington, most states do not have funds targeted at their farmworker populations, nor do they have comprehensive plans about how to stop the spread of the coronavirus in communities that are already suffering from health issues at disproportionately high rates.
In Ohio, for example, Gov. Mike DeWine has come up with mandatory health requirements for all manner of businesses, including nail salons, casinos and golf courses. The rules are granular enough to include bans on the high-touch game of poker at casinos, and saunas and steam rooms at gyms. Even batting cage operators are covered, with mandates against water coolers and high-fives, and a requirement that the local health department be contacted before any events are held.
But there are no such requirements for farms where itinerant workers pick, pack and often live in close proximity to one another — an especially glaring omission considering that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Ohio.
“There has to be a plan for addressing this or it could become a crisis,” said Mónica Ramírez, founder and president of Justice for Migrant Women, which has repeatedly urged DeWine to craft safety rules for farmworkers.
In late April, the group co-wrote a letter to state officials with several recommendations for basic protections. In May, advocates followed up by drafting a list of requirements the state could impose. By July, advocates had grown frustrated and publicly called for action.
“Months later, they still haven’t done it,” Ramírez said. “The question is why? Of course we know the answer is politics. Politics continue to be a barrier for keeping farmworkers safe in this country. It’s hugely problematic.”
A spokesperson for DeWine’s office said they are “working on guidance documents for agriculture operators and workers and will be making them available soon.” State agencies have distributed thousands of cloth masks and hand sanitizer, and initiated testing programs designed for farmworkers, the spokesperson added.
Defining the problem
State and local health departments often lack even basic knowledge about their farmworker populations, including where they are migrating from or where they are headed next as the harvest seasons change — a blind spot that has only made controlling the spread of coronavirus more difficult, Ramírez said.
“This shouldn’t be a state to state issue,” she said, noting that the fact that workers move constantly means their problems can’t be solved by any state alone.
“There should be a conversation happening with all the departments of agriculture and departments of health to talk about where workers are moving,” she said. “As farmworkers move state to state, they can potentially take the virus with them.”
But there are major gaps in how states are tracking coronavirus cases tied to farms, if they are even tracking them at all. A recent analysis by the Food and Environment Reporting Network found only four states are regularly reporting or would agree to share information about coronavirus outbreaks in the food and agriculture sector. Another 12 states have been sharing some data, but not any details about the employers involved.
Since the early days of the pandemic, farmworker advocates have been warning that the lack of on-farm standards would lead to widespread outbreaks, but their warnings have largely gone unheeded.
“We were already saying that before,” said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “We said if workers right now are not protected … if the government is not doing their job in terms of enforcing and forcing the companies to really protect their workers, all these outbreaks are going to be happening.”
A recent study from the University of California, San Diego’s Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health, found farmworkers have an increased risk of infection and even death from Covid-19. In an analysis of over 3,000 counties across all 50 states, researchers found the risk is still disproportionately high even when controlling for poverty level, language barriers and other variables.
While the findings don’t assess the specific causes of infection, the researchers conclude that there are unique risks within farm labor such as lack of protective equipment and safety guidelines that contribute to the increases.
The California Institute for Rural Studies released a report at the end of July warning that “California’s Monterey County Agricultural Workers were more than three times as likely to become infected by the virus than persons employed in the county’s Non-Agricultural industries.”
The study said the rate of confirmed cases of Covid-19 among agricultural workers in the county was 1,569 per 100,000 on June 30. Among non-agricultural workers, the prevalence was only 471 per 100,000 workers.
Even higher rate of infections has been recorded in agricultural counties of North Carolina. Duplin and Sampson Counties, which abut each other, together rank as the state’s top producers of hogs, tobacco, turkeys, fruits and vegetables. They also have some of the highest per capita rates of Covid-19, with 3,549 and 2,561 cases, per 100,000 residents, respectively.
Farmworker advocates in North Carolina have counted outbreaks at over 30 farms within the state, and since its harvest season starts later, advocates expect infection rates to worsen. As recently as August, the state had four large outbreaks tied to farms including one outbreak where 112 people tested positive.
Advocates say they’ve been warning since March that the state was facing a potential crisis, but it took almost two months to get a response from the administration of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
“We saw this coming and we were speaking out about it. We did a press conference in April about how this was going to affect farmworkers and meat processing workers,” said Joanna Welborn, communication arts director for Student Action with Farmworkers. “We have always known that the conditions they live and work in are just ripe for potential abuse.”
According to Welborn, members of the Farmworker Advocacy Network have been meeting with Cooper’s staff members biweekly and the governor promised to issue an executive order giving farmworkers access to health care and protections against retaliation. But after three weeks of planning, the governor changed his mind and no order will be issued.
The protections are needed because one of the biggest obstacles to getting farmworkers in North Carolina screened is their concern about their undocumented status, said Benjamin William, a staff attorney for NC Legal Aid who works with H-2A workers.
“People are terrified if they ask for the two weeks off — they’ll be retaliated against, they might be fired,” he said. “So they decide to not get tested or they won’t speak up.”
A spokesperson for Cooper’s office said state officials have already taken some action to protect agricultural workers including distributing 900,000 masks and infection control supplies in July.
Harsh rhetoric, rampant fear
Even where protections for workers exist, it can be difficult to overcome undocumented workers’ fears of exposure. The Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric about illegal immigration and the constant threat of deportation has driven them further into hiding, advocates say.
In states and counties where officials are doing targeted farmworker outreach, they say they are often finding that workers are reluctant to get tested and even more reluctant to share personal information, like names, addresses or anything about where they might be traveling next for work, fearing an increased risk for deportation.
In Beaufort, S.C., where 1,000 workers were brought into labor camps to pick tomatoes, a migrant health center offered three nights of free testing, but many workers were either unwilling to get checked out or unable to get to the test center, Maridolores Valentin, director of the Agricultural Health Program in St. Helena Island, told POLITICO.
Lack of transportation and long work hours in the fields make it difficult for many individuals to access free health services even when they are available. Field laborers often work sunup to sundown and travel by bus or van in groups to get to farms in sparsely populated communities, explained Elizabeth Avila, program coordinator for the South Carolina Agricultural Worker Health Program.
“Due to these barriers, the workers are not making it to the clinics and testing events,” Avila said.
Not being able to readily access health care and Covid-19 testing adds to an already precarious situation for many migrant families.
“As agricultural workers and families went into Covid-19, they were already under tremendous stress and tremendous pressures and obviously that has only been exacerbated by the prevalence of the coronavirus,” said John Menditto, general counsel and director of risk management of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.
When workers do get sick, departments don’t always collect data on their workplace or occupation and there is little evidence of robust communication between workers and employers.
“We did get word that there would be some people coming up that are positive,” said Faith Polkey, a physician in the Agricultural Health Program in South Carolina. “We haven’t been able to do outreach like we usually do but we have gotten calls from the hospital and health department that there are people in our area that are positive that we aren’t able to get to.”
When POLITICO reached out to the South Carolina Health Department, a representative said the department isn’t tracking data related specifically to migrant farmworkers.
While state after state struggles to get a handle on Covid-19 cases in their farmworker communities, the federal safety recommendations are being ignored in many places.
Though CDC released guidance for agriculture workers this summer — after weathering months of criticism for not doing so — farmworker advocates say the recommendations have had little effect.
As southern New Mexico enters its biggest harvest season — chili — advocates there say farms are largely operating without any changes.
“It is as if nothing was happening,” said Marentes, a farmworker advocate whose group focuses on communities near the Mexican border. “They should be doing temperature checks and those with fevers should be allowed to seek medical attention. But contractors and growers don’t even provide drinking water, much less will they bring a thermometer.”
According to Marentes, organizations including the Border Agricultural Workers Project — an advocacy group working with farmworkers in New Mexico, Texas and Mexico — have taken on the task of distributing PPE, water and other supplies. But some workers may be bringing Covid-19 with them when they arrive from Mexico, since both countries do not have control of the virus. When workers arrive in the United States, Marentes said, they are put right to work without any quarantine period or health checks.
The group has succeeded in getting tests for 25 workers, of whom five tested positive. Four were able to be isolated in a hotel for 12 days and the Border Agricultural Workers Project covered the missing wages.
According to Marentes, not only were some results delayed, but so were instructions from the New Mexico Health Department after confirming a positive result. There was also no follow-up on those who were quarantined.
Marentes blames the delayed reaction and lack of follow-up on the rampant neglect of leaders at all levels of government.
“There is a failure from the whole system and a discrimination towards agriculture,” he said. “Why are people who collect our food not treated with dignity? Why is there no concern from the authorities? When it comes to the coronavirus, Pope Francis even said we are in the same boat. There’s a problem: Some of us are not even on the boat and they are being dragged away by the storm that is Covid-19.”