NC not doing enough to protect immigrant farmworkers from coronavirus, advocates say

Reported coronavirus cases are rising among seasonal farmworkers living in migrant worker housing, a group setting like nursing homes that the state is watching.

On Tuesday, 128 new COVID-19 cases across four farms were reported through June, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

That was more than double the 49 cases previously reported by The News & Observer. They bring the total number of infected farmworkers living in the camps to 177.

Six farms had active outbreaks in June compared to five active outbreaks reported in May. DHHS defines an outbreak as more than two cases but is only reporting them at facilities with at least 10 residents.

The cases reported are among seasonal immigrant farmworkers from Mexico who come to work in the United States on a temporary visa and live in grower-provided housing. Other infected workers who live in private residences not on farm property are not included in the count, and no one know how many farmworkers have tested positive overall.

The Farmworker Advocacy Network, a statewide coalition, says its members think there are outbreaks at over 30 farms in 25 counties. They want the state to provide more information than the congregate living facility report.

Though it published them at first, DHHS removed the names of farms from the May report and replaced them with road names of where the migrant worker housing with outbreaks was located, according to a spokesperson.

Bladen County farm outbreaks

In Bladen County in southeastern North Carolina, the state reported that Sweet Berry Farms had 13 cases on June 16.

The farm’s website depicts workers packing blueberries and out in the fields in the town of Ivanhoe. The farm did not return phone calls and emails requesting comment from The N&O.

The N.C. Department of Labor reports on its website that the farm requested at least 500 seasonal immigrant workers this season, but it doesn’t say how many arrived.

Sleepy Creek Farms in the town of Harrells in Bladen County first reported two cases in late May, then 54 cases on June 12.

Sleepy Creek Farms employs and houses around 200 seasonal farmworkers, in addition to roughly 50 year-round workers who live off the farm, said Yusef Ewais, the farm’s human relations coordinator, in an interview.

“We would communicate with [workers] daily to check how they’re feeling and to gauge the timeframe of when they got sick,” Ewais said.

The majority of the infected were seasonal workers, who use an agricultural H-2A visa to come to the U.S. to work temporarily. Most have completed their quarantine in their barracks housing and recovered. However, two were hospitalized and are in stable condition, said Ewais.

The positive cases were discovered first in mid-May, he said. The farm partnered with Goshen Medical Center clinic to test its employees, quarantining asymptomatic workers and testing the symptomatic ones first.

The Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, based in Harnett County, serving seasonal farmworkers at Sleepy Creek Farms in Bladen County with needed groceries in April 18. A coronavirus outbreak had not yet been reported at the farm.
The Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, based in Harnett County, serving seasonal farmworkers at Sleepy Creek Farms in Bladen County with needed groceries in April 18. A coronavirus outbreak had not yet been reported at the farm.

“Because they were in our housing and live on our property we were able to not spread it within the community,” said Ewais.

The outbreak caused “some production hiccups,” he added. The farm’s website says they currently harvest approximately 700 acres of blueberries.

Angie Santibañez, director for the farmworker health program Manos Unidas, told The N&O it sent staff members to the farm to provide medicine and disinfectants to sick workers, as well as health education in Spanish. It also teamed with the Migrant Education Program in the Bladen County Schools to provide food assistance.

Sampson County

In Sampson County, Burch Farms in Faison, which has a produce packing facility, reported 37 COVID-19 cases. The Department of Labor says the farm requested over 100 workers this season. The farm did not return phone calls for comment.

In early June, a few sick workers at Burch Farms contacted the N.C. Farmworkers Project, a health nonprofit, said Janeth Tapia, an outreach coordinator.

“There were two or three sick workers then; the outbreak had barely started,” Tapia said in Spanish. “I’m thinking that they spread it among each other since. There’s a lot of workers there.”

Her organization contacted the symptomatic workers through video calls to teach them health care and safety.

Pope & Son Farms in Clinton declined to comment on the five COVID-19 cases it reported.

According to Tapia, the N.C. Farmworkers Project was able to visit the sick workers there last month to provide medication and other supplies. Four have recovered, but one worker has been hospitalized. The farm houses over 100 workers.

“The grower at the farm has cooperated with us and was who contacted us,” said Tapia. “The logistics behind testing all of the workers there are difficult.”

Many farm workers in general don’t want to be tested, Tapia said, because they don’t want to risk losing work if they test positive or suffer the stigma of someone thinking they might be positive.

Other counties

On July 2 DHHS updated its report to include an outbreak at a farm in Wayne County in the town of Seven Springs east of Johnston County. The N.C. Department of Labor lists Mack L. Grady Farms as requesting immigrant farmworkers in that town. The N&O could not find contact information for the farm online.

A second outbreak was reported in Hyde County near the Pamlico Sound at an address linked to Mattamuskeet Seafood, a blue crab and oyster processing plant in the town of Swan Quarter.

The plant’s Facebook page shows an image of various women in a plant shelling crabs next to each other. The owners of the plant could not be reached by phone by The N&O as of Thursday afternoon.

Vulnerability of farmworkers

“Our agricultural (workforce) is not only important to our economy here in North Carolina, but around this country,” DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said in a news conference. “We need to make sure we are protecting the workers that are there in those farms.”

Cohen pointed to existing guidelines in place but did not elaborate on what the state is doing now to to protect agricultural workers, whom The N&O has reported are especially vulnerable in the pandemic.

In an academic article in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, authors Lariza Garzón of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry and Andrew R. Smolski, a scholar at N.C. State University, criticized the state’s provided data.

“According to our current understanding, NCDHHS only reports outbreaks, defined as two or more cases in a congregate living facility and only in migrant labor camps with more than 10 occupants,” the article reads. “That is problematic, because of 1,877 migrant labor camps in the state, 1,011 are certified for fewer than 10 occupants. Thus, current reports most likely underestimate the current level of COVID-19 in farmworker communities.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the Farmworker Advocacy Network has written three letters to Gov. Roy Cooper calling on him to protect agricultural workers, including those in meat processing plants.

In a June 16 letter to Cooper and Cohen, they wrote that “During the two months between when we sent our letter and you responded, thousands of farmworkers arrived in North Carolina and outbreaks started happening at migrant labor camps.”

The following week, FAN members met with Cooper’s office and DHHS to talk about potential steps to protect farmworkers through executive orders, according to Lariza Garzón of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, a member organization of FAN.

In their letter to the state, FAN’ cited concerns about accessible and free testing for workers, a lack of information, the fear of virus testing to avoid potentially losing work, and hurricane protection plans.

They’ve asked Cooper to require policies such as unemployment insurance and better sanitation and distancing practices for farmworker camps, similar to his rules for retail establishments and long-term care facilities.

“One thing we’d like to see for example … is a stimulus package for growers to improve housing,” Garzón said in an interview.

Housing for workers has been substandard on average for a long time and must be changed throughout the agricultural system or else “we are going to keep having issues not just with pandemics, but also other disasters and emergencies such as hurricanes,” said Garzón.

“This issue is systemic,” she said. “We need to think about systemic solutions.”

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