Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Coronavirus outbreaks are increasing on farms, and protections for farmworkers are inconsistent

Crowded working conditions and weak protections for workers have helped meatpacking plants become pandemic epicenters. The same factors may be causing outbreaks in agriculture. 

"Farm outbreaks are already cropping up across the country: A large orchard in Washington tested 70 workers for the coronavirus and found more than 50 positive cases, for example. And in Monterey County, California, nearly one in four coronavirus cases is an ag worker, according to local officials," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture" newsletter.

The Trump administration designated farm laborers as essential workers, but hasn't done much to keep them from getting sick, leaving states and employers to take care of it. "Produce growers in the thick of harvest season are installing hand-washing stations, giving out face masks and directing workers to keep their distance. But such protective measures are largely voluntary, and they’ve been inconsistent so far," McCrimmon reports. "Following social distancing rules is easier said than done for farmworkers, who typically live in close quarters and travel in tightly packed buses . . . Even in the field, keeping a safe distance is tricky; tomato pickers, for example, generally carry fruit in their own buckets and then haul it to a common collection point — as fast as possible, since they’re paid by the pound."

Growers told McCrimmon they didn't need federal regulations to make them want to keep their workers safe, since sick workers wouldn't be able to pick their crops. But farm labor advocates told him they would prefer consistent, government-enforced standards.

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