The USDA estimates that 10% of hired farmworkers are foreign nationals employed on temporary work visas under the H-2A agricultural workers program. But this percentage is much higher for many farms during harvest. Additionally, as these workers travel great distances or across the border for the work, they also require temporary housing.
It is that housing, and its COVID-19 protections – or lack thereof – that has recently received a great deal media attention and farmworker advocacy for the improvement of conditions, not only in the U.S. but in Canada as well. In Canada, an advocacy organization has called for “an immediate shutdown of Ontario’s entire agricultural industry until every workplace is fully sterilized to stop the spread of COVID-19 among its workers.” In Michigan, coronavirus outbreaks are being tied to migrant farmworkers. In New York, nearly 200 workers at a greenhouse complex tested positive for COVID-19. And that, as they say, is just the tip of the ICE-berg.
Not only are the conditions of migrant farmworker housing and transportation conducive to the spread of the virus, but it is likely that workers may be reticent to admit to illness or submit to testing for fear of being deported. To protect both your workers and your business, TAG recommends that those who employ migrant workers take a renewed look at the protections you have in place to ensure they truly protect your workers – and that all in the food industry place such requirements on their produce suppliers.
In fact, many states and jurisdictions have now published guidance along these lines, and some (such as Michigan and Oregon) have set temporary rules or executive orders requiring certain protections. Thus, it is critical that agricultural businesses check your jurisdictional guidelines, ensure you are conducting worksite assessments based on OSHA’s Hazard Identification and Assessment program to identify risks and infection prevention strategies and protect your workers.
While we cannot address all aspects of worker protection in a single article, the following are some best practices, based on CDC and state recommendations, along with TAG’s COVID-19 Toolkit Considerations for the Agriculture Sector:
- Conduct a wellness check (including temperature reading) for all workers prior to entering work site or prior to boarding shared transportation.
- Group workers together into cohorts for accommodation, transportation, and work so as to minimize the number of individuals who come into close contact with each other.
- Encourage masks or face coverings and social distancing, with social distancing being particularly critical when the use of cloth face coverings is not feasible
- For shared housing, ensure rooms have good airflow and ventilation
- Separate beds by at least six feet in all directions whenever possible and encourage residents to sleep head-to-toe.
- Develop and implement enhanced sanitation and cleaning plans and provide disposable gloves, soap for handwashing, and household cleaners for residents and staff
- Maintain access to laundry facilities and post guidelines related to the number of people allowed at one time, etc.
- Modify common areas for social distancing and/or add physical barriers (e.g., remove or space furniture, place plastic “walls” between bathroom sinks, etc.)
- Conduct meetings and conversations outdoors to minimize congregating in close quarters whenever possible.
- Establish isolation plans for ill workers.
There are, of course, many additional factors that must be considered in the protection of migrant farmworkers, including those of family and multigenerational workers, childcare, worker confidentiality, etc. TAG can help ensure your farm, or that of a supplier, is employing best practices to protect workers through an assessment of the current conditions and gap analysis. Give us a call today!