In this pandemic, we keep hearing that the food supply is fine.
That, obviously, couldn’t be true without the work of farmers. But they don’t do it alone.
“The workers that we work with, they’re essential,” said Harrison Topp, a fruit farmer on the Western Slope and director of membership for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “I mean, they’re declared essential because of the COVID situation but they were essential before the COVID situation.”
Worker shortages are an ongoing concern for many Colorado farmers, especially those who use seasonal migrant workers, also known as H-2A workers based on the visa they have to get.
Alisha Knapp is the farm and market manager for Knapp Farms in Rocky Ford in southeast Colorado. The fruit and vegetable farm relies heavily on seasonal migrant labor, but her first three workers from South Africa were held up because embassies and consulates stopped regular visa services in March due to COVID-19.
“Just knowing whether we’re gonna be able to have labor to plant as well as harvest, later on, is a huge problem for us currently,” Knapp said.
Those who don’t rely on such workers are worried too. One farmer from Haxtun in the northeast corner of the state said even temporarily losing one of his three regular, non-migrant workers to COVID-19 would be devastating to his operation.
Some producers say they might be able to hire a few of the many unemployed Coloradans from other sectors to make up for gaps, if they haven’t done so already. Others doubt those people have what it takes to work effectively on a farm.
The federal government quickly allowed embassies to waive certain H-2A requirements, particularly for workers who have been here before, to ensure that the workforce is available in the U.S. So, despite concerns, some observers believe that most of the 3,335-person H-2A workforce in the state last year will make it onto farms again this year.
Still, the loss of even a small amount of H-2A workers is bad for farmers, said Rocky Mountain Farmers Union President Dale McCall.
New safety measures
Knapp has been coping with the help of a large family that is working extra hard and a high school student they hired part-time.
“I don’t think it’s been enough to make up for the loss, but it's definitely helping us compensate,” she said.
To her relief, the next batch of 10 workers she was expecting from Mexico had all been here before and arrived on the farm last week without a hitch. She expects the next 15 will do the same in June.
But getting workers on the farm is just the start. She’s got to make sure they’re safe from the virus too.
“We’re gonna have to do some more education for the H-2A workers that are coming in because obviously this is a new thing for them,” Knapp said.
Of particular concern is planting: normally workers would plant side by side with the help of a machine called a transplanter, which is pulled by a tractor. Now each worker will have to plant with their own transplanter, each of which is pulled by its own tractor. She says it’s “just more time consuming and not as efficient.”
But necessary to prevent the spread of the virus among workers.
Olga Ruiz is the state monitor advocate for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Her office does outreach to migrant farmworkers and their employers. She has been hearing similar plans to protect farmworkers from Coronavirus.
“They’re trying to make sure that they keep everybody safe,” Ruiz said. They’re doing extra steps for that. They’re taking it very seriously.”
Along with social distancing in the field, she said farmers she’s talked to have been bringing in health experts to talk to the workers about staying safe and providing personal protective equipment.
“We need the workers. They’re the ones that provide food to our tables,” she said. “And we need to all pitch to try and help keep them safe.”
But the workers talking to Jenifer Rodriguez, managing attorney for Colorado Legal Service’s Migrant Farmworker Division, are saying something different.
“There are people out there, growers out there that aren’t taking it seriously,” Rodriguez said.
Many of the farmworkers she’s heard from, H-2A and otherwise, haven’t been given the ability to distance from each other while working, she said. And workers are often scared to publicly criticize their employer’s practices.
So are farmers working to keep their workers safe from the virus or not? Neither Rodriguez or Ruiz are certain. Both admit they only have a snapshot of the state’s farms and, because of the pandemic, they can’t go to the operations and verify what they’re hearing.
“It’s going to vary,” Ruiz said. “And, I mean, without having a crystal ball to see what’s going to happen, there’s just no way to answer that question.”
Topp, the director of membership at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said he believes most farmers will do what it takes to safeguard workers but admits there are “a few bad apples.”
Employers are required to provide H-2A workers with housing, which can vary from older farmhouses to mobile homes and trailers.
Ruiz, the state monitor advocate, said her department inspects a varied amount of these housing units each year to make sure they are up to code. So far, all they’ve been able to do this year are virtual video and picture inspections.
“It’s harder to get more housing,” she said. “But they’ve been putting fewer people in housing — if they can.”
Ruiz also notes a lot of the farmers she spoke to are putting aside a housing unit to quarantine anyone who gets sick.
Knapp Farms set aside a house for this reason but otherwise has four shared units for its 28 H-2A workers — three for the 25 workers from Mexico and one for the three workers from South Africa. Along with shared general spaces, like bathrooms, some of the workers will also share bedrooms and bunk beds with one other worker at most.
“Just need to practice, like I said, good hygiene and handwashing and work on sanitizing all the surfaces and everything in the household,” Alisha Knapp said.
Knapp concedes the houses don’t provide much room for social distancing. But, she said certain measures, like quarantining the workers for two weeks when they first arrive to ensure none are sick, can make up for it.
“Once they’ve been quarantined and they’re living together, we’re considering them a household because they will have already traveled up here together in a bus or van or whatever the transportation,” she said.
Rodriguez, the attorney, is worried that isn’t enough.
“If somebody does get exposed or start showing symptoms then the ease in which it could be spread to other workers and take out a whole workforce is the concern,” she said.
Even with social distancing measures in the fields, Rodriguez is concerned workers could come in contact with people not in their “household” while working. And if not there then while at places like the grocery store. Her office visits around 300 worker housing units yearly.
“I’m sure there’s some exceptions to this, but none of the housing that I can think of right now allows for this safe distancing of workers,” she said.
Lack of guidance and access
There aren’t any specific guidelines from the state, federal Centers for Disease Control or Occupational Safety and Health Administration for keeping farmworkers safe during the pandemic.
Farmworkers aren't explicitly included in Colorado’s Health Emergency Leave with Pay rules that were instituted by the state to ensure that workers can take leave if they or a loved-one get sick, but they are included in a similar rule in the second stimulus package passed by congress, Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).
An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that 88.3% of farmworkers could be eligible for paid leave under the FFCRA (including H-2A workers). However, the vast majority of farms in the U.S. could qualify for the act’s small business exemptions. That means if every farm that could be exempt applied and got approved, about two-thirds of farmworkers would no longer be guaranteed paid leave.
There are a lot more questions than answers when it comes to farmworkers in this pandemic. Their ability to access healthcare and testing when they often lack insurance is yet another big concern.
Rodriguez is extremely worried by the uncertainty. She hopes farmworkers will be taken care of, but fears how things could look in a few months.
“Because then we’ll know which ones took it seriously and which ones didn’t and it will be too late,” she said.