At the height of harvest season, growers supplying some of America’s biggest agricultural companies and grocery store chains flouted public health guidelines to limit testing and obscure coronavirus outbreaks, according to thousands of pages of state and local records reviewed by The Washington Post.
At the same time, state agencies and growers were slow to determine how and when to test workers, what protocols to adopt when workers tested positive, and how to institute contact tracing, advocates say. They say that there should have been mandatory personal protective equipment and clear guidance on worker safety at the federal and state levels.
Worker advocates say the failures put millions of workers at greater risk of contracting and spreading the virus among themselves and to other Americans as they crossed state lines to move with the harvest season.
The struggles to contain the virus among migrant farmworkers are documented in internal state and county agriculture and health department records, as well as email exchanges with farm bureaus, grower associations, and public health and worker advocacy groups that were obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation through public records requests and shared with The Post. These documents and additional interviews by The Post show a pattern that extended across more than a dozen agricultural counties in 10 states — and that largely withstood officials’ attempts to stop the spread of the virus among agricultural workers.
“If this is an essential industry, why is it we can’t at least take the kind of steps needed to figure out where we need to do interventions?” asked Don Villarejo, a former researcher at the California Institute for Rural Studies who has been analyzing coronavirus data on farmworkers. “My mantra is that all pandemics are local; if you don’t track every aspect of people’s lives including where they work and where they live, then you can never do a proper intervention."
But the nature of America’s migrant labor system, which relies on approximately 220,000 workers on seasonal H-2A work visas and another estimated 1.5 million undocumented workers largely from Mexico and other Latin American countries, leaves workers with few protections and exposed to the virus, advocates say.
Planting, harvesting and packing produce typically put farmworkers in proximity with co-workers. Laborers often rely on employers for transport, usually in vans and buses, and accommodation in crowded, camp-style housing, according to Ed Kissam, a former California farm labor researcher who has been tracking the impact of the coronavirus on farmworker communities. And workers’ very transience, harvesting six weeks here and eight weeks there, presents problems for tracing and disincentives for local governments to invest in solutions; wait long enough and seasonal workers become someone else’s problem.
The effects of the coronavirus frequently overlay a system in which growers have routinely failed to protect workers while on the job — offering them substandard transportation, housing and access to health care and testing, Kissam said.
“Virtually all are housed in congregate living situations, making them extremely vulnerable to covid-19 transmission,” he said. “Typically, 40 to 80 percent of the people living in crowded living quarters — congregate housing or individual crowded housing — will be infected by others they live with once the infection is introduced from workplace or community infection.”
Tracking the spread of the coronavirus among farmworkers is further complicated by language barriers and worker mistrust of authorities, Villarejo said. In addition, farm laborers are often afraid to get tested for fear of being deported, losing their jobs or of being left with large hospital bills.
Using Monterey County’s official coronavirus dashboard, Villarejo found that as of July 1, agricultural workers in the county had 1,410 positive cases per 100,000 population, about three times the rate for other workers, which was 455 cases per 100,000. He said he anticipates the prevalence among farmworkers has increased substantially since then.
The Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, in collaboration with Microsoft, estimates 128,000 farmworkers nationwide have tested positive for the coronavirus, as of Sept. 24. But Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue, says their dashboard could be a dramatic undercount as it does not include part-time and temporary workers.
By comparison, 42,988 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in 498 meat plants as of Sept. 24, according to an analysis by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued detailed reports on coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking plants, the agency has no immediate plans to monitor infections among farmworkers. “At this time we are not tracking outbreaks in farmworkers or on farms,” CDC spokeswoman Jasmine Reed said in July.
Eleven states (California, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin) have introduced mandatory protections for farmworkers during the pandemic that include providing PPE and requiring physical distancing, workplace disinfection and worker testing. Many issued recommendations only after seeing significant outbreaks among farmworkers in their states. Twenty states have issued nonenforceable guidance, and 19 states, including Florida and Texas, have issued no recommendations.
In early May, Washington state’s Yakima County, one of the nation’s biggest suppliers of sweet cherries, apples and pears, had the highest case rate on the West Coast, and state officials urged several farms experiencing outbreaks to test all employees. Yet growers resisted widespread coronavirus testing, according to internal emails between Yakima Health District chief executive Ryan Ibach and Environmental Health Director Shawn Magee.
“Our people aren’t interested in being tested,” Jeannette Evans, owner of Evans Fruit, one of the biggest apple orchards in the state, told The Washington Post, adding that health officials “didn’t like it because an old lady stood up to them.” She said her workers are “good Spanish people,” many of whom have worked for the farm for years.
Evans was blunt when Magee inquired about testing by email, a certified letter and phone calls between June 4 and June 17.
“She said we are not to enter her properties and will not participate in site visits or testing … then [she] hung up on me,” Magee wrote. Magee told The Washington Post he reported Evans Fruit to the state labor department, which enforces workplace safety rules.
Evans, who began farming in 1949 with her late husband, told The Post only 10 of her workers had been infected with the virus by mid-July. However, Yakima Health District records of coronavirus cases among her farmworkers showed 72 positive cases out of a workforce of 350 people across three locations as of Aug. 12.
On July 13, Evans allowed health officials to inspect the farms. They found workers wearing masks incorrectly, no hand-washing stations outside the bathrooms and no daily health screenings of employees, public records show. The Yakima Health District report said: “Received anonymous complaint from worker on day of consultation that they were being told to wear a mask because of the inspection even though they had not been wearing one for 4 months.”
The Yakima Health District set up a free testing site across from the Evans Fruit location in Cowiche, “as they have a very high case count of covid-19,″ Magee wrote in a July 23 email. “Only one employee out of over 300 showed up for testing.”
Some farms tried to minimize the extent of coronavirus outbreaks among their workers. Other farms asked health officials to attribute outbreaks to other units of their company. According to Yakima Health District internal emails, Allan Bros. has had 42 cases of coronavirus among its workers as of Aug. 12. The company requested that a subset of cases be listed instead under the name Sagemoor Group Management Services, the company’s vineyard.
Allen Bros. did not respond to requests for comment.
Florida’s spring harvest made the state the earliest test ground for vulnerabilities among fruit and vegetable pickers. Farmworker advocacy groups say county health officials were slow to grasp the spread of infection and fatalities in farmworker populations, in part because hospital officials and medical examiners did not consistently collect data by occupation or race.
The medical examiner’s office for the heavily agricultural Lee, Hendry and Glades counties identified only four deaths in the Hispanic racial group in March and April, despite many Hispanic surnames among the list of dead. The counties recorded 188 coronavirus deaths between March 5 and July 16.
When asked why race/ethnicity and occupation are not tracked, the medical examiner’s office for Lee, Hendry and Glades counties said in a statement: “The information entered into the medical examiner’s database is based on information the medical examiner’s office receives from the reporters of the death.”
Advocates say Hispanics were also undercounted in neighboring Collier County, a heavily agricultural area. By the end of May, Immokalee, a farming community in the county, had more than 1,000 positive cases, one of the highest infection rates in the state, according to state health department statistics.
“Since we have been using the medical examiner’s data to confirm known individuals who have died, we know that just about everyone we’ve confirmed in Immokalee is in fact Indigenous Mayan or Latino, but they are listed as White,” said Marley Monacello, a staff member with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
According to Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a coalition leader, the organization wrote to the Collier County Board of County Commissioners on March 23 and to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and 14 others on April 2, laying out the risks to farmworkers. There was no response from the governor or board; they heard back only from a staff member of one state representative, Monacello said.
“Nearly every suggestion we gave about how to meet the needs of the farmworker community — from early community-wide testing, to effective health education, the need for contact tracing and isolation areas apart from overcrowded housing — was met with initial rejection and delay,” Reyes Chavez said.
“The Governor’s Office receives correspondence from dozens of groups and organizations daily. Responding to each and every one is simply not feasible,” the governor’s press secretary, Cody McCloud, said in an email. “The DeSantis Administration has supported Florida’s farmworkers throughout the covid-19 pandemic."
County commissioner Bill McDaniel Jr. says a lack of testing has been less of a problem than the county’s ability to deal with positive cases, which he said frequently hinges on a worker’s documentation status.
“If they test positive, they know they are staring at quarantining and self-isolation and they need to have that paycheck,” he said. “We’ve had 300 people slip back to whatever crack they came from, off to parts unknown. They don’t give the right phone number or the right address.”
Collier County health officials twice turned down offers from Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit health-care organization, to conduct contact tracing in Immokalee, according to Matthew Hing, a doctor with the organization that has had success in contact tracing in Massachusetts.
Kristine Hollingsworth, public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Collier County, said the offers were declined because any group that assisted in contact-tracing efforts would need to become a background-screened volunteer of the agency or a contracted agency approved by the Florida Department of Health.
Testing of farmworkers did not ramp up until June. By that time, much of the Florida growing season was over and many seasonal farmworkers were on the move.
“By then the state had successfully sent the problem up north,” said Robin Lewy of the Rural Women’s Health Project. “It was shushed and covered up. We didn’t think about the farmworkers because it’s convenient to forget them.”
In California, some growers threatened to retaliate against workers who complained about a lack of masks and other PPE or overcrowding in hotels, according to emails between the Monterey County Health Department and advocacy groups. A. Irene de Barraicua, a spokesperson for Lideres Campesinas, a California women’s farmworker network, says very few workers want to be publicly identified because “they are scared of retaliation, of losing work and of being deported. If they show up in a news story they are losing their jobs.”
She said she has spoken to workers who have been threatened with firing or eviction after speaking up about a lack of PPE, and that workers have been told to hide positive diagnoses from fellow workers.
Hundreds of growers continued to operate through April without seeking PPE for their workers, according to a spreadsheet and memo sent by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to the state’s county governments in early May.
The state later partnered with county agriculture commissioners to distribute millions of surgical masks and other PPE to agricultural workers. As wildfires raged early in September, resulting in hazardous air quality, farmworkers kept working. The state distributed millions of N95 masks.
Some farms that supply major name-brand fruit and vegetable companies threatened to fire or deport workers who complained about safety and asked for better screening and temperature checks, said Hazel Davalos, the community organizing director at the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) who has interviewed multiple farmworkers.
In early May, about 100 farmworkers at Rancho Laguna Farms in Santa Maria, a farming community near Santa Barbara that houses approximately 2,000 H-2A visa workers each summer to pick strawberries and other crops, went on strike to complain about pandemic work safety and insufficient hazard pay. On May 11, CAUSE filed an unfair labor practice charge with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board on behalf of the workers, alleging that the company fired some of the striking workers and threatened to call immigration officials, Davalos said.
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board is investigating complaints that Rancho Laguna Farms laid off workers who complained, according to Franchesca Herrera, the board’s regional director.
Like many smaller strawberry growers in Santa Maria, Rancho Laguna Farms sells its fruit to Driscoll’s, which controls about one-third of the $6 billion U.S. berry market.
“We cannot comment on any ongoing and pending investigations,” said Rancho Laguna Farms spokesman Jesse Rojas by email. He said that as of Aug. 28, 20 workers had tested positive for the coronavirus, and 18 of them had returned to work with written authorization from a medical professional or the county health department.
“All employees who were under test result waiting period or who tested positive were eligible for leave under the Federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” he wrote.
On July 7, Leodegario Chavez, 51, a driver for Alco Harvesting, which contracts to bring in about 1,000 of the area’s guest workers, died of covid-19. Residing in Alco Harvesting’s housing accommodations for their H-2A workers in a Motel 6, he was the first agricultural worker in Santa Maria to die of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Another coronavirus-positive guest worker for Alco Harvesting, who spoke to advocates on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, posted on a site called Tu Tiempo Digital that more than 20 coronavirus-positive workers were being quarantined at the motel and that he had been in the room next to the deceased.
The day after his posts, he said, he was fired and kicked out of the motel. By July 29, there were 85 confirmed cases linked to the outbreak at Alco Harvesting in Santa Maria, according to the county health department. Alco Harvesting did not respond to requests for comment.
Driscoll’s said in a statement that it has helped growers access PPE including masks, and that its growers have been responsive to input from the company as well as county officials on meeting the CDC agriculture guidelines. To date, there hasn’t been a circumstance that has resulted in a need to terminate a grower relationship, the company said.
“Our independent grower network has not had any significant problems with outbreaks,” the statement said. “We’ve been proactive and worked diligently to help our independent growers first and foremost meet the CDC’s agriculture guidelines.”
Georgia Gee, a data journalist for the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, contributed research to this report.