Farms across the country are afflicted with Covid-19, raising concerns about protecting low-wage workers.
Millions of Americans work from home after their governors told them to seek shelter, but farm workers, grocery workers, and other key workers have no way to maintain national food supplies.
Meat supply in the United States has already lagged behind due to outbreaks in slaughterhouses and meat packaging plants. The disease control and prevention centers found that more than 16,200 workers in 23 states tested positive for the virus. Total production of state-controlled red meat and poultry decreased 8% in April and 13% in May, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But while meat packers got sick, cases among farm workers only became a problem in early summer, when many labor-intensive plants had to be harvested. In June, the governor of Florida accused Ron DeSantis of blaming farm workers and day laborers for an increase in new coronavirus cases, despite the fact that cases outside of agricultural areas were becoming more common.
California saw an increase in its total cases in June and July, and recently passed New York for total confirmed cases. It also houses half of the country's agricultural workers who harvest grapes to mushrooms.
Marielos Cisneros, production worker at Primex Farms in Wasco, California, and a single mother, tested positive for Covid-19 in June and is still feeling nauseous while eating. She said the farm human resources department told her not to tell other employees about her diagnosis. Cisneros believes that her four children got the virus from her.
Primex Farms, which grows pistachio nuts, contested the claim that one of its management representatives asked employees to hide a positive diagnosis.
"We are very proactive and encourage employees to report any COVID-related symptoms," a spokesman said in a statement to CNBC. "We also performed contact tracking by sending everyone with potential exposure for testing, and we don't allow employees to come to work who have had any of the symptoms of COVID-19."
Primex said it tested all employees on Covid-19, and 150 employees tested positive. Over 70 have returned to work with the permission of a doctor or an official from the Ministry of Health.
Most farm workers work outdoors, where the risk of contracting the virus is lower and social distance is easier. Instead, the bigger risks go outside of work. H-2A visas for temporary workers in agriculture require employers to provide migrant workers with accommodation, transportation to and from work, and access to a kitchen at no additional cost. Labor camps are usually similar to barracks and social distancing is difficult.
"Not too many small family farmers have the resources to hire someone to clean the bathrooms three or four times a day, and so does the kitchen," said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a branch of AFL- CIO representing workers in the Midwest and South.
Nearly 200 farm workers living in such a facility in Oxnard, California were tested positive for Covid-19 in early July.
"Many places work as usual," said Armando Elenes, treasurer of United Farm Workers, who mainly represents workers in California, Oregon and Washington.
Velasquez said that companies that buy tobacco, fruit, and vegetables from farms should issue a one-year emergency price hike to give small farmers enough money to make their labor camps safer.
"These companies don't hurt for money. The only thing they hurt for is higher profits," he said.
Velasquez said that he suspects that there are many unreported cases. He said some workers may be hesitant to get tested on Covid-19 because they fear they will not pay them while they quarantine or recover from the disease, although their employer has to pay them legally.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act stipulates that companies with fewer than 500 employees must cover paid vacation related to Covid-19 by the end of the year to provide some protection to low-wage workers. The UFW advocated expansion to larger farms with the state of California and won. But less than half of the farm workers interviewed for the Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey in 2015 and 2016 were health insured.
"They are so used to working, even if they are sick, just working on it," said Elenes.
Cisneros said her health insurance covered part of her medical expenses for Covid-19. She received sick leave from Primex Farms for only a few hours until she and her staff went on strike, demanding free face coverage, better hygiene, and more information about sick people. Now she said Primex is taking revenge on her and trying to get her to resign at a time when the national unemployment rate is 11.1%.
Primex denied that its employees had ever gone on strike and said it has paid the required sick pay since the Californian mandate became law. The company also denied taking revenge on one of its employees.
Some farm workers may also be motivated not to get tested because a positive Covid 19 test could also affect their future job prospects.
"If you feel that your contractor or supervisor disapproves of not working, you won't be recruited to come back next year," said Velasquez.