By Doug Graves
SANDUSKY, Ohio – Just ask any large farm operator in Ohio or adjacent states and they’ll tell it to you straight – migrant farm workers are important to their harvest season.
According to a pair of advocacy groups, Ohio’s 33,000 migrant farm workers are putting their lives and their families’ lives at risk to earn a living and feed the rest of us. COVID-19 has brought many businesses to a screeching halt, but migrant workers are deemed essential and their continuation to work has these groups very concerned.
“There is no such thing as social distancing when you’re picking strawberries,” said Juanita Guitierrez, a board member with Justice for Migrant Women. “You work from shoulder to shoulder with the person that is next to you the row. And then these farm workers travel to and from the field in vans or buses with their coworkers. They’re living and working together in small spaces.”
Two groups (Justice for Migrant Women and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality) are calling on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and other state leaders to issue a mandate for agricultural workers in order to force employers to make changes to improve safety precautions against COVID-19.
Monica Ramirez, founder of Justice for Migrant Women, said such mandates have been issued for 27 other industries during this pandemic. “We know the virus is spreading and workers are getting sick,” Ramirez said.
The two advocacy groups want requirements that would include keeping workers at a safe distance apart, providing personal protective equipment, providing alternative housing for sick workers and guaranteeing workers can keep their jobs if they become ill. At this time there are no migrant worker deaths attributed to COVID-19 but several have been hospitalized.
Outbreaks of COVID-19 have been documented in Huron and Sandusky counties in Ohio. Roughly 100 farm workers have gotten sick with COVID-19 at a Case Farms chicken processing facility, a salad packing facility and within migratory workers at farms in Huron County.
“It’s hard for some farm workers to do the little things, like washing hands and social distancing,” said Eugenio Mollo Jr., of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE). “It’s also difficult to maintain space from one another when farm workers live together in labor camps, sharing bathing and cooking facilities.”
The state has offered COVID-19 testing to farm workers in Sandusky, Lake, Ottawa, Wood, Hamilton, Erie and Huron counties.
According to Ramirez, farm workers are particularly vulnerable to illness because of high rates of respiratory disease, low rates of health insurance coverage for most, and often substandard living and working conditions.
“They are essentially invisible to most people,” Ramirez said. “In a public health crisis like the one we’re facing today, farm workers are among the most vulnerable groups in our society, placed at a high risk of widespread illness and even death.”
While the U.S. Department of Labor requires hand-washing facilities in the field or at work sites, state regulations don’t require running water in labor camp housing units. That regulation is scheduled to change on Jan. 1, 2022.
Travel and immigration bans enacted in the United States and around the world have put stress on a preexisting shortage of farm labor. To supplement the domestic labor supply, many farms in the United States often rely upon the H-2A program to hire seasonal agricultural workers from other countries.