Many Agricultural Workers Still Can’t Get COVID Vaccine as Growing Season Begins

A key group of essential workers in New York State are strangely still unable to get vaccinated: farmworkers.

As of March 10, anyone 60 years and older can sign up for the vaccine in the Empire State. Grocery, restaurant, delivery workers and other “public-facing” employees in various nodes of the food industry have been eligible since late February.

But farmworkers — including those milking cows, feeding chickens and picking tomatoes in close quarters inside greenhouses — are still not among those who may sign up for vaccination. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, an associate professor of food studies and nutrition at Syracuse University, argues that this is nonsensical. “There’s really no job that could be more essential than farm workers,” Minkoff-Zern told Syracuse.com.

Exclusion from vaccine eligibility is just the latest in what New York farmworkers, many of whom are migrants, say is emblematic of how they’ve been treated throughout — but also long before — the pandemic.

“We’re called ‘essential workers,’ but they don’t actually take us into account,” dairy worker Luis Jiménez told Truthout, speaking in Spanish. Jiménez is a co-founder of the worker-led organization of undocumented dairy workers, Alianza Agrícola. He says it’s a hopeful sign that people over 60 years old now qualify for the vaccine. But it doesn’t do anything to help Jiménez, or New York dairy workers in general, whom he estimates are between 40 and 50, on average.

Some farmworkers may technically qualify now on account of certain health conditions unrelated to employment type, like diabetes or high body mass index (BMI). But many farmworkers “don’t know they have a problem with blood sugar, high blood pressure and other conditions,” he said, since many workers have not had access to a medical screening because they have no health insurance or no access to an affordable doctor’s visit. The health disparity is particularly stark at some farms in Upstate New York, where workers may live far from a medical clinic and have no access to transportation.

Jiménez says although he and other dairy workers do not have direct contact with the public every day, they are required to work in close quarters with others when receiving shipments, dealing with chemicals and milking and caring for the cows. The tendency of workers to be housed together on-site poses additional risks, as social distancing in motel rooms and bunkhouses is all but impossible. And workers he organizes with say their bosses don’t have a protocol in the case of an outbreak. “We should know the plan on the ranch if someone gets sick, but it’s not clear,” Jiménez said.

And although cases are falling in many places across the U.S., the virus appears to still be on the rise among agricultural workers in particular. Since Documented reported that farmworkers had been removed from Phase 1B vaccine eligibility in New York on March 2, COVID-19 cases among farmworkers rose from 496,000 to 541,000, as of March 15, according to Purdue University’s Food and Agriculture Vulnerability Index. Over that same time period, agricultural workers testing positive for COVID-19 in New York State rose from an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 — signaling that as many as one-quarter of agricultural workers in the state may have gotten sick.

By contrast, other states — including California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan and Wisconsin — have already announced plans to vaccinate farmworkers. California and Texas have the highest total number of cases among agricultural workers, according to the Purdue tracker. But the fatality rate in New York State is almost double that of California and Texas, at 2.8 percent.

The risk to New York’s agricultural workers and other essential workers in the food system is likely to increase as the growing season sets in and workers from outside the state head to New York. An estimated 8,000 farmworkers may be bound for New York State farms in the coming weeks, Syracuse.com reports.

Crispín Hernández, a former dairy worker and organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York, is in close contact with farmworkers across the state. He says working conditions on many farms aren’t much different from before the pandemic. “The bosses have not taken responsibility,” Hernández said. “Workers are showing up to work and working as if nothing had happened,” without health and safety protocols or education efforts around COVID-19, he described in general terms.

Among the largest outbreaks in the state so far occurred at Green Empire Farms, in Oneida, New York, where 171 of 300 vegetable pickers tested positive for COVID-19 in May 2020. Following an investigation into the outbreak, the U.S. Department of Labor found the company responsible for four “serious” violations of workplace safety, for which they were fined $26,988.

The violations do not make reference to COVID-19 specifically, but describe hazards relevant to an airborne disease like the coronavirus. One violation describes “Greenhouse #1” and “Greenhouse #2” as 820 feet wide by 2,625 feet long with “zero personnel doors.” Green Empire Farms has contested all four violations and the investigation remains open.

As the Observer-Dispatch reported at the time, the produce company implemented social distancing measures on May 5, but no changes were announced regarding the company’s housing of employees in nearby motels, where they were assigned to sleep four to a room. The Department of Labor denied a Freedom of Information Act request for inspection reports detailing the current housing conditions for workers, explaining that it was “information that could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”

Meanwhile, as of March 12, neither Hernández nor Jiménez said they personally knew a single farmworker in New York State who has been able to get the vaccine, even taking into account that some may qualify based on age or health conditions.

The New York Farm Bureau has also voiced frustration with farmworkers’ exclusion from Phase 1B, mentioning concerns about risky conditions in worker housing specifically. In January, New York State assemblywoman Donna Lupardo and state Sen. Michelle Hinchey sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, encouraging the state to make the vaccine accessible to agricultural workers as soon as possible. The New York State Health Department told WBNG the decision not to make farmworkers eligible was in line with the state’s overall vaccine rollout: “As vaccine supply from the federal government has expanded under President Biden’s leadership, we have opened up eligibility for groups of the 1B population in tranches — just as we did for 1A healthcare workers — however, demand still far outstrips supply, and this is an ongoing process.” The next eligibility wave in New York is on March 17, and the department makes no mention of farmworkers.

Hernández says ensuring agricultural workers are healthy and safe will take much more than including them in Phase 1B, though he says it is an essential first step. Farm owners and rural health clinics will also need to ramp up education efforts around the virus and vaccination in workers’ first languages, he said.

On March 15, workers across New York City launched a hunger strike in support of the passage of a pair of laws known as the Fund Excluded Workers Act that would create a $3.5 billion fund for workers excluded from federal relief, including undocumented workers, by taxing New York billionaires. Hernández says upstate farmworkers won’t be participating in the strike, but they will continue to mobilize in solidarity with essential workers across the state ahead of the state’s April 1 budget deadline.

Agricultural workers are also advocating for the New York Hero Act, which would require more rigorous health standards in workplaces and worker housing across the state to ostensibly prevent outbreaks like what happened at Green Empire Farms. The bill, which advanced to the State Assembly on March 1, would require all workplaces to establish an “airborne disease exposure prevention plan,” including protocols around testing, disinfection, social distancing and personal protective equipment. It would also outlaw retaliation against workers who express safety concerns related to airborne disease, with all protections carrying a $1,000 to $20,000 fine for employers who fail to comply.

At a recent online rally in support of the bill, Karines Reyes, a nurse and state assemblywoman representing the Bronx, said workplaces need protocols akin to those at hospitals, especially since future public health crises loom large. “Other industries in our state who aren’t in the health care industry have no idea how to protect themselves, how to protect their workers and how to protect the community against an airborne communicable disease,” she said. “COVID has shown us that we need to be proactive in protecting our workers.”

As they await vaccine eligibility and push for new state laws, Hernández says farmworkers want the public to know how much they’ve suffered through the pandemic — and before it. “We want people, for example, when they eat a piece of fruit or take a sip of milk, to be aware of who cultivated the nutrients they’re consuming,” he says, and to realize who is paying taxes that help fund rural schools, for instance, all while remaining at risk of contracting the virus. “It’s not new what’s happening during COVID,” Hernández says. “The workers are in the shadows.”