WASHINGTON – The federal government should require COVID-19 testing to be provided for all migrant and seasonal agricultural workers because they live and work in close proximity to each other, a top official on the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health said Wednesday.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, farmworkers were key to our nation’s food source stability and to the health of residents in the U.S. dependent on food security,” said Council Vice Chair Amy Snipes at the federal advisory group’s quarterly meeting. “Going forward, we recommend that federal agencies implement measures to protect essential workers who work on farms of all sizes, through ample hazard protections.”
The council was chartered to provide advice to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Health Resources and Services Administration about migrant workers’ health.
Snipes said the council believes he Health Resources and Services Administration should spend more money to provide the workers with personal protective equipment and to help health centers that serve migrant farmworkers. If they test positive for COVID-19, HRSA should provide paid leave, she said.
In addition, the Agriculture Department’s rural housing service should provide funding to reduce crowding in temporary farm worker living facilities and to limit housing capacity. Often, 6-8 farmworkers live in one bedroom and share kitchen and bathroom facilities with 11 or more farmworkers.
“To ensure that our communities have a stable food supply, farms need to stay in business,” Snipes said. “Towards this end it is critical that the nation prioritize farmworker health, so they can continue to do their jobs.”
An estimated 150,000 farmworkers have tested positive for coronavirus, according to Purdue University.
The council reviewed some of the cases. In Alachua County, Florida, 90 out of 100 farmworkers working in a watermelon farm tested positive for COVID-19, while only one showed symptoms. In July, 204 out of 216 farmworkers living together in an Oxnard, California housing facility tested positive. All 200 migrant and seasonal agricultural workers at a Tennessee farm tested positive.
Several Colorado farmworkers testified at the meeting that they were given information about washing their hands, social distancing and wearing masks. All said that they weren’t offered coronavirus testing, but said they would get tested if it’s safe.
One worker, Francisco Martinez, said he had only received health information from the news media and that he had to buy a mask on his own.
Other farmworkers, like Maria Castillo and Rocio Zavala, said they worried about lack of work because of the pandemic. They have been working fewer hours.
“As long as we have work, that is the most important thing,” Cesarea Salinas said.