There’s a simple rule at Bonnie Brae Fruit Farms: The first seasonal workers to arrive each spring get to pick the best farm-provided housing.
That rule won’t apply this year.
Sarah Lott Zost, an owner of the orchard in Gardners, Pennsylvania, is changing the procedure and reserving two four-person apartments in case anyone on the crew has to be isolated because of the coronavirus.
“If we have a crew outbreak greater than that, we’ll probably end up with the group housing being an isolating group altogether,” Zost said in a May 7 Penn State webinar.
Not all farms have Zost’s combination of large and small dwellings, but growers across the Mid-Atlantic are changing housing arrangements to protect their workers as they open their first growing season under threat from COVID-19.
Farmers generally house their seasonal crews in multiperson units, the type of close quarters where the virus can easily spread.
The risk of transmission is already clear from the meatpacking industry. Large plants have been idled because of outbreaks among employees who worked in close proximity, and who sometimes live in multifamily settings or share transportation.
In the fruit and vegetable sector, the virus is ushering in the era of the socially distanced bunkhouse.
Growers are asking workers to spread throughout the housing — that’s easier now than it will be when the harvest crews arrive later in the season — and farmers are paying more attention to cleaning regimens at worker housing.
Some growers are even securing extra living quarters, said Scott Sheely, executive director of the Lancaster County Agriculture Council.
To respect workers’ privacy, farm owners often don’t spend much time at labor camps, but they will want to take a more hands-on approach this year, said Richard Stup, an agriculture workforce specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension.
That could mean providing cleaning supplies, assigning cleaning responsibilities and discouraging visitation.
Farmworkers like to spend time with the friends they have made over years of coming to the United States, but this isn’t the year for get-togethers, Stup said.
Health precautions begin the day the workers arrive on the farm.
Zost has added social distancing and in-home hygiene training to the food safety primer she gives her workers at onboarding.
That training is an important step, and farmers should continue to reinforce good health practices as the year goes on, Stup said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers educational materials in multiple languages that can be printed out and posted at the farm and in worker housing.
Many of these materials have a strong visual component, making them accessible to employees regardless of their reading level, Stup said.
If they want, farmers can also get their workers tested for COVID-19 when they arrive, and administer daily temperature checks.
Such medical exams would normally be prohibited on the job, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has relaxed this rule because the disease is a direct threat to the workplace, Stup said.
During the season, farmers should reduce the barriers to employees taking days off when they’re sick. While workers generally want to show up, “this is not a time to tough it out,” Stup said.
If farmers haven’t already, now is a good time to create a contingency plan.
This document lists which tasks must continue and which ones can be cut back, modified, delayed or abandoned if a big chunk of the farm’s workforce is sick, Stup said.
Though the virus is forcing farms to alter employee living arrangements, it is not preventing the workers from getting to the farm in the first place.
The Ag Council’s Sheely recently conducted a small survey about growers’ experiences with the H-2A farmworker visa program.
Two-thirds of respondents said they did not have trouble getting their workers certified with the Department of Labor this year.
That’s an encouraging sign because of frequent complaints in previous years about this leg of the process, Sheely said.
H-2A candidates would normally be required to participate in an interview at a U.S. consulate, but as a social distancing measure, most applicants are eligible for a waiver this year.
About a third of respondents said their workers took advantage of this waiver, and others had pending requests.
Most of the 18 respondents said they had no problems transporting their workers from their home countries to the farm, though some said they avoided flying the workers.
Zost took that approach, sending a van to pick up one of her workers at the border rather than sending him on an airplane.
That worker got delayed by several weeks because of the change in procedures at the consulate. To avoid a similar holdup later in the season, Zost bumped up her target start date for her harvest crew.
In the survey, growers indicated that they have been using a lot of state-recommended hygiene practices, such as social distancing, glove and mask wearing, and hand washing. Most growers said they had enough personal protective equipment.
“I consider that to be indicative of the public health message getting out to growers,” Sheely said.
Still, over the growing season farmers may continue to find small ways that they’ll have to adapt to keep their workers well.
Zost has already thought of one.
“We’ll have to make more grocery store runs because you can’t pack the bus full of people and take them to the grocery store now,” she said.