December 21, 2020

COVID-19 Impacts on Food and Farm Sector Workers

Martha L. Noble and Thomas Parker Redick

This article will discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on labor practice and waste management in animal agriculture, which has been confronted with monumental agricultural management challenges from this viral outbreak. This includes testing for COVID-19 in farm and meat-packing labor, which is just being considered important. Animal agriculture features unique impacts of COVID-19 infections on workers who handle, process, and package meat. 

1. Regulatory Frameworks

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s guidance for critical infrastructure workers during the COVID-19 epidemic includes farmworkers. Many states also include farmworkers as state-designated critical workers. Despite these designations, in many states farmworkers have living and working conditions that have exposed them to COVID-19. As a result, on-farm workers, as well as workers in fruit, vegetable, and meat packing operations across the nation, have taken ill or walked off the job because of lack of measures to protect them from contracting COVID-19. See Elizabeth Royte, Covid-19 Is Spreading Among Farmworkers, and it May Get Worse (see https://thefern.org/author/elizabeth-royte ).

2. Farmworkers Testing for COVID-19

A report from the National Center for Farmworker Health indicated that, as of July 20, 2020, 98 percent of rural counties had reported COVID-19 cases and 55 percent had reported one or more deaths. But only eight states issued mandatory regulations for protecting agricultural workers from exposure to COVID-19 (Colorado, Michigan, New York, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin). National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc. COVID_19 in Rural America: Impact on Farms & Agricultural Workers (Update July 21, 2020).

In 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Labor released to state and local health departments a joint Interim Guidance for Agricultural Workers and Employers. The guidance focuses on worksite management that could protect farmworkers from COVID-19 exposure and infection but the guidance was only advisory, not mandatory. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-2019), Agriculture Workers and Employers––Interim Guidance from CDC and U.S. Department of Labor. In California’s San Joaquin County, a major agricultural region, Latino farmworkers account for nearly a third of COVID-19 cases, but advocates say farmworkers are often regarded as disposable labor, last in line for inadequate aid. Anita Chabria, This County Knew Coronavirus Could Ravage Its Farmworkers. Why Didn’t Its Officials Stop It? L.A. Times (July 25, 2020).

In addition, workers in meatpacking plants across the country have high rates of COVID-19 infections. In most of these plants, workers are close together in refrigerated buildings with high moisture levels in recirculated air. These conditions are ideal for the transmission of the COVID-19 virus. See Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): Meat and Poultry Workers and Employers (July 9, 2020). As of June 26, 2020, COVID-19 outbreaks had been reported at more than 250 meatpacking plants and more than 28,000 meatpacking workers had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result of these outbreaks, many plants shut down or work with a smaller workforce, leaving farmers and ranchers in these communities holding animals on their farm without adequate access to meatpacking plants. As many as 1.3 million hogs were destroyed in the first part of 2020, with estimates that there may be a surplus of 2.5 million hogs by the end of 2020.

As with the dairy and livestock sector, many fruit and vegetable growers have also seen COVID-19 cases spike among the farmworkers who pick their crops. There is no comprehensive testing or reporting of COVID-19 cases among agricultural workers, but various state level reports indicate that workers in fruit and vegetable operations across the nation are contracting COVID-19. A few examples include a large outbreak of COVID-19 on a California berry farm with 188 migrant workers testing positive. Scores of farmworkers and workers in fruit-packing operations in Washington State have tested positive for COVID-19. See, e.g., National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc., COVID-19 in Rural America: Impact on Farms and Agricultural Workers (July 21, 2020).

We note here that state-level efforts to address COVID-19 infection of farmworkers are patchwork, uncoordinated across state lines, and rapidly changing. Farmers are advised to keep in contact with their State Departments of Agriculture for updates on recommendations and requirements for protecting farmworkers, including workers who may be doing on-farm food packing and processing work.

As this article was being finalized, the state of Michigan announced that it will mandate testing for agricultural and food processing employees. State Orders COVID-19 Testing for Agricultural and Food Processing Workers, The Detroit News, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/08/03/state-covid-19-testing-agricultural-food-processing-workers/5579000002/. The article notes that recently over 30 major farm industry trade organizations urged Congress to provide resources to assist their members in protecting their workforce from COVID-19.

In ordering testing for agricultural and food processing employees, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services cited 11 recent COVID-19 outbreaks at farms and food processing plants in Michigan. The order required migrant housing camp operators to provide by August 10 a report detailing: 1. one-time baseline testing of all residents ages 18 and over; 2. testing of all new residents with 48 hours of arrival, with separate housing for newly arriving residents for 14 days and a second test 10 to 14 days after arrival; and (3) testing of any resident with symptoms or exposure. 

Similar testing is required for employers of more than 20 seasonal workers in meat, egg, and greenhouse facilities including 1. one-time baseline testing of all workers, 2. testing of all new workers, and 3. testing of any worker with symptoms or exposure. 

Completion of baseline testing and implementation of ongoing testing are required no later than August 24, state officials said.

These new costs for COVID-19 management may require federal assistance. Insurance for such impacts may need to be tailored to farmers losing revenue during lockdowns.

Michigan recently dropped out of the top 15 states with COVID-19 cases and hopes to bring its rural outbreaks under control with this order.

Conclusion

Animal agriculture has suffered greatly, in both labor and animal stocks, from COVID-19, with costs increasing to manage these human health impacts.

Only time will tell whether this pandemic will close more farms, increasing the concentration that has been increasing in agriculture over time. Bigger farms may survive, but with a greater sense of the need to maintain cash reserves to use in weathering future shutdowns. 

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Martha L. Noble and Thomas Parker Redick

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For many years, Martha L. Noble taught agricultural and environmental law courses for the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, and was a staff attorney with the National Center for Agricultural Law Research and Information (renamed the National Agricultural Law Center). She is now retired in Healdsburg, California, where she volunteers her time with organizations working on education and environmental issues. 

Thomas Parker Redick is in solo practice at Global Environmental Ethics Counsel, LLC in Spring Lake, Michigan. He serves as the articles vice chair for the Agricultural Management Committee of ABA SEER.