How You Get Your Berries: Migrant Workers Who Fear Virus, but Toil On

on Jul6
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HAMMONTON, N.J. — Workers at the largest blueberry farm in the Northeast move through the fields in small groups, fingers dancing with the speed of musicians as they pick bushes heavy with fruit.

The more they gather, the more they are paid during a season that lasts only about seven weeks.

Barring rain, they work seven days a week; there is no time for illness.

But everywhere there are reminders of the coronavirus and its power to sweep quickly through tightly packed farm camps.

It is the reason laborers who live and toil close together wear bandannas across their faces in the hot sun and work separated by plexiglass in the fruit packaging facility.

It is what had them standing in line on a steamy morning, weeks before picking started, to be tested for the virus at the large farm in southern New Jersey, Atlantic Blueberry Company in Hammonton.

“It feels a little uncomfortable,” said Angel Rodriguez, who works in the farm’s packaging facility. “You don’t know if somebody is contagious.”

Mr. Rodriguez, 34, left Puerto Rico in March to begin working his way up the East Coast, stopping for two months in Florida before arriving in late May in Atlantic County, the hub of New Jersey’s thriving blueberry industry.

He is one of an estimated 22,000 seasonal workers who tend and harvest crops in New Jersey, nicknamed the Garden State for its robust agriculture industry.

Like Mr. Rodriguez, many laborers follow the ripening crops up the Eastern Seaboard, starting in Florida, where migrant living quarters have been ravaged by the virus, and working their way north to Maine.

A sick work force during a short growing season could be financially catastrophic.

“This crop comes in, virus or no virus,” said Denny Doyle, president of the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council.

Atlantic Blueberry purchased 3,000 bandannas and gave each worker two — one to wear, one to wash — and hung fire-retardant cloth between beds in the dormitories where hundreds of laborers live during the season. Mr. Doyle said the farm also purchased several additional buses to create extra space on the shuttles that run to and from the fields.

Agriculture is New Jersey’s third-largest industry. The state is among the nation’s top producers of blueberries, cranberries, peaches and eggplant.

In May, state health officials arranged for four federally qualified health centers to begin testing and issued safety guidelines that offered a range of ambitious — some say impractical — suggestions for farm owners. Farmers were told to avoid bunked beds, require masks and create separate housing for anyone who tested positive for the virus, among other recommendations.

There are no penalties for noncompliance.

New Jersey’s 5 percent rate of infection among farmworkers may actually be higher. Day laborers who do not live on the farms are unlikely to be among those tested by the health centers. Workers who are tested in private medical practices are not included in the tally.

The testing program is also voluntary, and 57 farms have barred medical teams from doing on-site testing, according to Dr. Lori Talbot, who treats migrant farm workers and viewed the list of noncompliant farms that was sent to the state’s health and labor departments.

At least half the nation’s farmworkers are believed to be undocumented, according to Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy organization focused on labor standards and occupational safety.

“What we’re hearing from all over is that people are too fearful of being fired or deported to ask for improvement of the health and safety practices,” Mr. Goldstein said.

Migrant farmworkers are not included in the categories of foreign workers barred in June by President Trump from entering the country. But finding enough people to work the fields has been a problem on farms in the United States long before the coronavirus.

There has been a fivefold increase in the number of H-2A visas requested and approved since 2005, climbing to 258,000 last year — “one of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor,” according to a report from the United States Department of Agriculture.

On New Jersey’s blueberry farms, a labor shortage over the last several years has led to an expanded use of machinery to harvest the fruit, which can be damaged in the process and then must be sold frozen, not fresh.

Guidance issued by the United States for the safety of the nation’s estimated 2.4 million farmworkers is not mandatory. A New Jersey state senator, M. Teresa Ruiz, has introduced a bill to make the state’s recommendations binding.

“Each state is on their own,” said Amy Liebman, director of environmental and occupational health at the Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit for health care organizations. “In some cases, each farm is on their own.”

Sara A. Quandt, a professor and medical anthropologist who teaches epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest School of Medicine, has begun a survey of farmworkers’ understanding of the virus and social distancing.

She said she was frustrated by “victim blaming” and suggestions that the infection rate in migrant communities is somehow linked to poor hygiene.

“There is inherent racism going on,” Professor Quandt said, “that perhaps their lives are not worth quite as much and perhaps it’s their own darn fault.”

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