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Farmworkers have been left behind by fractured labor and disaster aid systems

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed massive shortcomings in the nation’s labor and disaster aid systems, which have for decades failed to protect workers who come to the U.S. every year for seasonal work.

 Woman farm worker in green sweatshirt in strawberry field with shovel and other farms workers and rows of strawberry plants in background

There are about 200,000 H-2A visa holders, or seasonal workers who legally enter the U.S. for specific agricultural job contracts. They make up just 10 percent of the 2.5 million total farmworkers.

A hurricane season on top of a pandemic showed how farmworkers in North Carolina are susceptible to dangerous conditions on the job.

This story was published in partnership with Enlace Latino NC, a Spanish-language digital media nonprofit that covers politics, government, immigration and community affairs in North Carolina. 

Léalo en Español en Enlace Latino NC.

On the morning of Sept. 15, 2018, 40 farmworkers at Riggs Brothers Farm stood up out of bed into water. Hurricane Florence made landfall in eastern North Carolina the night before, and they were waiting out the storm in their labor camp in Jones County. They scrambled to grab their belongings and waded out the door into waist-high water before spending hours calling 911 and farmworker advocates. Their boss, farm owner Randy Riggs, never showed up.

To rescue them, attorneys and the U.S. Department of Labor had to intervene. "When someone finally opened the door, water rushed in even higher," said one worker, Romero, who asked to use an alias to protect his identity because he fears retaliation from his employers. "The refrigerator and appliances started floating."

Two years later and nearly 300 miles away in Alleghany County, Romero faced another emergency: In August, he and 111 other farmworkers at Bottomley Evergreens & Farms tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak was the state’s largest known coronavirus outbreak in congregate farmworker housing

Romero’s experiences are crucial reminders that before and during a public health emergency or natural disaster, farmworkers — those who are undocumented and those who are on federal H-2A work visas — are often left to fend for themselves. 

Labor laws exclude most agricultural workers from historic worker protections, and policy reform to better protect workers remains stagnant. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed massive shortcomings in the nation’s labor and disaster aid systems, which have for decades failed to protect workers who come to the U.S. every year for seasonal work. That means Romero, and hundreds of thousands of other people, are not guaranteed safety in the event of an emergency. 

"We invite them to come and work here," said Lariza Garzón, director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. "We should be kind and respectful and responsible enough to provide them with the basic needs of survival."

There are about 200,000 H-2A visa holders, or seasonal workers who legally enter the U.S. for specific agricultural job contracts. They make up just 10 percent of the 2.5 million total farmworkers. For decades, North Carolina processed the most H-2A visas in the country, and still remains in the top five states.

[For] communities of color, undocumented immigrants, people living in poverty due to systemic racism — climate change is hurting them now.

Despite a drop during the pandemic, this year 19,050 H-2A workers — 8.5 percent of the country’s total, according to the USDOL Office of Foreign Labor Certification — arrived in North Carolina to plant and hand-pick tobacco, sweet potatoes, blueberries and strawberries. Many of them, like Romero, later move west onto pumpkins and Christmas trees in the North Carolina mountains. 

Fieldwork is relentless, but Romero, 41, finds joy in getting it done. He grew up in the fields in Mexico, learning how to plant and harvest corn and beans. He first came to the U.S. on an H-2A visa at 18 and has worked in North Carolina every year since, arriving in June and leaving in December. He makes good money — enough to fund two daughters’ college educations in Mexico. Both are studying to become teachers.

What frustrates him about his job is the lack of information, protections and equal rights, which haven’t changed in the more than two decades since he’s been working in the U.S. 

When he contracted COVID-19, Romero said he was quarantined for eight days with other symptomatic workers who tested positive. He lost his sense of smell and forced himself to eat what he couldn’t taste to stay healthy. As men around him laid in bed with fatigue and coughing, he witnessed a friend get rushed to the hospital.

"I felt really scared," said Romero. 

For years, workers and advocates have been demanding better protections for a workforce harvesting the nation’s food and cash crops. On paper, the H-2A visas should offer stronger labor protections than those afforded to undocumented workers. But in the 1930s, agriculture was excluded from most federal labor laws in a process now known as "agricultural exceptionalism."

In 2020, the Trump administration pushed for more H-2A visas during the pandemic, echoing the agricultural industry’s refrain that it was a necessary move to ensure ample food supply. But the administration also proposed a decrease in farmworker wages

Latinx people — particularly essential workers — are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. According to the most recent National Agriculture Workers survey, 83 percent of U.S. farmworkers identify as Hispanic. An ongoing study by Purdue University estimates that more than 240,000 agricultural workers have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide as of Nov. 29. But the National Center for Farmworker Health has stated that this figure likely underestimates the number greatly because it excludes contracted and temporary labor. Cases have been meticulously documented by media outlets, including a mapping tool by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN).

In May, North Carolina led the nation in COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants. Yet despite pressure from organizers, the state hasn’t mandated any additional worker protections. In June, 16 North Carolina environmental groups, including the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, signed onto a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper demanding transparency about outbreaks, including the names of plants, and better worker protections. According to FERN’s latest data, there have been 4,903 COVID-19 cases among North Carolina’s food sector workers; 535 were farmworkers. 

The state’s labor and health and human services departments do not require farm owners to provide alternative isolation housing for workers sick with COVID-19. As first reported in Enlace Latino NC, Cooper rescinded his promise to issue an executive order to better protect farmworkers (one he made in a virtual town hall with Latinx community leaders) after pushback from the state’s agriculture and labor departments. 

Federal COVID-19 guidelines offer guidance for farmworkers and meatpacking workers, but no federally mandated protections, stating "employers may consider allowing exposed and asymptomatic critical infrastructure workers to continue to work in select instances when it is necessary to preserve the function of critical infrastructure workplaces." Advocates say that’s nowhere near enough; news investigations and the rising case numbers all summer showed that they likely weren’t being taken into serious consideration.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed massive shortcomings in the nation’s labor and disaster aid systems, which have for decades failed to protect workers who come to the U.S. every year for seasonal work.

"There has been no investment nor recognition at any level — not local, not state, not federal," said Melissa Bailey Castillo, a North Carolina farmworker advocate for more than 20 years in the nonprofit and healthcare sectors. "It’s as if this is just some mysterious ghost workforce that no one sees or cares about."

Most H-2A workers such as Romero live in shared barracks-style rooms, known as congregate housing, provided by their employer per the federal H-2A temporary agricultural visa program. But at many North Carolina farms, that housing has not met the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s minimum criteria for health and safety for decades, leaving dwellings prone to flooding, increased mold and wind damage. 

A 2015 study on federal migrant farmworker housing described the "structural standards encompassed in the shelter provisions of the OSHA regulations are rudimentary at best," detailing that "water intrusion from leaky foundations and roofs is associated with respiratory disease from molds, viruses, and other sources." Out of 183 farmworker camps in eastern North Carolina, 74 percent of buildings had structural damage.

Nothing in the H-2A visa requirements for employers details mandatory disaster planning in the event of a hurricane. And as Enlace Latino NC reported, rural county emergency management fails to reach many farmworkers to warn them of disasters. Emergency mandatory evacuation orders are not delivered in Spanish, and internet access in rural areas is scarce.

During the pandemic, budgets and resources are strained even more. Mike Yoder, coordinator of disaster programs at N.C. Cooperative Extension, said county emergency managers are "totally overwhelmed." 

"They work as hard as anybody can possibly work to try to make sure that everyone is taken care of in a response phase in a disaster," he said, although they "struggle to marshal resources."

Yoder said his team is working with the extension’s farmworker education program to better address disaster preparedness for workers — but it’s mostly reactive, not proactive. "We have the right resources in place for our farmworker and Latino communities, but I’m not sure if anyone pursues that during the non-disaster times," he said. "That’s really important, because that’s when you can make things happen."

In 2018, the Farmworker Advocacy Network released a 56-page disaster preparedness toolkit detailing recommendations to address farmworker challenges during hurricanes, including stronger collaborations with local government agencies and law enforcement to understand where farmworker housing is located in low-lying, flood-prone areas. It also loosely refers to federal regulations needing disaster-proof updates.

The Migrant Housing Act requires migrant housing operators to request an annual inspection 45 days before the anticipated date of occupancy. North Carolina’s Agricultural Safety and Health (ASH) Bureau responds to complaints and referrals. NCDOL spokesperson Natalie Bouchard said the bureau received one housing complaint after Hurricane Florence, "but it was not related to storm damage" and that ASH "does not blanket an area after a storm to assess damage. Generally, after a major storm, there are no crops left to harvest and the communities shift to survival and clean-up mode." 

There are no updated housing regulations for migrant housing, either, Bouchard confirmed. She added that "there are no occupational safety and health standards for mold." 

During the pandemic, these housing situations are even more precarious. Justin Flores, director of Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a farmworker union, said "growers were cramming workers together" in housing to leave one house or trailer available for quarantining.

An ongoing study by Purdue University estimates that more than 240,000 agricultural workers have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide as of Nov. 29.

The government has not provided farm owners funding to provide additional housing during the pandemic, and they’re not required by law to provide any hurricane evacuation shelter. "Usually they’ll have some excuse," Flores said. "In 2018, when we talked to folks to identify shelter on the day the storm was supposed to hit, some employers would say things like, 'I’m not taking them all the way out there; it will be unsafe for me; it’s too late now; they should have told me earlier.’"

Workers often don’t know they have a right to evacuate because their H-2A contract states they cannot abandon their job. Legal Aid attorney Ben Williams said they often aren’t aware that "employers can’t hold them hostage if there is an evacuation order." 

"In the H-2A context, it is not unheard of for employers to tell employees that if they evacuate the employer will report them to the Department of Labor as having abandoned the contract," he said. That would mean being sent back to their home country immediately, and the potential to be blacklisted from a future visa. He said lawyers advise workers "to employer in writing that they are not abandoning the work contract and intend to return" once it is safe. 

"It creates an environment of codependence," Bailey Castillo said. "It’s all designed to ensure they have to rely on the grower or rely on the contractor to get basic necessities, food, housing, and healthcare."

During storms or other emergencies, farmworkers often don’t know where to turn. After Hurricane Florence, Garzón and her staff of four at the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, plus several volunteers, scoured 10 flooded counties looking for workers who called for help. However, many in North Carolina for the first time didn’t know their address or even the county they were in. Immigrant farmworker families who live in North Carolina year-round were calling the ministry as well, saying that they were stranded with infants and children and running out of food. 

"Instead of calling 911 [during Hurricane Florence], people were calling us," Garzón said. "That was shocking, to be honest. I think people are scared to ask for help."

She said her team relied on Latinx-owned tiendas and restaurants along the way, hoping they were open and had clues as to where to find the workers.

Legal experts say leaving a labor camp in the event of a hurricane on their own volition is not easy. Many visa holders and undocumented workers lack a drivers license, another factor that makes it difficult to access resources. In focus groups with Enlace Latino NC conducted in 2019, undocumented farmworkers said not having a license was a hindrance to finding help, even if that simply meant going out to buy food. Several people expressed fear of getting stopped by the police while driving without a license.

State law requires a Social Security number to obtain a drivers license. Through the early 2000s, drivers licenses were still given to undocumented immigrants. But in 2005, Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, adopted the REAL ID law, which took away the right for thousands of immigrant residents in North Carolina. In the 15 years since, no drivers license bills have been passed by the state legislature. A state House bill drafted in 2019 to offer drivers licenses to "immigrants with limited or no status" has stalled.

In Enlace Latino NC’s focus groups, several Latinx immigrants expressed concern over police presence on the roads and outside of shelters after Hurricanes Matthew and Florence — especially those without drivers licenses. In a separate interview, one man said he thought if he asked for help after a hurricane, he would end up "trapped" by police.

Since 9/11, FEMA has been under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. DHS oversees several organizations, including U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In Spanish-speaking communities, both of these groups are commonly referred to as la migra. FEMA also deploys Border Patrol to assist in emergency response.

"Even if other parts of DHS or the government are working in [disaster] response — not enforcement — those [immigrant] communities are very wary of getting help," said Craig Fugate, former FEMA director under the Obama administration.

Rumors that ICE was in Lenoir County circulated Whatsapp chats after Hurricane Florence when someone shared a photo of a Border Patrol truck in the Walmart parking lot in Kinston, N.C. The chaos and fear it created in the Latinx community led to many families not evacuating; they remained stuck in their homes without electricity and food for days.

There has been no investment nor recognition at any level — not local, not state, not federal. ... It’s as if this is just some mysterious ghost workforce that no one sees or cares about.

Fugate is also the former director of emergency management in Florida and has seen firsthand the effects of an authoritative presence in immigrant communities during hurricane recovery. 

"In some of the farm communities and migrant camps, if we show up, everybody scatters. And all we do is show up in the FEMA truck," he said.

That means farmworker advocates do most of the work in getting aid to people. Garzón, of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, said many H-2A workers apply to her organization’s emergency fund. The ministry was founded in 1982, but its disaster program didn’t start until 2018. Garzón said she has mixed feelings about supporting workers who should be supported by the government — especially when undocumented workers have no protections in comparison.

"I want to help them, but at the same time it’s infuriating," she said. By doing so, it alleviates employers from doing their jobs in providing basic protections for their workers. "Are we subsidizing bad behavior?"

It took a pandemic to raise public awareness of farmworker issues, said Cintia Aguilar, director of Latino programs at North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Her program struggled to reach farmworkers in person this year, but managed to train more than 100 of them at camps on COVID precautions. Hurricane preparedness, however, fell to the wayside.

What did come out of it, Aguilar said, is more organizations collaborating across the state — including health clinics and emergency management agencies — looking to better educate and help farmworkers prepare in the future. "In a sense, it’s good," she said. "But how are we going to maintain that interest and capacity we are building?" 

The Atlantic hurricane season — which ended Nov. 30 — produced a record 30 named storms. North Carolina was largely spared, but the state can expect more extreme weather events in the future — as evident by the six tornadoes that quickly spurred after Hurricane Isaias made landfall in August and catastrophic rainfall and flooding from Hurricanes Sally, Eta and Iota this year. The state’s most recent climate assessment names inland flooding as the greatest climate-related hazard to agriculture, and a recent NOAA report puts North Carolina at the top of the list with states that can anticipate losing billions of dollars in the next decade due to storms.

The human dimensions of climate change is truly why we’re here, understanding that climate change hits the frontline community first.

Climate change alters migration patterns, too. For decades, immigration journalists and researchers have noted climate change as a driving force in pushing people from Latin America north to the U.S. The Red Cross estimates 3 million people were affected by Hurricanes Iota and Eta, which devastated Central America in November. Combined with the pandemic and existing poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and hunger, CNN reported that the long-lasting, damaging effects of the storms "may eventually even reach distant countries, as Central Americans left desperate and vulnerable by the storms flee abroad."

A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office reviewed how U.S. agencies are addressing climate change as a potential driver of global migration and criticized the Trump administration for not considering climate change as a factor and instead enforcing stricter immigration policies. President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign promise to farmworkers states he will "work with Congress to provide legal status based on prior agricultural work history, ensure they can earn paid sick time, and require that labor and safety rules, including overtime, humane living conditions, and protection from pesticide and heat exposure, are strictly enforced."

"The human dimensions of climate change is truly why we’re here, understanding that climate change hits the frontline community first,” said Kathie Dello, North Carolina’s state climatologist. "[For] communities of color, undocumented immigrants, people living in poverty due to systemic racism — climate change is hurting them now."

Policies that address these crises are needed at the state level, too — and local farmworker advocates say they haven’t been able to get answers from officials about specific plans. The working poor factor into the state’s proposed plans to mitigate and handle climate change — and to keep the environment healthy and livable for all residents. But North Carolina’s climate risk assessment and resilience plan released in 2020 only mentions farmworkers once, citing them as a population vulnerable to extreme heat. 

"It’s important for us to recognize that people with money can and do adapt to climate change,” Dello said. "But it’s extreme heat affecting farmworkers living in primitive housing or it’s places that flood continuously and create mold growth in homes. These are real public health impacts in these communities. Climate change is a stressor on top of everything else."

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