by Sally Colby

In a recent discussion about how to keep farm workers healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak, Dr. Rich Stup, agricultural workforce specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, discussed some options for employers.

COVID-19 has mainly spread in large, urban areas, “but there’s no doubt it’s on the farms,” Stup said. “We’ve seen outbreaks on dairy farms and on fruit farms. It’s out there, and it moves quickly. Most people recover but it can be a difficult time for a farm to deal with.”

Stup said communication is one of the best first steps in keeping employees healthy, especially those arriving for seasonal work. “Talk with employees about coronavirus, and how it spreads and how to prevent infection,” he said. “H-2A workers are coming in, and they’ll be at different stages of knowing about the virus. We can’t let our guard down – we need to make sure we have a good training program and can reach people in a language they can understand, and that we continue to get the message out there. We don’t relax all through this season or however long it takes.”

Stup said the resources available from the CDC are excellent and should be printed and posted for employees, both in the workplace and in worker housing. “A lot of the information is visual,” said Stup. “Try to use that whenever you can because not everyone is at the same reading level, even in their native language.”

A major consideration for workers is sick leave. Farm workers have a strong work ethic and tend to want to go to work. However, this isn’t the time to tough out an illness. “We don’t want to turn an individual problem into a workforce disaster,” he said. “Think about sick leave and some of the barriers that might stop your employees from taking a day off and being tested or just not coming in when they are sick.” Stup suggested employers take advantage of any federal programs in place for sick leave.

Improving housing situations is a must. Any temporary housing should be in good shape and inspected prior to occupancy. Stup noted that some preventative measures critical for health might be uncomfortable for both workers and their employers. “It’s a time for us to be actively managing housing and not being quite as stand-offish and respecting personal space as we normally would,” he said. “I understand that’s important, and it’s still personal space, but we absolutely need to be taking steps to manage in the housing just like you’ll manage at the farm to be sure the virus doesn’t spread any quicker.” It’s essential to provide supplies, assign responsibilities and follow up so everything is done properly.

Consider how distancing and quarantining will work in employee housing. “Think about spreading everything out,” said Stup. “In some housing situations there’s more space available than we have workers, and it’s an opportunity to spread folks out.” Stup urged farm owners to consider additional housing now, and use county resources such as the health department to see if they have plans for housing individuals who require isolation but can’t isolate at home.

“We’re analyzing this in New York right now,” said Stup. “We’re working with health departments to make sure they have capacity. Some counties are ready, others are not, but I encourage you to take action sooner rather than later. That’s part of contingency planning. What will you do if one worker becomes sick and needs to be separated, and what will you do if half of your workforce becomes sick and needs to be separated?”

COVID-19 travels rapidly, so if one worker shows up with the virus, there are probably others already infected. “Discourage visiting and social interaction,” he said, discussing the culture among workers. “Workers who have come back many years in a row have built up networks and have friends they see only when they’re here in the United States for work. They want to visit and interact, so it’s important to educate them about state requirements and how they can’t be interacting the same way they’d like to. The rules apply to H-2A workers as well as the rest of the population.”

Employers should take whatever measures possible to redesign work space to ensure six feet of distancing, whether it’s switching to shift work or spreading workers to avoid close contact. Stup said while many employees chose to work in close proximity with one another because it’s easier to socialize, if their work doesn’t require closeness, now is not the time to work closely.

Visitors to the farm should be minimal, and employees should be encouraged to practice social distancing at home. If existing handwashing facilities are minimal, consider additional sources for handwashing. Develop a plan to handle trips for groceries, medical visits and other necessary trips off the farm when you can’t take a group of people at one time.

The farm’s contingency plan should provide guidelines for handling the workload if numerous employees are ill. “What are some of the things we have to do, what can we cut back or delay and what are the things we can just not do this year?” said Stup. “Start thinking through that – it’ll be easier when you aren’t pressed and not in an emergency and trying to deal with the situation.”

Workers should understand state regulations regarding masks and temperature checks. Stup said under normal circumstances, temperature checks are considered a medical exam and would not be allowed. However, since the WHO declared the coronavirus a global pandemic and there is community spread in the U.S., that policy is changed.

“The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] at the federal level has relaxed the rules around this,” said Stup. “This [temperature checks] would ordinarily be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. What they’ve said is that COVID-19 is a direct threat to the workplace, and under these circumstances, an employer is allowed to take action to protect the workforce from a direct threat. People with COVID-19 are a direct threat, so that’s why employers can take the temperature of people coming into the workplace.” He added that temperatures can be taken daily, and employers can also take the temperatures of any arriving H-2A workers. Employers can also require COVID-19 testing for new arrivals.

Stup encouraged ongoing training throughout the season. “If you have visuals, then do training on top of that – that’s how we get it across,” he said. “When you think you’ve communicated enough, communicate more.”