Pruning farmworkers

Workers prune apple trees in East Wenatchee, Wash. Safeguards aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus could threaten the supply of H-2A farmworkers from outside the U.S.

A potential crisis preventing H-2A-visa agricultural foreign guestworkers from crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. because of coronavirus concerns has been avoided.

On March 16, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico announced it would suspend processing routine immigrant and non-immigrant visas for border crossings on March 18 in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus.

H-2A visas are non-immigrant agricultural work visas good for up to 10 months.

U.S. farm labor associations worked with the USDA and State Department and by late March 17 they received assurances H-2A visas and H-2B non-agricultural visas would continue to be processed.

Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla, a Washington-based farm labor association, said returning H-2A and H-2B workers will be processed and most consulates are continuing to process new and returning workers.

USDA and the State Department are working on a protocol so all H-2A-visa applicants can be processed, Fazio said.

From Jan. 1 through March 15, Wafla provided 5,000 H-2A workers to Washington state growers, mostly for pruning fruit trees.

“We were lucky. We’re entering a slower period where we were only crossing 120 workers this week compared with 1,000 a week a few weeks back,” Fazio said.

Demand ramps up in May as growers need workers for apple thinning and cherry harvest, he said.

The last big push of the season is from Aug. 10 to Sept. 1 as growers enter apple and pear harvest, he said.

A record 257,667 H-2A-visa positions were approved by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2019. Washington state ranked third with 26,226 positions.

Fazio said the H-2A program is well regulated and has a proven track record of handling health emergencies.

For example, Fazio pointed to an outbreak of mumps at a worker camp in the Columbia Basin last year. He said Wafla worked quickly with the Washington State Department of Health to isolate four workers who tested positive for the illness, while quarantining 100 other workers who might have been exposed.

“We don’t think any of our farms are going to get COVID-19 by the time workers are coming in May,” Fazio said. “But if we don’t get them here, we don’t have an economy.”

Meanwhile, agricultural employers and labor unions are emphasizing increased protections for worker health and safety.

The United Farm Workers union sent an open letter to all agricultural employers requesting “further proactive steps to ensure the safety of farmworkers, protect buyers and safeguard consumers.”

Those steps include extending state-required sick pay to 40 hours or more, eliminating the 90-day waiting period for new farmworkers to be eligible for sick pay and offering daycare assistance for farmworker families.

Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN, said they are reaching out to state agencies to ensure employers provide multi-lingual training and educational materials for workers.

“If folks don’t understand what the threat is ... that is when we actually see people being pretty careless, or not taking precautions,” Lopez said.

Lopez said she is not aware of any cases of COVID-19 among Oregon farmworkers. PCUN is Oregon’s largest Latino union, representing approximately 7,000 farmworkers.

At Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Ore., about 50 seasonal workers are currently on hand for the spring potato planting season. A spokeswoman for the farm, Anne Struthers, said Threemile Canyon has extended its sick leave for workers by another 10 days, and is practicing social distancing where possible to keep workers safe.

“There is no way to know how much or how little this will affect our farm in rural Oregon,” Struthers said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure everyone stays healthy.”

Spring is also the peak shipping season for Oregon’s $995 million greenhouse and nursery industry. Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said it is already difficult to find workers willing to package products and load trucks.

While few of the industry’s seasonal workers come from the H-2A program, Stone said the COVID-19 outbreak only adds to that pressure of agriculture’s overall labor picture.

“All this really shows is the fragility of the workforce,” Stone said. “This adds a layer of worry. I feel for every business.”

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