By KURT WILLIAMS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Migrant farmworkers can’t practice social distancing.
That’s just one reason they’re particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the pandemic coronavirus currently paralyzing societies across the globe, said Dale Freeman, the director of migrant affairs for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
The state agency monitors migrant farmworkers’ health, and Freeman said he worries about the virus’s impact because of how they live and work.
Nearly 95,000 migrant and seasonal workers come to Michigan to work in agriculture, according to the most recent analysis by the state Interagency Migrant Services Committee.
Michigan has 46 crops that are harvested by hand.
The growing season runs from April, with asparagus, until October’s apples, said Teresa Hendricks, the executive director of Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids.
And migrant workers are involved every step of the way, she said.
Her organization provides legal assistance, outreach and health-related education to the migrant community, especially in the fruit belt that runs along the west side of the Lower Peninsula.
In the past, many of these workers traveled as families to Michigan from Mexico and other Latin American countries, Hendricks said. Now, more individual workers come to the United States under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program. They lack family support or their own means of transportation.
Migrant workers follow the growing season, moving south to north as crops go into production, she said. Seasonal workers live here year round.
Regardless of status, Hendricks says their lives don’t allow them to take measures to avoid infection, especially the H-2A workers.
“H-2A workers are always together,” Hendricks said. They ride together in buses to and from the fields, they work the rows side-by-side, transfer produce together, travel to town together and live in very close quarters.
That makes them especially vulnerable if the virus gets into the community.
Agricultural companies house them in 900 camps licensed by the state, Hendricks said. The regulations allow many more people to live together than would be allowed in regular towns.
Many share common living and cooking areas and sleep in large bedrooms with bunk beds, Freeman said. Such living arrangements are perfect for spreading infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
Compounding the lack of social distancing, many farmworkers have preexisting medical conditions, Hendricks said. Particularly susceptible are older workers with long-term exposure to pesticides and with chronic lung conditions.
And if the coronavirus makes its way into the farmworker community, members may not be quick to seek medical attention.
“They work 90 to 100 hours per week in the peak season,” Hendricks said, and don’t have time to make an appointment in town to see a doctor.
So, Hendricks and her team go out to farms two to three times per week during the growing season to check on them and to build and maintain relationships.
“They’re very reluctant to complain,” she said. They worry about blacklisting, retaliation and adverse employment consequences if they stick up for their rights.
Jesse Costilla was a migrant farmworker for over 15 years before becoming the migrant program manager for Great Lakes Bay Health Centers. The agency serves farmworkers with mobile medical and dental clinics, as well as brick-and-mortar clinics, in the central and eastern Lower Peninsula.
“In 1968 we started off with a grant of $75,000 to serve agricultural workers in the area, and it took off from there,” Costilla said.
Lately he’s been fielding calls from farmworkers about COVID-19.
“As soon as the epidemic started kicking off, everybody is freaking out,” he said. Folks have been calling him, asking if they should be worried.
They’re too busy to look into the pandemic so they’re relying on “El Paisa Del Norte” (the brother in the north) on Facebook and social media for their information, Costilla said.
Great Lakes Bay Health’s mobile clinics serve 43 housing camps in 17 counties with clinics in Belding, Owosso, Saginaw, Bay City, Imlay City, Bridgeport, Bad Axe, West Branch and Vassar.
The biggest camp it serves has 300 workers in Gregory, he said. Most of the other camps house 30 to 40 people each.
Costilla and the medical professionals show up with the mobile clinics before workers come in from the fields, around 4 p.m. When workers get back to camp in the evening, they provide medical care to those who desire it.
Last year the mobile clinics served just over 1,100 patients, Costilla said.
The virus is already making life hard for workers and the companies they work for, even before they have a chance to come to Michigan.
Partly because of the spread of COVID-19, the federal government suspended the H-2A program for many Mexicans wanting to work in the United States.
For farmers reliant on migrant and seasonal farmworkers, that created a new challenge to an industry already under stress.
“Business in the farming industry is bad,” said Richard Burrma, whose farm in Gregory brought in 60 H-2A workers last year.
Suspension of the program shouldn’t impact people who already have work visas, but with travel restrictions and shelter in place orders, it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to come to Michigan, Buurma said.
He farms 900 acres of celery, beets, radishes, greens, parsley and cilantro. Before the virus, he and other farmers had been contending with Canadian and Mexican farms flooding the US market with produce.
And now that the virus is here, it potentially crimps the availability of workers and the market for the crops they produce.
Restaurants order huge amounts of produce, Buurma said, and it will be devastating to farmers if they stay closed.
All that leads some farmers to wonder if it’s worth putting in a crop this year.
They’ll have to decide soon:
“We’ve got until April 15,” Buurma said. That’s when radishes, the first of the year’s crops, are planted.
“We’re bringing in seeds, so we’re planning on planting.”
Kurt WIlliams writes for Great Lakes Echo.