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With Florida's peak growing season underway, thousands of foreign guest workers are descending on farm fields to join a labor force that has endured the hardships of crowded boarding houses, law enforcement raids, and indentured servitude for generations.
But now the workers who are critical to the nation's food supply will face a nemesis they've never encountered.
The explosive growth of the novel coronavirus prompted one of the nation's oldest farm labor organizations on Monday to push for new safety standards for thousands of the workers and demand that growers provide medical care during outbreaks.
“If it reaches the agricultural community, it will devastate them,” said Baldemar Velasquez, founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. “There won't be a safety net.”
The entry of the workers comes just days after the US State Department lifted restrictions on temporary work visas and allowed the laborers to enter during the busiest agriculture season in Florida, where the nation's largest supply of oranges, winter sweet corn, and other crops are harvested. Created decades ago, the guest worker program allows farmers to hire foreign laborers if they can show that no Americans are available to work the fields.
If the virus spreads among the workers — many of whom sleep in dilapidated trailers and cramped barracks — it could impact the spread of the illness among the laborers and the grower's ability to harvest the fields and stock American groceries.
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Velasquez, who founded the advocacy group in 1967, said he is requesting that workers abide by social distancing rules, request isolation quarters if they get sick, and ensure their employers take them to hospitals.
If the growers refuse, Velasquez, who has led farm labor strikes, said his group is prepared to file lawsuits. “These are among the most vulnerable workers in the country,” he said. “It's a national problem.”
The son of Mexican migrant workers, Velasquez, 73, said he expects growers who signed contracts with farm labor groups will try to meet the demands. So far, about a third of the growers in North Carolina with those contracts have provided safeguards, including places for workers to be isolated, he said.
Florida, however, could be a “ticking time bomb,” said Greg Schell, a veteran attorney who has represented laborers there for decades. The state has a dark history of abusing its agricultural workers, dating to the 1940s, when the region's largest sugar grower was indicted for slavery — and later, when the town of Belle Glade was profiled in the Edward R. Murrow television documentary Harvest of Shame.
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The guest workers “are in the middle of stinking nowhere,” Schell said. “They work on top of one another and they live on top of one another.”
Schell, who sued in 2001 to stop crew leaders from forcing workers to pay them kickbacks, said about 10,000 workers will be coming to Florida in the current wave, joining another 25,000 who have been in the state since January. By next month, Florida could have more guest workers than any state.
He said his biggest concern is that most arrivals work for labor brokers — operators who work for the large farms and insulate the growers from any responsibilities.
Schell said he expects the laborers in the coming months to stay in the fields, "unless they're dropping dead."
One of the mainstays of farming in South Florida is the "mule train," a large flatbed contraption pulled through the field, with workers "who are often on top of one another" picking, shucking, and crating corn.
"I can't imagine anyone is going to be talking about social distancing," said Schell.
Also, most of the workers are transported in buses to and from the fields and orange groves. "They are packed in there,” Schell said. “No one is sitting one to a seat."
Some growers have provided better wages and work conditions over the years in Florida, but he said many of the smaller farmers are still under pressure to get their crops out of the fields and, in turn, are putting extreme demands on workers.
The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, which represents a broad swath of farmers, did not respond to questions provided by BuzzFeed News but referred all inquiries to the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Michael Marsh, president of the growers council, said his organization is educating farmers through webinars and emails about their responsibilities to protect workers.
He said the recent $2 trillion spending bill enacted by Congress provides that guest workers receive emergency sick pay — but it's up to the farmers to provide protections, including social distancing and any facilities they build for quarantine.
"The risk would be for the farmer and if he has someone who is sick. He runs a bigger risk" by not protecting the other workers, Marsh said.
On a tip sheet offered by the organization to growers in California, employers are told to instruct workers who are sick to not report to work and to "tell them to contact a medical provider or physician by phone before going to the medical office, clinic, or emergency room. Another option is to contact a teledoctor."
Schell said because there is no government plan for the farmers, he expects some of the larger growers to offer protections, and others to cut corners and "hope nothing happens," he said. "They will be whistling by the graveyard."
Michael Sallah is a senior investigative reporter and editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington D.C. He is a recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting and was twice named a Pulitzer finalist, once for public service in 2012 and the other for local reporting in 2016.
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