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It’s peak season for farm workers in South Jersey, but some remain frustrated with COVID-19 safety guidelines

“If both sides don’t understand the sensitivity of this moment, our workers will get sick, even fewer will work the crops, and the harvest will be lost,” said Filemón Matías, 50, who contracts for farm workers in New Jersey.

Volunteers Edgar Aquino-Huerta and Jonathan Matías walk back to their cars after giving out donations to farm workers in Vineland in May.
Volunteers Edgar Aquino-Huerta and Jonathan Matías walk back to their cars after giving out donations to farm workers in Vineland in May.Read moreMonica Herndon / File Photograph

When the coronavirus hit New Jersey, Filemón Matías felt responsible for the safety of the people he placed in the workforce, especially those employed by local farmers.

As owner of Jersey Labor Services in Bridgeton, which for the last eight years has found jobs for New Jersey residents and migrant workers in the manufacturing, service, and agricultural sectors, the agency has contracted with 180 employees since mid-April to pick or package produce on farms and other facilities in Cumberland, Gloucester, and Atlantic Counties.

To guarantee that these workers were healthy and placed in safe environments, Matías created new procedures for his 2020 seasonal contract: The agency would test workers for coronavirus before they were sent to farms and inform them about COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. The employer would be responsible for guaranteeing safe conditions.

“I wanted to make sure that the workers would stay healthy, that they knew what the risks are and why they needed to get tested, especially to dispel the myth that they carry the virus,” Matías said.

Matías, 50, a former social worker, partnered with nonprofit organizations to provide COVID-19 testing, child care, and information sessions on safety measures for the workers. But in mid-June, a group of 65 migrant workers caused him to change his mind about testing.

Half of the group, he said, refused to get tested because they had traveled from Florida, where they believed the hot weather had killed the coronavirus. They found jobs through other contractors and farms.

Matías said of the 35 workers who remained with his agency, five tested positive for the coronavirus. After sending the four men and one woman to quarantine at a field hospital at the Atlantic City Convention Center, Matías gave $400 to each for lost wages while they recovered.

Because Matías had to fund their sick days, he decided he couldn’t afford to conduct testing anymore. But he worries no one is taking responsibility for testing, and he is concerned about the health of the dwindling number of workers and the impact it will have on the state’s agricultural industry.

“If both sides don’t understand the sensitivity of this moment,” he said, “our workers will get sick, even fewer will work the crops, and the harvest will be lost.”

Although Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration issued a set of guidelines May 21 to assist agricultural businesses and farm workers in minimizing exposure to COVID-19, legislators are pushing for stronger state regulations for the industry, where an estimated 20,000 workers are employed during the summer season. State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex) is the primary sponsor of a bill called the Farm Worker Epidemic Health and Safety Act, co-sponsored by Nilsa Cruz-Pérez (D., Camden-Gloucester).

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Cruz-Pérez said farmers can easily opt out of the current state guidelines from the Health, Agriculture and Labor Departments that include testing, social distancing, and offering personal protective equipment and other measures to improve sanitary conditions.

The proposed bill, she said, would make the recommendations mandatory.

“There are farmers who are very responsible, because they protect their workers and the consumers. But for those who aren’t, I’m worried that workers won’t receive the protection they need unless it’s mandatory,” she said.

The bill, scheduled to be considered by committee Thursday and voted on by the full Senate July 30, also would require the Department of Health to conduct inspections to determine whether employers are meeting the standards, with fines ranging from $250 to $500 for each violation.

Jessica Culley, general coordinator for the farm workers support committee Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas (CATA), said the proposed legislation would provide the inspections and additional protective measures needed to guarantee a low COVID-19 rate into the 2021 harvest season, but she fears the legislative process is taking too much time. She said Murphy could sign an executive order, under the state’s public health emergency act, putting mandatory measures in place immediately.

Since the beginning of May, CATA staff members have visited 40 farms to document the conditions there and educate workers about their rights. At sites where most employees have tested negative, farms have provided masks, soap, and testing, lowered occupancy at on-site housing, and reduced the number of passengers in vehicles used to transport the workers.

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Yet she estimates 25% of about 300 farms in South Jersey are not cooperating with the clinics that provide the testing programs. Culley said one-time testing isn’t enough, especially when a shortage of workers has lured them with incentives such as better pay from farm to farm.

Culley said the state’s current recommended guidelines allow farmers to house and employ asymptomatic crew members who have tested positive for COVID-19 in separate teams apart from those who are not infected. She said the practice is “not realistic.”

“We must find ways to leverage the pain and the loss in the community,” she said, “highlight the importance of these workers, and push for immigration reform, not the opposite.”

According to the New Jersey Department of Health, clinics working with the state, called Federally Qualified Health Centers, have been reaching out to test seasonal farm workers in South Jersey. Four FQHCs are providing mobile vans or tent-style testing at the farms. But the department didn’t provide the total number of health centers working with it or the number of farms participating in the testing programs.

The FQHCs reported that 4,151 farm workers were tested between April 30 and July 8, with 338 testing positive.

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One of the farmers who had his workers tested was Tom Sheppard, president for Eastern Fresh Growers in Cedarville. He said the century-old family-owned business employs 250: The packing crew is all local while the picking crew is a combination of interstate migrants and H2-A visa recipients. Of the workers who pick the peppers, cucumbers, and sweet corn, Sheppard said, 120 came from Mexico, due to a shortage of seasonal help.

He said most of the 250 workers were tested on site with services provided by FQHC CompleteCare on April 19, and that workers he has employed since then are being tested at a local doctor’s office. About 10% of his workforce has tested positive. He said these employees were sent to an on-site housing camp to quarantine, with a maximum of 12 people at a time, and paid sick leave for a 40-hour work week.

Sheppard said he’s asked the Department of Health for a second round of testing, but guidelines now don’t allow tests for workers with no symptoms. He said keeping up with the shifting guidelines and regulations has been a challenge. Test results are taking three to six days, masks supplies are delayed for weeks, and temperature thresholds for COVID-19 symptoms are constantly changing, he said.

“It’s a fluid situation, so you just hold your breath in case of a resurgence,” Sheppard said.

Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said that farmers know they will be out of business if they don’t comply with the health commissioner’s regulations, but that it has taken time to get everyone on the same page, especially with the testing.

He said all farmers have complained about a worker shortage; some were expecting workers who regularly travel from Puerto Rico but didn’t come this season.

Now, he said, the agricultural community is following the state recommendations for social distancing when possible, providing PPE, placing plastic barriers in places like packing houses, taking temperatures on a daily basis, and quarantining the workers who test positive.

“We are working with the Health and Agriculture Departments and with the community health organizations to visit the farms and have people come out and get tested,” he said.

Regarding the legislation proposed by Ruiz and Cruz-Perez, Wengryn said the bill’s intent is good, but it could over-regulate the agriculture industry. He said an executive order could be issued by the state if there is a rise in COVID-19 cases in the farm community.

Ruiz said her bill isn’t about treating this sector differently, but instead creating a baseline for farm industry requirements. A companion measure would appropriate $5 million in federal funds for grants to farmers to purchase protective materials.

“If you knew exactly what is required from you, you wouldn’t have any confusion on what page you need to be on,” she said.