The group of seven young professionals from South Jersey learned about their common interests on Facebook. They were the sons and daughters of migrant workers, most of whom had worked the fields themselves as children. They shared media reports about the “appreciation caravans” that took place across California’s agricultural communities in late April. Then one had a suggestion: Why not start an effort similar to the West Coast?

That’s how these leaders, ages 19 to 29, from the Vineland-Bridgeton-Millville area, organized to help and highlight the work that migrant workers do and the risks they face while harvesting South Jersey’s crops amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, the group, which has a Facebook presence but no formal name, has held an 18-vehicle caravan, delivered meals and food supplies, and created a relief fund that has already provided money to 43 transient and non-transient laborers who help farm lettuce, cabbage, and cilantro.

The group’s purpose with the South Jersey migrant workers? Its members say they are “the voice that helps them out of the shadows.”

Marco Cruz, 27, a real estate investor, is one of the organizers. His brother-in-law is a farmworker. As children, he said, he and other group members were responsible for translating for their parents and other farm workers in their daily activities. They also worked alongside them in the fields for 12-14 hour shifts. Now, they want to provide advocacy and support, to demonstrate how essential these workers are.

“As kids, we used to be shy when translating for the adults,” Cruz said. “Now, as young adults, we want to continue to be their voice, especially in this moment when their safety depends on it.”

Efforts are abundant for many essential workers in industries such as health care and transportation. There is stimulus money, food delivery, and public acknowledgment. But farm workers — who have no job security, employment benefits, or access to federal stimulus money — fall short on support.

The South Jersey organizers — who work in education, health care, finance, hospitality, and entertainment, and for the military — decided to take action amid their growing concerns that the migrant workers now face even greater unsafe work conditions.

Nayeli Cruz Lopez, 22, is a group member and medical assistant, who harvested crops in Vineland when she was 16. She said she spoke with church leaders and farmers to learn what the farm workers’ immediate needs were. The farm workers were seeking information on how to take proper safety precautions on the job and guidance on health-care needs. Services were needed in Spanish, both written and verbal. The workers also wanted better education and employment opportunities along with advice on how to achieve economic power.

“Most workers don’t have much family here or someone to depend on, don’t know where to find medical assistance,” Cruz Lopez said. “There needs to be a broader intention to help improve these workers’ lives when most don’t know about other ways to make a living.”

After virtual meet-ups and late-night brainstorming sessions, the group held a May 13 caravan, partnering with local restaurant owners to deliver meals. Along with the nonprofit organization Perfil Latino, the group learned how to create a relief fund for the laborers, and quickly received $1,377 in donations. The group’s goal is to provide more relief money and assistance with services.

Typically, the farm workers arrive in late April and early May to help with planting and harvesting of early crops, but the majority begin arriving in New Jersey in mid-June and July when harvesting of the majority of the crops begins. Some remain to help with late-season crops harvested in September and October.

According to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the state produces more than 100 types of fruits and vegetables. Asparagus, blueberries, peaches, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and eggplant are the primary crops where farm labor is most needed.

The state Department of Health said 148 farmworkers tested at a state Federally Qualified Health Center have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Salem, Cumberland, Ocean, Gloucester, Monmouth, Warren, and Somerset Counties, between April 30 and May 27.

However, news organization NJSpotlight reported on May 22 that the state Department of Health confirmed the death of two South Jersey seasonal farm workers who had contracted COVID-19. The report also said that the number of seasonal farm workers in South Jersey who have tested positive for COVID-19 has spiked to more than 400 since the beginning of May.

Regarding the discrepancies, the Department of Health said in an email statement that it “subsequently learned that information on fatalities reported by a [Federally Qualified Health Center] predated the FQHC initiative and no further information is available.”

On May 21, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration issued a set of guidelines to assist agricultural businesses and farmworkers in minimizing exposure to COVID-19. The guidelines outline what the working conditions should be during the agricultural production process, as well as testing/treatment procedures and shared housing and group transportation for workers.

Marco Cruz talks with farmworkers in Vineland, N.J., on May 25, 2020. The group presents the farm laborers with pamphlets that include information about medical assistance programs and food distribution sites.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Marco Cruz talks with farmworkers in Vineland, N.J., on May 25, 2020. The group presents the farm laborers with pamphlets that include information about medical assistance programs and food distribution sites.

With thousands more seasonal workers due to arrive in South Jersey in June, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex) is concerned about farmworkers’ safety.

She said the pandemic has resurfaced the underlying conditions that have been affecting these workers for years and need to be addressed with a holistic view with COVID-19.

“The guidelines put in place are a strong infrastructure for the farmworkers, but I’m concerned that, because these guidelines aren’t mandatory, our laborers will lack access to PPE, hand sanitizing, testing measurements that can really improve their working conditions,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said her team is working on legislation that would create mandatory quick-intervention regulations for the state agricultural industry, that require inspection from the Departments of Agriculture and Labor and Workforce Development.

The bill, which she hopes to finalize a draft of this week, would include required coronavirus testing for farmworkers, hand sanitation stations near the work areas, new housing regulations with social-distancing guidelines, and signs informing employees in their native language about what is both required and expected from their employers.

An Inquirer investigation last year revealed the working conditions of New Jersey blueberry field workers, with most sleeping in sheet-metal sheds packed with bunk beds that in peak season accommodated 50 to 100 migrant workers — all without indoor toilets, running water, or fire sprinklers.

Nayeli Cruz Lopez distributes food to farmworkers in Vineland, N.J. on Monday, May 25, 2020.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Nayeli Cruz Lopez distributes food to farmworkers in Vineland, N.J. on Monday, May 25, 2020.

Cholula, a non-transient laborer who works on a Vineland farm, said recently he feels lucky to have an employer who has taken precautionary measures at the workplace. He said he was worried about other area farmworkers and knows of at least 10 who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and two others who have been admitted to the hospital.

The migrant worker, who used his nickname to protect his identity, said he appreciates the efforts from the young adults who have organized to help the farm laborers, most with Mexican, Salvadoran, Haitian, and Puerto Rican backgrounds. He said he has not seen this type of engagement in his 16 years working the South Jersey fields.

On Memorial Day, the group delivered cash stimulus and pamphlets in Spanish and English, with details on where to get tested anonymously and how to receive a package of food or have it delivered.

Edgar Aquino-Huerta and Jonathan Matias walk back to their cars after giving out donations to farm workers in Vineland, N.J. on Monday, May 25, 2020.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Edgar Aquino-Huerta and Jonathan Matias walk back to their cars after giving out donations to farm workers in Vineland, N.J. on Monday, May 25, 2020.

Now, wearing T-shirts that read “You too are essential,” the group has connected with other local organizations doing advocacy for farmworkers. They look forward to producing T-shirts to help the relief fund, to engage the public with the farmworkers’ plight, and continue to inform and feed the laborers.

Jonathan Matias, 26, the technical director for Univision 65 in Philadelphia, is a group member who used to pick cherry tomatoes when he was 14. He said he sees himself in the farmworkers and hopes the children being raised by those who harvest the crops see themselves reflected in the advocacy group.

“This is embedded in our roots, because for some, like our parents, this is the American dream. But, for others, like us, this is a way to show our respect and to show them that the field is a place where you sacrifice and persevere,” Matias said.