Tuesday, October 19, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on April 1st, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 5 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 5

With tight living spaces and work that's not conducive to social distancing, H-2A farmworkers are at risk


Even before the days of stay-at-home orders and record-breaking numbers of unemployment applications, our nation struggled with domestic labor shortages in the agricultural sector. As American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall wrote during 2019’s mid-summer harvest season, “Farmers and ranchers in every state tell me that the shortage of labor is the greatest limiting factor on their farms.” 

Amid a statewide shelter-in-place order, essential workers like those on the H-2A visa program don’t have the option to stay home.

According to Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, Santa Maria is no exception to this nationwide reality.

“We’ve had an ongoing labor shortage for many years now, back to 2011 or 2012,” Wineman told the Sun. “It’s been an ongoing problem, and the H-2A guest worker program has helped to alleviate that shortage.”

The H-2A program allows growers and farm labor contractors in the U.S. to supplement their domestic workforce with seasonal guest employees. And though the H-2A program isn’t new—the program has been around since 1986—Duvall’s 2019 piece states that workers hired through the H-2A visa program have more than doubled in the past five years. In short, farms across the nation are relying on H-2A workers more than ever. 

But with the U.S. now in the lead with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, growers and farm labor contractors are concerned that the already challenging process for obtaining these visas will now be riddled with barriers.

The first hurdle to the H-2A program came on March 20 when the Department of State temporarily suspended routine visa services at U.S. embassies and consulates, including services for H-2A visas. 

Steve Scaroni, founder of labor service provider Fresh Harvest Inc., Scaroni Family of Companies, told the Sun that this initial suspension meant big trouble for the farm labor supply, as contractors would only be allowed to bring in workers who had already gone through the interview process and successfully obtained an H-2A visa in the past.

But on March 26, the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security decided to authorize temporary waivers for in-person interviews for eligible H-2A applicants, meaning that the H-2A program could continue to operate despite the suspension of visa processing. But Scaroni, whose company contracts H-2A farmers in Santa Maria among other cities, still has his concerns.

“I don’t know if it changes the game: It removes one level of complexity,” Scaroni said. “This thing is still a chess game every day. … It’s going to make it a little bit easier, but it certainly doesn’t make it easy.”

One of the remaining complexities is housing. The H-2A program requires that employers provide living spaces to visa recipients, an issue that’s sparked past debate in Santa Maria. In April 2019, the Santa Maria City Council voted to require permits for housing more than six H-2A workers in a single-family home. But the ordinance didn’t call for any restrictions on medium- and high-density housing zones. 

According to Abraham Melendrez, an organizer for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), the way that H-2A workers are housed poses a huge threat to their health amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’re really concerned, especially given that a lot of them live in bunker-style housing,” Melendrez told the Sun. “The requirements for living are very small and oftentimes not adequate. It’s really unsafe conditions.”

Cynthia Rice, director of Litigation, Advocacy & Training at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), also expressed concern over the safety of H-2A housing.

“We are really concerned that in this emergency situation we’re going to … see an increase in housing violations by overcrowding,” Rice told the Sun. “There are not going to be adequate measures taken to ensure that workers can social distance, either at the housing or in the surrounding areas.”

Furthermore, Rice said that there is a history of sending injured or sick H-2A workers home without medical treatment. 

“We’ve seen this time and time again: H-2A workers, as soon as they’re either injured or exhibit signs of illness, get shipped out so that the employer can … stop providing the free housing,” Rice said. 

Scaroni, whose company is the largest full-service H-2A provider in the nation, said Fresh Harvest Inc. is “prepared to quarantine people if we have to, one person per room.” 

Given the highly infectious nature of coronavirus—and the fact that some infected people show little to no symptoms—it’s possible that the disease could easily spread, especially in a line of work that doesn’t always allow physical distancing. As Wineman said, “In certain situations, 6 feet is not always feasible.”

Wineman also emphasized that the food and agriculture industry is designated as a critical infrastructure sector by the federal government, meaning other sectors like water and energy are dependent on it. If one experiences a workforce hit, all sectors can suffer.

“Agriculture has been identified as one of those that are vital to the health and welfare of California, and it’s imperative to continue those operations,” Wineman said. “[We’re] taking steps to make sure that we’re protecting employees and continuing to provide the needed food.”

Heading further into this season of continued caution, Rice also noted that workers need to know the risks and their rights. 

“We’re concerned that H-2A workers in particular are actually not going to get the information about what is needed to protect themselves from exposure to COVID-19,” Rice said. “I think both the growers and the farm labor contractors, as well as the state agencies, need to really step up and make sure that adequate information is provided and targeted to H-2A workers so that they know how to protect themselves and how to assert their rights.” 

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@santamariasun.com.

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