HAMMONTON — On May 20, the State of New Jersey released guidance for migrant and seasonal farm workers, their employers and housing providers. This guidance reflected a joint effort between the New Jersey Departments of Health, Agriculture and Labor and Workforce Development to assist agricultural businesses and farm workers in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“There’s a lot of belts and suspenders there. There’s a lot of necessities the farmers are going to have to do, which are not going to be cheap and are not going to be this season. The state wants to make sure, like we had in the nursing homes or places where folks are in a little tighter, that we don’t have an outbreak in a camp. The farmers are going to have a lot of work on their hands getting through the season.”

Mayor Stephen DiDonato, Town of Hammonton

Richard  VanVranken,  the county extension department head at the Rutgers Cooperative  Extension of Atlantic County  in  Mays  Landing, said that much of this guidance had been borne out of concerns from area growers. “The  growers  have  been working all season long, asking  questions,  looking  for guidance, looking for ideas on   what they should or shouldn’t be doing to protect their workers in all the different scenarios, whether it be riding back and forth to the fields, riding on transplanters in fairly close quarters, or the major concern then became the housing and what do you do if somebody gets sick in a house?” VanVranken said.

Denny Doyle, Chairman of the NJ Blueberry  Growers Association Advisory Council and a member of both the North American Blueberry Council and the United States Highbush Blueberry Council, said that growers had been preparing for these guidelines, and have already had some practices instituted. “Fortunately, for years now, we’ve been doing the general food safety best practices, and that requires hair nets and gloves and handwashing facilities and things of that nature, and goes for the packing house and in the field. We’re three-quarters of the way there with this virus. There are additional things that we’re going to have to do, but we feel, at this point, comfortable that we can do them,” Doyle said.

VanVranken noted that New Jersey’s guidelines are heavily influenced by those in other states.

“North Carolina had rules out before we did. As a matter of fact, our department of health used guidelines from North Carolina and Pennsylvania; they may have looked at Oregon and Washington. I don’t know if Florida had rules out, because they were in the middle of harvesting when this whole thing started so they didn’t even have time to think about it. Anybody coming from North Carolina is going to know about them,” VanVranken said.

Doyle agreed, noting that this should help workers acclimate to New Jersey’s regulations.

“When our workers come up, it’s not going to be shock and awe,” Doyle said.

The guidance from the state covers everything from the agricultural production process to shared housing and group transportation, as well as how to screen and care for those with confirmed or suspected infections of COVID-19. Included among these guidelines is the option to transport infected workers to facilities set up at the Atlantic City Convention Center, if quarantine facilities are unavailable at the farm.

The housing logistics, VanVranken said, are a major concern with growers.

“The major impact, if they get the workers here and they fill up their camps, if somebody does get sick and they’re supposed to quarantine them per the guidance, do they have to send them to Atlantic City? Do they find a local hotel and put them up themselves? The amount of logistics involved in trying to take care of those potentially quarantined and/or sick workers is what got most people worried … It’s a logistical nightmare. The buildings are set up with so many bunks. If you lose one of those houses, if it’s got to be quarantine facilities for the group that’s in there, that’s where the guidance was trying to allow some flexibility as opposed to putting down hard and fast rules,” VanVranken said.

Mayor Stephen DiDonato said that the new guidelines, while necessary, may prove to be difficult for area farmers.

“There’s a lot of belts and suspenders there. There’s a lot of necessities the farmers are going to have to do, which are not going to be cheap and are not going to be this season. The state wants to make sure, like we had in the nursing homes or places where folks are in a little tighter, that we don’t have an outbreak in a camp. The farmers are going to have a lot of work on their hands getting through the season,” DiDonato said.

The guidelines also discuss social distancing while harvesting, which Doyle said should not be that problematic in a blueberry field.

“Usually, it’s a two-person team that will pick a bush. There’s going to be one lead by at least half a bush if not a full bush, and that will give them enough separation. In typical fashion, you and I would be picking on opposite sides of the bush. What they’re going to be required to do now is to get up on the next bush up, or at least half of the next bush up. That will give them quite a bit of space. Fortunately for us in the way our crop is designed, they’re in straight rows. That shouldn’t be that much of an issue when it comes to staggering,” Doyle said.

Gary Pavlis, Atlantic County Agricultural Agent at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, said that the guidelines will be followed, but he does not foresee it being an easy venture.

“It’s really going to be tough. Just the fact that you’re going to social distance in the buses, social distance in the packing houses and social distance when you’re picking; it’s been done a certain way forever, and nobody’s going to be used to this kind of thing. It means more trips to the field, more trips transporting people, less workers in the housing. The growers are going to have to comply because they need to, but it’s going to be tough,” Pavlis said.

Pavlis said, though, that these guidelines are necessary for the protection of the workers and the farmers to try to mitigate contagion.

“It’s really going to be tough. Just the fact that you’re going to social distance in the buses, social distance in the packing houses and social distance when you’re picking; it’s been done a certain way forever, and nobody’s going to be used to this kind of thing. It means more trips to the field, more trips transporting people, less workers in the housing. The growers are going to have to comply because they need to, but it’s going to be tough.”

Gary Pavlis, Atlantic County Agricultural Agent at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension

DiDonato agreed, noting that it was important to protect everyone.

“I know there’s a lot of prejudices. If somebody goes to Walmart and there’s a farm laborer after work, and they’re trying to get what they need—their supplies—a lot of our young ladies in town feel uncomfortable sometimes. But they’re just here trying to make a living, and do the best they can to support their families,” DiDonato said.

A joint press release from the Departments of Health, Agriculture and Labor and Workforce Development gave an overview of some of the guidelines, including:

Workplace and housing safety: Workers must wear employer-provided face coverings or masks at all times including while taking transportation, during work hours, and in the presence of others.

Social distancing during work time: Employers are to promote social distancing by requiring workers to remain at least six feet from one another while working in the fields or any food farming production, processing or cultivation. Staggered shifts are also encouraged to minimize the density of workers in the field and other work locations.

Housing: Employers must protect their workers by following CDC recommendations for congregate living if workers are provided housing by the employer. Beds are to be placed at least six feet apart. If six feet of distance is not possible, beds should be positioned at least three feet apart with a partition, such as hanging a sheet or a shower curtain. Mealtimes should be staggered to reduce crowding in shared eating facilities. Adequate ventilation must be provided in sleeping and living quarters with openable windows or door with properly fitted screens or a device supplying ventilation.

Transportation: Employers must implement social distancing while transporting workers to and from their residency and work. Vehicles should be limited to 50 percent capacity, which may require additional trips to and from the worksite.

Sanitation: Employers are to ensure disinfection of high- touch areas, such as in communal areas, work and transportation vehicles, in accordance with CDC guidance. Additional guidance is provided on restroom facilities and handwashing.

Employers are to collaborate with their local Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) or local public health linguistically, and literacy-level appropriate posters and education materials for workers, including those who may be unable to read or write to ensure all workers are aware of this information.

Employers are to screen workers for symptoms, including through temperature and symptom checks, prior to work shifts. If any symptoms are shown, the worker must immediately be separated from other workers and connected to a physician, who will determine if a test is needed. Pending medical attention and testing, workers with symptoms consistent with a COVID-19 infection are to be confined to individual rooms and avoid common areas.

Once a worker is suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19, employers are to contact the local health department and immediately assign the worker a separate bathroom and provide separate living space, or alternate housing if effective isolation in their current living space is not possible. Workers who were in close contact with the affected workers are to be screened and watched for symptoms.

Costs related to testing and treatment for COVID-19 will not be charged to the employer or worker. Any hospitalization or isolation housing provided by the State of New Jersey will not be charged to employers or workers.

The guidance outlines existing employment-based protections for workers, including the prohibition on employers firing or otherwise punishing an employee who requests or takes time off due to a medical professional’s determination that the worker has or is likely to have COVID-19. Most workers will be eligible for paid sick time if they contract COVID-19 and also may be eligible for Workers Compensation if they get COVID-19 while working.

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project. It was originally reported by Joseph F. Berenato for The Hammonton Gazette, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.

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