As laborers return to the fields this fall in Florida, both unauthorized crop workers and H-2A workers are vulnerable to the coronavirus. According to a new University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) study, an estimated 75 percent of Florida crop workers have at least one underlying health issue that puts them at risk of developing COVID-19 complications.
However, sources of risk for these two groups are different, according to the study. This is largely because domestic unauthorized workers are significantly older than H-2A workers, which increases their risk of developing COVID-19 complications, said Gulcan Onel, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of food and resource economics.
Most of the workers do not speak English and have less than a high school education, Onel said.
“These findings highlight the need for accessible and culturally-minded outreach efforts to educate workers about preventive measures for COVID-19,” she said.
One example of UF/IFAS outreach is based at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. Faculty and experts there are hosting a series of workshops to help train farm supervisors to keep their employees as safe as possible from COVID-19.
For her study, Onel used three different sources of data, including a survey of citrus harvesters her team conducted in several Florida counties. Onel also synthesized existing health and employment data from federal sources. She then compared the demographic differences of H-2A workers with those of unauthorized agricultural workers to draw conclusions about COVID-19 risks among these farmworkers.
The study shows workers’ susceptibility to the virus varies by location across Florida counties. Onel and her colleagues saw a high correlation between counties with the most COVID-19 cases and counties with the most agricultural workers. Among counties with the highest crop worker populations, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties had the most COVID-19 cases. They were followed by Broward, Collier, Lee, Manatee and Polk counties.
Among other findings:
- H-2A workers live in employer-provided and controlled housing, which may make it easier to take measures to help mitigate COVID-19 for them, compared to domestic workers. On the other hand, H-2A workers spend more time traveling to their work sites than domestic workers, which may make transportation a higher risk factor for this group of workers.
- Preventing or mitigating COVID-19 among unauthorized workers gets more complicated by today’s immigration environment. Contact tracing and encouraging workers to seek testing and/or care may be difficult because unauthorized domestic crop workers fear they will be deported. Ensuring privacy of workers and their contacts will be vital for effective mitigation strategies.
- H-2A workers send more of their earnings back home compared to domestic unauthorized workers. Therefore, H-2A workers likely have stronger ties with family in their countries of origin, the survey found.
“This is important with the recent spikes in COVID-19 cases in Mexico and South America. Higher remittances (back home) indicate that H-2A workers — who are mostly married and have minor-aged children — likely have stronger ties to their country of origin,” Onel said. “They might be more reluctant to return to U.S. farms amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, existing workers in the fields may continue working, even when they are sick, to keep up with their support for family back home. Piece-rate payment schemes may further encourage risk-taking behavior among workers, posing a challenge for containing outbreaks.”