While questions abound about how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the overall economy, perennially understaffed Long Island farms are scrambling to understand how to cope with a possible shortage of foreign guest workers who may not be able to come in time for the start of the season, as well as how to keep domestic workers safe and free of infection.
“We are really concerned about the many workers that still have not gotten here from the federal programs, such as H2A [a foreign guest worker program for agricultural workers,]” Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter said in an interview.
During a typical season, Long Island farms will have a workforce of about 8,000 including foreign and domestic workers, Carpenter said, and added that specific data for how many foreign workers arrive from abroad has not been quantified because they arrive through different programs and visas, but they know it’s “a significant amount.”
Typically foreign workers arrive between mid-March and mid-April and they come from all over the world, including Latin America, Europe and the Far East, Carpenter said.
With the travel ban from Europe, and other countries, in place, the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival, and more drastic measures taken by nations across the world every day in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus, Carpenter said he’s not optimistic those workers will arrive on time.
“We, and farm owners everywhere, are monitoring the situation very closely,” Carpenter said.
If workers do not arrive in time, Carpenter said that it could mean delays in planting, delays in preparation work, delays in harvesting and more, which could end up in a loss of production.
“If we can’t get on our normal time schedule, there’s the possibility of the impact being severe,” he said.
Carpenter said so far they haven’t received any directives from the state on how to proceed if that happens, but that they are keeping a very close eye on the situation.
In the meantime, farm owners are taking all precautions necessary to ensure that domestic workers are “healthy and safe,” Carpenter said.
“We realize that food production is going to be very important to New York residents as we go forward, we can’t predict what’s going to happen, but I do know so far I’ve seen that there is a good supply of food thanks to the farmers of the United States.”
Mario Arreola, a farmworker in the North Fork, agrees with Carpenter, and said this is a critical time for farms. With the season just starting, they cannot stay home.
“We are busier than ever,” he said. “This is the time of year where we have to be working long hours and it’s not a choice.”
Stopping work would have dire consequences for both farm owners and farm workers, Arreola said,
“Produce, trees, plants…all depends on our work now, and if we stop, it can be catastrophic,” he said. “If we don’t work, the company suffers, the farmworkers suffer and the whole area would suffer.”
Arreola said that the farm where he works has taken extra precautions. All workers have to disinfect every surface they touch in the morning and afternoon, including time clocks, surfaces, door handles, equipment and tools. He also said that workers are monitoring each other for symptoms and so far, he said, all seemed to be healthy.
“Common sense is going to rule,” Carpenter said. “Farmers will put in place whatever practices they need to ensure the safety of their families and their workers, and that’s done on individual business by business..”
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