Advocacy groups say Ohio farmworkers need more protection from state

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A labor camp at one of the produce farms in Celeryville, Ohio, where farmworkers live. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

Ohio’s 33,000 migrant farmworkers are putting their lives and their families lives at risk to earn a living and feed the rest of us, according to two advocacy groups.

“There is no such thing as distance when you’re picking strawberries,” said Juanita Guitierrez, a board member with Justice for Migrant Women, during a July 23 media call. “You work from shoulder to shoulder with the person that is next to you in the row. And then these farmworkers travel to and from the field in vans or buses with their coworkers. They’re living and working together in small spaces.”

Two groups — Justice for Migrant Women and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality — are calling on Gov. Mike DeWine and other state leaders to issue a mandate for agricultural workers in order to force employers to make changes to improve safety precautions against COVID-19. Monica Ramirez, founder of Justice for Migrant Women, said such mandates have been issued for 27 other industries during the pandemic. 

The requirements would include keeping workers at a safe distance apart, providing personal protective equipment, providing alternative housing for sick workers and guaranteeing workers can keep their jobs if they get ill.

“We know the virus is spreading,” Ramirez said. “Workers are getting sick. Workers are concerned about getting sick. Workers need and want to get help.”

It’s believed at least 100 farm workers in Ohio have gotten sick with COVID-19, including outbreaks at a Case Farms chicken processing facility, a salad packing facility and within migratory workers at farms in Huron County, said Eugenio Mollo, Jr., of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, or ABLE.

Mollo said there aren’t any known deaths within farmworkers, but some have been hospitalized.

The basic steps recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to limit the spread of COVID-19 are hard for some farmworkers to do, like hand washing and social distancing, Mollo said.

While the U.S. Department of Labor requires hand-washing facilities in the field or at work sites, state regulations don’t require running water in labor camp housing units. The regulation is slated to change on Jan. 1, 2022, about 18 months too late to make a difference during a global pandemic, Mollo said.

“The year is 2020 and farmworkers in Ohio are living in homes without running water,” he said.

It’s also difficult to maintain space from one another when farmworkers live together in labor camps, sharing bathing and cooking facilities, travel to work together in employer provided vans, and work side-by-side in fields or packing facilities, Mollo said.

Justice for Migrant Women has sent four letters to DeWine since April outlining their concerns, and worked with state officials to improve conditions for farmworkers. 

That resulted in the state offering targeted testing for workers in seven counties: Sandusky, Lake, Ottawa, Wood, Hamilton, Erie and Huron. It also led to the creation of a hotline for farmworkers to report problems. 

Ramirez said these measures fall short. In addition to the mandate, they’re also asking for direct support for farmers to provide temporary quarantine housing for workers who become sick, expand free testing for seasonal and migratory workers, fund migrant-serving organizations and other groups and earmark funds for rural health clinics. A petition addressed to DeWine titled “Protect Ohio’s Farmworkers from COVID-19” has been posted on Change.org.

“They are essentially invisible to most people,” Ramirez said. ”In a public health crisis like the one we’re facing today, farmworkers are among the most vulnerable groups in our society, placed at a high risk of widespread illness and even death.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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