A safety net for farmworkers

It is blueberry season in Maine and the state’s signature fruit is ripe for the raking. Many growers depend on migrant agriculture workers to harvest the crop. Any Mainer who has spent a hot August day hunched over a blueberry field hand-raking these tiny fruits knows just how demanding that work can be. Strenuous and highly seasonal, the job is unattractive to many locals.

Migrant farm workers make their living by following the crops, moving from one state to another as the seasons change. In Maine, roughly 18 percent of hired farm workers are migrant laborers, according to a 2015 Maine Department of Labor survey. It can be a tenuous livelihood, even more so in a pandemic when travel and life in close quarters can increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. The dorms and bunkhouses some workers live in during their stay are not designed for social distancing.

Last week, eight workers hired by Hancock County growers and processors tested positive for COVID-19. While the state released few details about the cases, it seems likely that many — if not all — of these workers were either asymptomatic or exhibiting such mild symptoms that they felt well enough to work. It is a good reminder that we all need to be taking precautions regardless of whether we feel ill.

Andrew Sankey, director of the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency, said the first five cases reported were workers who had just arrived from Florida. He said they and passengers they traveled with were placed under quarantine in Bangor. Hopefully, any who are ill will make a full recovery and the lost work will not derail them financially.

News of the cases alarmed some area residents and angered others. Some people were upset that the cases were being counted as Hancock County residents when the local exposure appeared to be minimal and the individuals themselves had reportedly only just arrived. But case counts are not a grade. A small uptick in numbers does not mean Hancock County is failing. Just the opposite. Discovering undiagnosed cases through proactive testing (in this case by the Maine Mobile Health Program) is a win. Supporting those individuals so they can safely isolate protects other workers and the community.

Under current guidelines, visitors to the state ideally should be tested for the virus prior to arrival, but can wait until they get here so long as they quarantine until the results are in. But for those workers who travel in groups, that may not be enough protection as they may unknowingly spread the virus to fellow travelers. A nationwide, coordinated network of free testing for migrant workers — both when they arrive at a job and immediately before traveling to the next — is a critical line of defense. Their lives and America’s agricultural supply chain depend on preventing COVID-19 from ravaging this vulnerable population.

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