dairy farmworkers

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a potential second crisis lurking because of it within some of the farmworker communities in the Finger Lakes.

It is extremely unfortunate that it took the death of one of them to bring the problem to the forefront.

Last week a man named Cristobal died after contracting the novel coronavirus. He was 40 years old, an undocumented worker at a dairy farm and Cayuga County’s first casualty of the virus.

The underlying circumstances behind his death makes it clear he will likely not be the last there. It is not out of the realm of possibility of it also occurring in Wayne, Yates, Seneca or Ontario counties. With that said, it should be noted that many farms here are trying to do what is right for their employees. Hemdale, Hansen, Willow Bend, El-Vi, Pedersen, DeBoover — to name a few off the top of my head — have long been reputable.

Farmworkers are considered essential workers. At dairy farms they work year round. Even though the coronavirus has hit this industry’s economy hard, forcing many to dump their product, the cows still need to be milked daily.

The “bad” farms aren’t presenting workers with needed education and preparedness regarding COVID-19. Face masks are not being provided. Several workers have tested positive while others are clearly sick but refuse testing for several reasons: they can’t afford to be quarantined because they need the money; undocumented workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits; even when they do get tested, they are told by their bosses to go back to work until they get the results; fear exists for some because these farms are within the 100-mile distance from the U.S. border giving Immigration and Customs authorities the ability to detain and deport the undocumented at will.

What the “good” farms are doing is providing their workers information that is easily accessible from Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development, county heath departments and/or the state Department of Ag and Markets. The educational material is in Spanish and English.

Kim Skellie, a co-owner of El-Vi Farms in Phelps and member of Farm Bureau’s state board, says the industry has stepped up the effort for the overall hygiene at farms, something even more urgent with the coronavirus fears. It includes education, but Skellie says some agricultural operations are having difficulty getting masks.

The precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention often are impossible to carry out on many farms. Housing and transportation can be crowded and less sanitary. There are no federal guidelines governing what a farmer should do if there isn’t space to quarantine sick workers. Unfortunately, because of their close living quarters, workers at some farms are showing symptoms of COVID-19.

They may be able to practice social distancing on the job, but the damage is done in their living quarters.

Cristobal was from Guatemala. He had been here six years. His family is poor. The cost to get his body back to his home country for a proper burial is estimated at $10,000. With the travel restrictions that are in place and the prohibitive cost, it is unclear what will happen to his body.

Gabriela Quintanilla (inset photo) and Wilmer Jimenez both work for Rural and Migrant Ministries as coordinators for Western New York. They are on a mission to help fix what is a potential large-scale problem. Who would have imagined that some of the farmworkers who escaped rampant poverty and/or physical danger and then made the long journey to the United States now find themselves more vulnerable and exposed to sickness or death than ever.

Wilmer and Gabriela are coordinating group chats online with workers to educate and have them pass on all pertinent info to co-workers. Gabriela also is working with a coalition of other farmworker advocacy groups and has been in contact with Gov. Cuomo’s office.

While I was interviewing Wilmer he got a call confirming yet another positive coronavirus test for a farmworker. The man had been suffering breathing issues. Wilmer says the health department has moved a small number of workers out of farms and into a motel for quarantining.

Rural Migrant Ministries has set up an emergency fund to help with monthly bills for farmworkers in the network they serve who can’t work due to the virus.

The one thing that remains consistent is the need for face masks. A simple face mask is something that will make a huge difference, especially since state officials are asking everyone to wear one when out and about.

That is why I am putting out the call for mask donations. Many hundreds are needed and will be distributed by Gabriela and Wilmer.

I have posted this request online on the Finger Lakes Coronavirus Forum and Penn Yan Covid-19 Support Facebook pages where many who already are making masks have indicated a desire to help out. Interestingly, through the FLCF page, their network of friends extended all the way to Wisconsin, from where 200 masks are now being sent here. The local response also has been fantastic.

Gabriela, originally from El Salvador and now living in Geneva, looks at the solidarity in the Geneva community with its care and concern during this national and local crisis and finds it nothing short of awe-inspiring.

As I have said many times, farmworkers are doing jobs so many do not want to do. It results in quality food being available for everyone reading this.

If anyone is interested in making/donating masks, I will be happy to pick them up and deliver to Gabriela to distribute. Email me at nyp2904@yahoo.com or call (315) 789-3333 ext. 246. Thanks.

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