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Farmworker Advocates Call For Stricter Housing Standards Amid Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been reporting that some of the risks facing workers who helped bring food to your table during this pandemic, but there is at least one unique risk that some farm workers face. When their workday is done, many spend their nights in group housing provided by the farm. Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio has been looking into farmworker housing and what's being done to try to keep workers safe.

DUSTIN DWYER, BYLINE: Lisa Hauch grew up on her parents' farm in southwest Michigan. Now she runs it, along with her brother and her husband. At Russell Costanza Farms, they grow and pack cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, all of it picked by hand. It takes a lot of workers. And Hauch says, every year, about 150 of them live in housing right on the farm.

LISA HAUCH: Off the top of my head, I can't think of another business that actually provides housing for their employees. We're in a unique situation.

DWYER: A unique situation that also involves unique risks during a pandemic. And Hauch has been scrambling. She's been buying gloves, masks and planning for social distancing. But housing brings another set of challenges. In most farmworker housing camps, workers share space. Here in Michigan, the average is six people per living unit. Hauch says she's reconfigured the rooms to keep beds 6 feet apart, but some houses have bunk beds.

HAUCH: The few houses that have bunk beds, we have suggested to them that they sleep head to toe.

DWYER: These are the kinds of calculations that farms across America are making. There are already reports of farmworkers getting sick in a number of states - Washington, New Jersey, California to name a few. Earlier this month, more than 100 workers at a greenhouse in upstate New York tested positive for COVID-19. Governor Andrew Cuomo noted some of the similarities between that outbreak and the ones at other food facilities.

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ANDREW CUOMO: It's not about poultry. It's not about meat. It's not about vegetables. It's when you run a facility with a large number of workers in a dense environment.

DWYER: But in this case, local officials concluded it probably wasn't the greenhouse. It was the crowded hotel rooms where workers were living. The fear of more outbreaks has farmworker advocates calling for stricter housing standards. Diana Marin is an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. She says farmers have an incentive to keep workers healthy during the pandemic. And she says many farmers are doing their best to protect workers.

DIANA MARIN: I think what happens, though, where that alignment forks, is on enforcement and on requirements.

DWYER: Her group has called on the state government to increase inspections of farmworker housing and create new rules to space out beds and establish quarantine plans if workers get sick. So far, the state hasn't issued any new rules. And with no new rules coming from the federal government, each state appears to be taking its own approach. A number have issued guidance to farmers. In Oregon, the state went a step further, creating a new list of rules and penalties for farmers who don't comply.

Mike Doke heads the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers, which represents more than 400 farms. He says Oregon's new housing rules will mean that many farmers can only hire about half the number of workers they need this year. A lot of fruit growers were already barely hanging on.

MIKE DOKE: But COVID-19 and these temporary rules are going to probably be the last straw for a lot of operations.

DWYER: Doke says farmers want the state to clarify its rules and provide funding to help with housing. But just like in other states, it's all still being figured out, so it's largely left to farmers and workers to find a way to harvest the crops and stay safe during the pandemic. For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Grand Rapids, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.