Last month, the state House of Representatives Labor and Workforce committee held a work session concerning “Impacts of COVID-19 on H-2A temporary agricultural workers.”
People who braced for expected bad news were surprised.
In 2020, our groups developed a system so that each of the approximately 25,000 farmworkers who come to Washington each year using the H-2A visa program were tested and vaccinated as soon as COVID vaccinations became available. Medical Teams International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization, sent mobile testing clinics directly to the farms, and coordinated with local health jurisdictions and farmworker clinics throughout the state. Funding was provided by the state Department of Health.
How did we do? During the first three months of testing, less than one quarter of 1% of the arriving workers tested positive, a fraction of the similar state statistic. What about vaccinations? Vaccination rates for H-2A workers at employer-owned congregate living facilities is running about 95%, almost double the rate of the local communities in which we operate. Through the end of August, MTI had administered vaccinations to 5,684 workers, and only 12 workers declined a COVID vaccination. That is a vaccination rate in excess of 99%.
Why were we so successful? The H-2A program requires employers to provide free housing and free transportation from the workers’ home countries to the farm, so we knew when the workers were arriving and where they were staying. Most farmers strongly encourage vaccinations for workers who live in congregate housing settings. Washington Farm Labor Association owns or manages more than 1,000 beds in various parts of the state, and like many housing operators, we require workers living in our facilities to be vaccinated. Job applicants in Mexico were told that they should not come to farms in Washington if they did not want to be vaccinated.
When the delta variant hit, we adjusted. Workers travel on a bus from the southern border to the farm, and therefore one COVID positive person can infect many others. We wanted to test workers prior to travel; workers were opposed because they are not paid for their down time until after they get to the farm. We are working now on plans for 2022 to test and vaccinate before workers leave Mexico.
The best news: There have been no COVID related deaths among the more than 25,000 seasonal foreign workers this year. Sadly, last year, two H-2A workers in Brewster lost their lives when there was a massive outbreak in that small farming community. It was subsequently determined by the CDC and state DOH that workers living in employer housing were three times safer than people living in the general community.
The bottom line is that no one needs to die from this pandemic, and thanks to the collaborative work of farmers, farmworkers, community clinics, local health jurisdictions and state regulators, we are making that a reality for some of our most essential workers.