This month, thousands of migrant workers will begin the hard work of planting, tending and harvesting crops in North Carolina farm fields.
The state Department of Health and Human Services, farmworker health groups, employers, and medical clinics plan to make COVID-19 vaccines available to workers whose close living conditions make for the easy spread of the coronavirus. Migrant farmworkers work long hours each day. Many don’t have internet access, move from farm to farm over the season, speak Spanish as their first language, and depend on their employers to get around.
The size of the migrant workforce this year is unknown, but the NC Department of Commerce estimated there were 80,000 migrant and seasonal workers in the state in 2017 during peak harvest. Most, 71%, were migrant workers.
DHHS said in an email that it worked with local health departments, community organizations, and federally qualified health centers on a vaccination plan that takes advantage of existing relationships between local groups, farmers, and farmworkers.
Migrant farm and fishery workers are in Group 3 in the state’s vaccination plan and are now eligible for shots.
Local teams including NC State Cooperative Extension Service staff, community health and outreach workers, will contact farmers and farmworkers to schedule vaccinations, the email said.
The NC Farmworkers Project has already started its vaccine education with workers at nurseries, as well as migrant and seasonal farm workers who live in its service area year-round, said Anna Jensen, the group’s executive director. The organization is based in Benson and works in Johnston, Harnett, and parts of Wake, Duplin and Cumberland counties.
Its outreach workers coordinated with Benson Health, a federally qualified health center, to get farmworkers tested.
Having strong and active local groups will be essential to working with growers and getting vaccines to farmworkers, she said. “In some of our experience, transportation was a huge issue,” she said. “Farmworkers can’t get permission to get off work.”
Last year, growers were reluctant to have workers tested for the coronavirus, said Jensen, but she’s hopeful they will be more willing to allow vaccinations. “It should help prevent serious illness from COVID this season, which is helpful from the employers’ perspective,” she said.
Benson Health’s CEO William Massengill said the health center is readying its plans for farmworker vaccinations. Last year, staff went to farmworker camps to do coronavirus testing.
“It would be helpful if we could get a hold of that Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” he said. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, unlike the other two vaccines now in use, requires only one dose. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, it does not require super-cold storage.
Access East, an affiliate of Vidant Health in Greenville covers, 29 counties in eastern North Carolina. Its employees have started posting yard signs in worker camps and talking to growers, said Shantell Cheek, director of uninsured programs.
Access East did coronavirus testing at farms last year and has a health navigator that workers can call day or night. The existing relationships with growers and workers will help vaccination efforts, she said. “We’re doing the pre-work now,” Cheek said. “We’re going to farms talking about vaccine.”
Getting permission from growers for onsite vaccination clinics would be ideal, Cheek said, and might help reduce any vaccine hesitancy among workers. “If buy-in is there from the grower, it relieves some of the hesitancy,” she said.
Lee Wicker, deputy director of the NC Growers Association, said the success of any plan to vaccinate farmworkers will depend on vaccine supply, education, and workers’ willingness to be vaccinated.
The Growers Association coordinates the H-2A workforce for hundreds of farm operations that last year involved about 9,000 workers. H-2A workers come to the state on temporary visas to do agricultural work.
“We’re providing education materials from the government – giving it to workers in Mexico before they get on the charter bus,” Wicker said. Clear communication about vaccines, to both the growers and the workers, is going to be essential to vaccination efforts, he said.
“We have to get everybody pulling on the same side of the rope and encouraging workers not to be afraid to come forward if they have symptoms and not to be afraid of the vaccine.”
Justin Flores, vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, is worried that not all growers will help get workers information about vaccines or get shots if they want them. Some growers may worry about liability, he said, or having workers away from the fields.
“Some employers will do the right thing, some will say, ‘I have crops to grow,’” Flores said. “You’re putting the employer in the position to make a decision for workers, which is not a good idea.”