A roadblock has emerged in the state’s COVID-19 campaign to test the thousands of migrant workers harvesting fruits and vegetables on New Jersey farms: An increasing number of growers are refusing to allow health care professionals test the seasonal laborers they have hired.
The state Department of Health said some farmers are not participating in the testing program but refused to disclose how many and their locations. Those familiar with the process in the communities say the number of growers is in the dozens, with most in Cumberland County and recently six blueberry growers in Atlantic County, according to two people with knowledge of the testing operation.
This development comes at a time when New Jersey’s seasonal worker population is exploding. For the past two weeks, an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 migrant workers have been pouring into the state to pick and pack blueberries. And the workers have arrived after harvesting fruit on farms in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and other states with rising rates of COVID-19. People coming into New Jersey from such states have been warned by Gov. Phil Murphy that they need to quarantine themselves for two weeks.
“We are aware that some farms and growers have currently opted not to participate in the testing initiative,” DOH spokeswoman Nancy Kearney said in a written statement. “The departments of Health, Agriculture and Labor and Workforce Development, along with the FQHCs, are working hand-in-hand to fine-tune our outreach efforts to get the best outcomes possible. The state Agriculture Secretary is sending another letter to farmers, and … the New Jersey Farm Bureau is also reaching out to farmers to emphasize the importance of workers getting tested.”
Compliance not mandatory
Under an initiative rolled out by state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli in May, all farmers are being offered free testing for their workers by local federally qualified health centers (FQHCs). But the farmers are not required comply, and can turn them away, which is happening in some cases. This is in contrast to long-term care facilities where testing is mandatory for patients and staff.
A bill (The Farm Worker Epidemic Health and Safety Act) recently proposed by state Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden, Gloucester) would, among other things, require such testing for all seasonal migrant workers.
“If this is what’s happening, then it’s unconscionable,” Ruiz said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t know why a responsible grower would not allow their workers to be tested … This just underscores why we need mandatory requirements, instead of the suggested guidelines the state issued.”
As of Thursday, health workers from four FQHCs, partnering with the state Department of Health, had tested 3,900 seasonal farmworkers, mostly in South Jersey, with 193 testing positive, according to Kearney. That’s a rate of about 5% — down from 11.7% a month earlier and about a third of the statewide average. The Department of Health refused a request to provide a breakdown of testing results by county.
And while the declining rate of infection appears promising, the news that some growers are refusing to participate in the testing program is disquieting to some on the front lines.
“This could be a public health disaster,” said Dr. Lori Talbot, a former FQHC medical director and currently a private Cumberland County physician who treats migrant workers and their families. “The denial of access to workers is outrageous behavior and puts many lives at risks — including the health of the farmer and his/her family themselves. The health centers need to have immediate access to these workers and the farmers need to get out of the way.”
Jessica Culley, general coordinator for CATA, a migrant-workers advocacy group said, “We expected some would resist when the state issued safety guidelines that didn’t make testing mandatory, but the current number is alarming.”
COVID-19 and the Blueberry Capital of the World
The blueberry harvest season is short and intense — about eight weeks.
New Jersey produces about 40 million to 50 million pounds of blueberries annually, generating $60 million to $70 million in revenues. About 80% of the state’s yield comes from Atlantic County’s 56 farms, all of which are in or just outside of Hammonton, which calls itself “The Blueberry Capital of the World.”
“Testing is for the worker to decide; no one can compel someone to be tested,” said New Jersey Farm Bureau president Peter Furey. “Besides, there may be other forms of preventive health measures aside from testing being taken. We think education and health information is a prerequisite to the consideration of testing.”
Murphy issued a travel advisory on June 24, requesting all individuals traveling from 16 states with a high COVID-19 positivity rate to self-quarantine for a 14-day period. Those states include Florida, Georgia and North Carolina — the origin of the overwhelming majority of blueberry migrants that come to New Jersey every year.
“This is a very vulnerable population, living in overcrowded conditions and being transported in vans and buses,” Dr. Talbot said. “Many of them have also recently arrived here from southern states with very high rates of COVID cases.”
It is not known how many of those workers, if any, have been quarantined since Murphy’s advisory.