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Essential, Invisible, Ineligible: Food and Farm Workers Wait for Vaccine

New York has not included vulnerable agricultural workers alongside other essential employees in vaccine eligibility thus far. Public health officials struggle to understand why.

Migrant farmworkers plant onions by hand in the spring in New York.
Joseph Sorrentino/Shutterstock
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Back in December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided that when COVID-19 vaccines reached the essential worker front line, food and farm workers should be a top priority. States as politically disparate as California and Alabama have followed the CDC’s advice and are vaccinating farmworkers.

But not New York. More than a month after Governor Andrew Cuomo added essential frontline workers to the vaccine eligibility list, food and farm workers are still not considered eligible for immunization. Local public health experts are struggling to understand the decision.

“They should be right up there on the prioritization list,” says Nancy McGraw, director of Sullivan County Public Health. “They not only tend to be uninsured, but low-income. They struggle with housing and safety issues, and tend to be communities of color. They’re very high risk.” 

Food and farm workers may be a vital piece of the essential front line in New York, but they’re not a large one. According to 2017 figures from the USDA, the state’s farms employ roughly 56,000 workers. Another 40,000 unpaid workers, a group that includes the families of farm operators, also work on New York farms. Food manufacturers employ about 11,000.

Compared to the nearly 587,000 people who work in New York restaurants—or the 7 million people eligible in New York’s 1B phase—food and farm workers are a drop in the proverbial bucket. But without them, food production in the state would grind to a halt. They have also faced massive outbreaks at greenhouses and meat processing facilities.

“It’s unconscionable to think about,” says Anne Kauffman Nolon, CEO of Sun River Health. “If you’re a grocery store worker, you can get a vaccine. But if you’re supplying the grocery store, processing the food, harvesting the food, you can’t.”

Sun River, as one of three community health center networks in New York State with a focus on reaching farm and food workers, has been pushing state and federal officials for vaccine supply. Of the roughly 244,000 people Sun River treats at its community health centers in the Hudson Valley and downstate, about 10,000 are agricultural workers.

By April, when many holders of the H-2A temporary visa that allows immigrants to work legally on New York State farms return for the growing season, vaccine eligibility will have opened up, and officials predict that the supply problems that currently plague the vaccine distribution effort will ease somewhat. 

But in the Hudson Valley, food workers are at risk now. Much of the region’s essential food production goes on year-round, and much of it is done indoors, in environments where the coronavirus is known to spread like wildfire.

“People lose sight of the fact that food processing goes on 100 percent of the year,” says Nolon. “It’s part of the business.”

Ideal Snacks, a 300,000-square-foot food manufacturing plant in Liberty, employs hundreds of workers. So does Murray’s Chicken, a company that raises humane-certified chickens in Pennsylvania and slaughters them in a processing plant in South Fallsburg. Sullivan County is also home to the nation’s only foie gras producers, La Belle Farm and Hudson Valley Foie Gras; the two farms employ about 400 workers in the labor-intensive process of fattening ducks as well as slaughtering and processing. In Orange County’s Black Dirt region, where onions are a $25 million industry, workers in plants process and bag onions to supply grocery stores across the country. Dairy is not the economic powerhouse it once was in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, but milk production goes on year-round.

Early on in the pandemic, Sullivan County saw outbreaks at multiple food processing workplaces, McGraw says. County public health officials worked with employers and did Spanish-language outreach in food-worker communities to do testing, put safety protocols in place, and connect sick workers with medical care. 

Large local food employers have risen to the challenge of making their workplaces safer, McGraw says. “It’s been pretty quiet for the last several months, knock on wood.” But McGraw remains worried about the food workers in her county, and has asked employers to have lists of workers ready so that the moment vaccine becomes available to them, county health officials can get to work. 

Sullivan County has been unusually proactive on farmworker health, says Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program. During the pandemic, Dudley has often found county health departments ill-equipped to work in immigrant communities, while local pandemic mutual aid efforts don’t tend to focus on food and farm workers. To reach workers who are wary of sharing personal information, county health workers have had to listen and adapt.

“The Sullivan County health department came a long way,” says Dudley. “They went out of their comfort zone.”

Dudley is also ready to act on vaccines. For decades, the Cornell Farmworker Program, which connects farm and food workers across the state with resources of all kinds, has been a face-to-face operation. But the pandemic has forced even the least online of us to find new digital tools. In a recent article for the Journal of Agromedicine, Dudley describes how the program quickly spun up a text messaging network of 3,000 farmworkers to send vital pandemic information to workers and get information on what they needed.

When the vaccine becomes available, Dudley says, that network will know. In the meantime, the information campaign continues. On March 11, the Cornell Farmworker Program and Finger Lakes Community Health will host calls in English and Spanish for workers to ask questions about the vaccine and talk to health providers who are already known and trusted in the community. “We had to time it so there was some hope that the vaccines would come soon,” Dudley says.

Both farmers and worker advocates have put pressure on state officials behind the scenes to make farmworkers eligible, Dudley says. In late January, the New York Farm Bureau—not exactly a bastion of immigrant advocacy—publicly called on the state to add workers to the eligibility list.

Advocates and farmers alike are hoping that a recently announced federal program delivering vaccines directly to community health centers like Sun River and Finger Lakes Community Health will change the landscape in New York, both for vaccine supply and eligibility.

“We stand waiting, and we hope we are among those health centers to get vaccine directly from the federal government so we can do what we need to do here,” says Nolon.

There’s a certain cruel irony in New York State excluding farmers, farmworkers, and food processors from the essential front line. In public briefings, Cuomo has often hailed the importance of New York’s agricultural businesses in feeding a state made poorer and hungrier by the pandemic. The state has poured $35 million into Nourish New York, an initiative bringing New York-made food and farm products to local food banks across the state.

When the vaccines appeared on the stage, another narrative emerged in the governor’s briefings: The importance of reaching Black, brown and poor New Yorkers that are underserved by health care.

It would be hard to imagine more vulnerable and underserved communities than the workers who grow and process food in rural New York State. Most are immigrants, and many have limited English. But the state’s vaccine equity outreach efforts have focused on urban churches and public housing, and the limited available data on vaccine equity is too broad to paint a true picture of the scale of the rural problem.

Sun River is still waiting for permission from the state to vaccinate food workers, and it faces steep penalties if it violates New York State’s vaccine eligibility rules. But its public health mission is clear. “In rural areas, this is the population we should be focused on,” Nolon says.

Healthcare workers at Sun River’s centers are doing what they can to prioritize food and farm workers among the already eligible. Some will qualify because of pre-existing medical conditions, a group recently added to the state’s eligibility list. Few food and farm workers qualify based on age, Nolon says. 

“Basically, farmworker ages aren’t older,” she says, struggling to find the right words. “Their life expectancy is significantly less than the general population’s.”