INTERVIEW: Undocumented Farmworkers Push Through Pandemic, Sickness and Job Loss

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A wash station stands at the end of a row of apple trees in Yakima, Wash. June 16, 2020 (Elaine Thompson/AP)

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced pop-up sites to vaccinate farm workers. Although their work was deemed essential and vaccines were set aside for them by the Biden administration, they were not included in New York’s roll out.

Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program*, wrote in the Journal of Agromedicine about challenges faced by farmworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dudley spoke with WSKG’s Sarah Gager last week.

SARAH GAGER: You’ve urged farmers to sign up to have the mobile sites come to their farms, what’s the role of the farmers in protecting their workers?

Mary Jo Dudley (provided by Cornell University)

MARY JO DUDLEY: Thank you for—thank you for having me, Sarah. I think that the farmers provide an easy channel to have access to farm workers from the perspective of a county health department. And they are actually very anxious to get their workers vaccinated. It’s for the well being of everybody on the farm. In terms of responsibility, the decision to be vaccinated, or not, is a personal decision. So they can only encourage people to be vaccinated.

SG: What would you say is the role of the surrounding community regarding farmworkers health?

MJD: I think that during the pandemic, people became very aware of their food, and, hopefully, they became aware of who are the people who are producing the food that they eat. And so, we see that there’s two tiers of support for farmworkers in the health world.

One is the federally designated migrant health clinics, of which we have three in New York State—we have Finger Lakes Community Health, Oak Orchard Community Health, and Sun River Health—and they have ongoing relationships with farmworkers since they provide health support year round.

The new partners in this process have been the county health departments, and the county health departments partnered with these clinics during the testing period. And now, they are trying to coordinate to make sure that the vaccines arrive to farmworkers.

As you noted, there were an additional 11 million vaccines made available specifically for farmworkers in early February. However, here in New York State farmworkers were only added to the eligibility list last week. So, we are a little bit behind. And this raises some questions about essential workers in general, how to keep them safe since they continue to work throughout the pandemic.

SG: Yeah, your program established a relationship with 3,000 farm workers in the state that’s out of more than 56,000. What’s the significance of that connection?

MJD: The significance of that connection is that we have the personal cell phone numbers for over 3,000 farmworkers in New York state. That’s very unique. It allows us to have ongoing communication with farmworkers that already trust the program. They’re familiar with the program. They’ve participated in an event that we’ve sponsored, and have given us their cell phones so that they can be in continual contact with us. That was very useful during the pandemic because our work, which is typically face-to-face, boots-on-the-ground work, immediately had to switch to a virtual format, and having all those contacts made it possible for us to continue our communication with that large number of farmworkers.

SG: New York’s budget includes a chunk of money for undocumented individuals up to $15,600, the same amount any American citizen may have received with federal COVID relief. How accessible is this money?

MJD: We don’t know yet. We’re trying to figure out how people will be able to access that. As you may know, most of the farm workers don’t have computers, some don’t have internet access. So, they rely on their cell phone to communicate, and we will have to see how that process is made—can be done through a cell phone.

We imagine that as we become more familiar with the application process, that we’ll be able to assist farmworkers who want to access those funds.

We—I’ve interviewed over 100 farmworkers that tested positive for COVID, and I’ve seen, through their stories, through what they share, how difficult it has been for them. Both because they’ve had to lose work, and, in some cases, their jobs were discontinued after many in the workplace had COVID.

So we’ve seen job losses. We’ve seen people who haven’t been able to work for an extended period of time. And a number of cases where farmworkers, months after they’ve recovered from COVID, are still experiencing the impact of long-haul COVID. Symptoms that continue, such as headaches, dizziness, body aches, shortness of breath, which makes it difficult for them to do the physically demanding work they typically do on farms.

SG: Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farm Worker Program, thank you so much for joining us.

MJD: Thank you.

*Full disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG underwriter.