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Essential yet marginalized, migrant farmworkers face health care insecurities

photo provided by Victor Cortez

Victor Cortez has worked on dairy farms in New York state for almost 15 years. He currently works on a farm in Wyoming County.

Right now, with the coronavirus, he says everyone’s worried.

“We’re isolated from the population, and we continue working. We haven’t stopped and we keep working,” Cortez says in Spanish. “Our worry is, if we get infected, what would happen to us? What plan is there for us?”

As essential workers, migrant farm laborers are continuing operations. However they are also one of the most vulnerable populations if exposed to the virus, and that could affect New York state’s agricultural economy.

Cortez is originally from Mexico. He says it’s up to bosses on U.S. farms to establish a plan for their migrant workers if they get sick. 

Steve Ammerman with the New York Farm Bureau says while the organization can’t mandate farmers do anything, it is encouraging farms to have a plan for workers, and looking to expedite on-site testing.

“The only thing we can do is to try and prepare as much as possible and be as safe as possible with our practices in order to try and keep the spread as low as we can,” Ammerman says.

Cortez says they use gloves daily and have been given masks. So far, he says, no one has fallen ill where he works. But he’s afraid if someone does get sick, they wouldn’t have access to care.

“As people without status, we don’t have access to hospitals. We don’t have access to doctors,” he says.

That’s something that’s also been concerning Emma Kreychee with Worker Justice Center of New York, an organization that works directly with migrant workers.

She says that as recently as January, farmworkers have been granted rights to collectively bargain and access certain benefits, like family leave and emergency paid sick leave. Yet many farmworkers aren’t aware of the rights they now have.

Additionally, she says fears of encountering Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have kept migrant workers and undocumented immigrants from visiting food pantries or seeking help.

“People are afraid that if they go to the emergency room or if they seek out assistance that they will be deported, that they will be reported to immigration officials,” Kreyche says.


In a statement, ICE officials say that enforcement operations will not be carried out "at or near health care facilities," such as hospitals, doctors' offices, and urgent care clinics "except in the most extraordinary of circumstances."

Apart from that, immigrants who aren’t citizens, including those who have paid taxes, will not be receiving a stimulus check. 

Kreyche says that vulnerabilities that migrant farmworkers faced under normal conditions are being exacerbated by the coronavirus. This is a humanitarian issue that can affect food security and the economy if not addressed, she says.

“This pandemic is really showing us how fragile our food system is insofar as it relies so heavily on the labor of people who are exploited and marginalized and vulnerable,” she says.

“If farmworkers are affected in any kind of widespread way by this virus I think we will see real interruptions in our food supply,” she adds.

Worker Justice Center of New York is coordinating support for affected workers, and Kreyche says she hopes that efforts to work with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office will lead to solutions.

For Victor Cortez, he says that a little help would make a difference.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.
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