Fruit, vegetable growers analyze COVID-19 labor issues
HARRINGTON, Del. — A roundtable segment at the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association of Delaware’s Ag Week/Month meeting on Jan. 12, which was billed as “labor issues,” revolved mostly around the coronavirus and its effect on farmers and farm workers.
Held virtually, the session was moderated by Dr. Gordon Johnson, Extension vegetable and fruit specialist at the University of Delaware, who noted that while 2020 had presented challenges, “ag stepped up to the plate,” and disruptions in the food supply had been temporary.
Delaware Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kenny Bounds said farmers had figured out how to supply local and regional markets in addition to donating to food banks.
“It was reassuring to visit a local market or farm stand and find the quality and abundance of food we have. I sure hope folks in the grocery stores have a new appreciation for where their food comes from.”
Bounds continued, “Obviously it is essential to protect the (agricultural) workforce and the communities where they live from COVID-19.”
Food and agricultural workers will be included in Tier 1b, for whom vaccinations should begin at the end of this month or in February.
Bounds reminded those who get the vaccine that they should expect to wait on site for 15 minutes afterward, and to return for a second vaccination.
“We are working to set up clinics … and a mechanism to register so we can assure there will be enough vaccine on hand,” he added. “We have already reached out to many agricultural groups to assess the need and learn what count they will have.
“We need Delaware farmers this summer to make sure guest workers have been vaccinated with two doses before coming here.
“If not, they’ll need to partner with Sherese Brewingon-Carr (at the Department of Labor) and Westside (Family Healthcare) before they start working. We need to keep our families and communities protected.”
Farmers will also need to continue to follow guidance for migrant seasonal workers, Bounds concluded. “It is essential to control the spread of this thing.”
Protocols, outlined in a fact sheet available from the Brewington-Carr said, senior administrator at Delaware Department of Labor’s Division of Employment and Training, said she has a deep appreciation for the needs of farmers.
Her department oversees migrant workers from contiguous states and foreign labor as well as H2A, H2B and H1B workers who come to fill shortages in skilled positions.
“We help from soup to nuts. We help with paperwork before they come and authorize individuals to come here. If they cannot go home at night, they need housing, and we inspect the housing before they can come.”
Brewington-Carr said her department’s responsibilities do not end once the workers are here. “We come out with a team… to talk to you as employers and to the farm workers to see how things are going, to connect them with services.”
As for COVID-19, “we are doing what we can to manage within this pandemic,” she continued. For workers coming from other states, particularly those with a higher rate of infection, the Department of Labor worked with the Delaware Department of Ag and the Division of Health to understand what the needs are in terms of advisory information for farmers.
The three agencies issued a fact sheet, “COVID-19 Health Care Advisory for Migrant Workers in Delaware,” which outlines protocols such as social distancing and masks, sanitation efforts, safe transportation and how to handle suspected cases of COVID-19.
Contact Brewington-Carr at 302-593-1323 for a copy.
Dave Marvel Jr., FVGAD president, expressed appreciation for the communication channels between state and private organizations that Delaware has.
“At least our state is willing to work together with farmers. As a farmer, I appreciate that.”
Brewington-Carr said, “We haven’t gotten to the point to say that vaccination is required, but the state is looking at the rollout and the level of individuals that get it.”
They are working, Brewington-Carr said, to encourage workers and employers (in order to) reach 100-percent vaccination.