Tennessee has little data on COVID-19 among agricultural migrant workers

    Migrant workers place stakes for tomato plants at a commercial farm in East Tennessee. (Photo: John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)
    Migrant workers place stakes for tomato plants at a commercial farm in East Tennessee. (Photo: John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)

    Months after COVID-19 outbreaks affected several commercial farms, the Tennessee Department of Health offered to test migrant workers on a volunteer basis, but existing preventative measures are not enforced and no data exists on whether this measure was enough to encourage the protection of migrant workers. 

    After several news reports about outbreaks in farms across the state occurred, the federal government issued CDC guidelines on recommended preventative measures. Tennessee local and regional health departments then offered to conduct on-site testing at farms and collaborate with partners at the Department of Agriculture to create a toolkit for agricultural operators and workers, according to state health department spokesperson Shelley Walker.

    On July 28, in collaboration with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee’s health department hosted a webinar on preventative measures, with 60 farm operators participating. But neither department tracks the number of agricultural workers tested or farms that have volunteered to have workers tested.

    “(The department) responds to clusters in a variety of settings, including farms. It is difficult to quantify staffing resources, as these responses are conducted by the same individuals who participate in a variety of other aspects of the response,” said Walker. 

    In June, the Tennessee Lookout published a detailed report on the conditions of migrant workers in Tennessee. The consequences of bringing in farmworkers in the middle of an out-of-control pandemic meant many farms experienced widespread COVID-19 infections, and one farm reported 100% of their workers were infected. Despite the report and with no one to monitor cases, migrant workers were found tilling the land despite illness. 

    Approximately 69,700 agricultural and forestry businesses operate in Tennessee and provide 342,000 jobs in Tennessee. Each year farmers bring in thousands of workers, many Latino, to do the grueling job of planting and harvesting produce. This year was no different and approximately 3,824 H-2A farmworkers currently work in the state as essential workers, although this number may be skewed due to employers requesting extra visas and workers being stopped at the border.

    From the beginning of the pandemic, advocates worried that migrant workers would be left at the mercy of their employers with little access to health care, health insurance and paid sick leave. Similar problems were echoed in other immigrant communities, with the Hispanic community currently making up 19.3% of all COVID-19 cases in Davidson County.

    Resources on employee rights and guides are available in English and Spanish as posters to be printed out at work.