Migrant Workers Restricted to Farms Under One Grower’s Virus Lockdown

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The guest workers have been prevented from all but carefully controlled trips to avoid contracting or spreading Covid-19. ‘I never expected to lose my freedom,’ said one.

CHERITON, Va. — Each spring, a thousand or more Mexican tomato pickers descend on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to toil in the fields of Lipman Family Farms, enduring long hours stooped over to pluck the plump fruit and then hoisting it on their shoulders onto a waiting truck. An adept worker will fill a 32-pound bucket every two and a half minutes, earning 65 cents for each one.

The region is considered the toughest on the tomato circuit: Heavy rain brings the harvest to a halt for days at a time and can cut into production, a source of anxiety for people eager to maximize their earnings in the United States. The muck ruins shoes and turns moist feet into hamburger.

This year, there is a new and even more difficult working condition: To keep the coronavirus from spreading and jeopardizing the harvest, Lipman has put its crews on lockdown. With few exceptions, they have been ordered to remain either in the camps, where they are housed, or the fields, where they toil.

The restrictions have allowed Lipman’s tomato operations to run smoothly, with a substantially lower caseload than many farms and processing facilities across the country that have wrestled to contain large outbreaks. But they have caused some workers to complain that their worksite has become like a prison.

In Virginia, gone are the weekly outings to Walmart to stock up on provisions; to El Ranchito, the Mexican convenience store, to buy shell-shaped concha pastries; and to the laundromat to machine wash heavily soiled garments.

“You put up with a lot already. I never expected to lose my freedom,” said Martinez, 39, who is in his third year working in the tomato fields along the East Coast. He said workers spent months on end without interacting with anyone at all outside the farms, though Lipman eventually relented and organized a carefully controlled trip for groceries each week.

“You’re practically a slave,” said another worker, Jesus, who like others interviewed for this article asked to use only a first or last name for fear of losing his job and, with it, his permission to work in the United States.

Lipman’s battle with its workers underscores one of the signature conundrums of the coronavirus pandemic. Locking down its employees — a drastic measure that would be intolerable to most American workers — appears to have kept both the employees and the community safe. But at what cost?

The large tomato enterprise has been able to impose the restrictions on its workers because they are beholden to the company for their visa, housing and wages. Invited to the United States under one of the country’s only remaining temporary worker programs, employees who refuse to comply could face the cancellation of their contracts and immediate expulsion from the country.

“If employers in any industry were to tell their American workers, ‘You cannot leave your worksite,’ there would be a societal outcry,” said Jason Yarashes, lead attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, who has met with concerned farmworkers. “But, for farmworkers, this level of control is deemed acceptable.”

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