Sky Chadde is the Midwest Center’s Gannett Agricultural Data Fellow. He can be reached at sky.chadde@investigatemidwest.org

This story is embargoed for republication until March 31, 2020.

Forced into a crummy motel, the men crowded into single rooms. Some shared beds, while some slept on the floor or the bathtub. “We were stacked on each other,” one migrant worker said.

While this incident occurred in 2018 in Missouri, crowded living situations are a common experience for people on temporary agricultural work, or H-2A visas, and migrant farmworkers, who pick the fruit and vegetables Americans rely on. According to the latest survey of agricultural workers, a third of migrant farmworkers lived in crowded dwellings.

That reality is just one reason why advocates and lawyers for these workers are concerned about their safety during the outbreak of Covid-19. Farmworkers can’t work from home, are transported to fields on crowded buses and often have to contend with unsanitary working conditions, such as not enough bathrooms, according to lawyers and previous reporting.

"This is a disaster which will hit farmworkers very hard," said Daniela Dwyer, the managing attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s Farmworker Team.

First reported in December, there are now just over 255,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide as of midday Friday — including more than 14,630 cases in the U.S., according to data collected by John Hopkins University

Since the highly-infectious respiratory illness was declared a worldwide pandemic on March 11, U.S. federal and state officials have made moves to limit its spread, including closing down schools, restaurants and bars, cancelling large events and encouraging people to practice "social distancing" by keeping at least 6-feet away from others. 

But the situation is more complex for migrant farmworkers.

More often than not, state inspectors find health and safety violations at migrant housing, which employers usually provide, according to previous reporting.

Many farmworkers don’t have health insurance. According to the worker survey, less than half had health insurance, and about a third paid for their last health care visit out of pocket.

Migrants’ access to up-to-date information might also be stymied: they’re often geographically isolated, face a language barrier and many might not have access to the internet, lawyers said.

“We already know the population is vulnerable,” said Lauren Dana, a staff attorney for Legal Aid Chicago's migrant farmworker project. “All of these things tend to be exacerbated during a public health crisis.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, where most H-2A workers come from, announced it would suspend visa services until further notice, sparking trade groups' to signal concern about a possible labor shortage.

According to the trade organization United Fresh Produce Association, only workers that don’t require an interview will be granted visas.

Fewer H2A workers doesn’t necessarily mean less work, though, Dana said. Laborers could end up exploited, working more hours to meet demand, she said.

On Tuesday, in audio his department released, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the USDA was working to minimize the effect of fewer H-2A workers in the United States.

“I know this creates some anxiety here,” he said. “We know these workers are necessary. We are going to do everything we can to make sure that we get through this situation as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Asked if the department planned to issue guidelines to employers to maintain workers’ safety during the outbreak, the department said, “Please refer to the Department of Labor with this inquiry.”

The Department of Labor did not return requests for comment this week asking the same question. The guidance on Covid-19 the department issued for workplaces does not include any specific suggestions for farm labor employers.

In California, United Farm Workers said 90 percent of respondents to an online poll said employers had not provided any information about the coronavirus.

In Washington state, lawyers and advocates urged the governor to institute protections for farmworkers, according to a letter shared with the Midwest Center. In 2019, about 100 farmworkers were quarantined because several got mumps, according to the letter, and now workers are "highly vulnerable" to Covid-19.

“They lack legal status, access to medical care, and sufficient finances, thus, they are much more likely to forego COVID-19 testing and suffer in silence or go to work even though they are symptomatic,” the letter reads.

In North Carolina, which has a high population of migrant farmworkers, the state health department issued guidelines for employers last week. They include providing separate housing for those with symptoms, providing hand sanitizer and allowing workers with respiratory symptoms to rest until they feel better, according to a state document.

Dana, with Legal Aid Chicago, said employers should implement social-distancing into housing, transportation and work in the fields to prevent spreading the virus.

"If workers become ill or exposed, they will be unable to work for some time while they recover," she said. "(Employers) are not going to want to lose their entire workforce for a couple weeks" or, possibly, longer.

The virus has also hampered the lawyers' regular outreach to farmworkers because it's primarily based on visiting underground or isolated populations in person, lawyers said.

Employers often take farmworkers to public spaces, such as Walmarts and laundromats. That’s where lawyers with legal aid services can find them to notify them of their rights. But, now, those are the places people are being told to avoid.

Even after Hurricane Harvey in Texas, her team was able to meet farmworkers in person, but not now, said RioGrande Legal Aid's Dwyer.

Examples abound of farmworkers living in unsanitary, cramped conditions.

“We used to live 80 in a barn,” one worker told the Midwest Center and In These Times about a job in North Carolina. “We just had two bathrooms for 80 people.”

In 2016 in Missouri, about two dozen workers faced living in an apartment designed to hold about half that number, according to court records.

In 2017 in Arizona, an employer “required their employees to live and sleep in a makeshift, unhygienic and unsafe encampment of school buses, semitrailers, and an open-air shed,” according to federal court records.