Firm news and client alerts that may be beneficial
Firm news and client alerts that may be beneficial
Many farms, especially those involved in hand-picked and other vegetable and fruit operations regularly employ migrant farm workers to assist with planting, harvesting, and other agricultural needs. The world is responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that has been named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (“COVID-19”). This article addresses consideration for farm’s who employ workers that are not U.S. citizens, and that are housed onsite by the farm while employed.
1. H2-A visas – availability and changes to current protocol
Migrant farm workers working under H2-A Visas may still enter the U.S. in some circumstances, but their travel depends on current restrictions from both the U.S. and their home country. The U.S. is not presently issuing new H2-A Visas.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) is temporarily allowing reproduced original signatures on benefit forms and documents. The reproduction must be a copy of the original and may include a scan, photocopy, fax, or similarly reproduced document. The State Department has further advised that it is reviewing these policies and others related to Migrant Farm workers and will update regularly.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) is attempting to connect available workers (those whose current contracts are expiring) with farmers in need. Additional information can be found at: https://www.farmers.gov/manage/h2a.
Effective March 20, 2002, through April 20, 2020, the U.S. has issued temporary travel restrictions which prohibit non-essential travel between the United States and Mexico. Individuals traveling to and from work, including those in the farming and agricultural industries are exempt from these restrictions. Mexican migrant farm workers who interviewed in person, and were approved for an H2-A Visa last year, may apply for a renewal this year without the need for an in person interview.
2. Safety concerns for employing and housing migrant farm workers
The United States Center for Disease Control (“CDC”), the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other federal and state agencies have already begun issuing guidance on how to keep employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The farm should take special precautions for workspaces and living quarters for workers as recommended by OSHA and other agencies.
a. CDC workplace guidance
The CDC recommends employers take steps to warn employees about the dangers of COVID-19, and to prevent the spread of illness. The CDC provides a variety of print resources to assist with these recommendations, which can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/factsheets.html. Special recommendations include informing employees of the symptoms so that they can immediately report to their employer if they become ill, and informing employees of known ways to prevent the spread of illness (i.e., maintain a safe distance, wear personal protective equipment (“PPE”) such as face masks where appropriate, and encourage employees to wash hands).
b. OSHA workplace guidance
OSHA has released guidelines for employers based on the employee’s likelihood to contract COVID-19 at work. Many farms operate a number of agricultural operations that may require employees to have close contact with each other, or the public. Under the current OSHA guidelines, this would put a farm’s employees in the medium risk category of contracting COVID-19 while on the job.
For those in the medium risk category OSHA recommends using physical barriers to prevent contact between employees. Physical barriers include face/sneeze guards where appropriate. In the instance of agricultural work masks may be useful where sneeze guards or physical barriers between employees are not practical. OSHA also recommends minimizing face-to-face contact, removing those known to be ill where possible, and providing masks to those known to be ill in order to prevent the spread of illness. This means, at a minimum, anyone known to be ill should be wearing a mask if they will be exposed to other employees, but should be separated from other employees entirely as soon as possible.
c. Migrant farm worker housing
OSHA and the CDC have not provided guidance specifically on housing for migrant farm workers. However, farms should consider the following controls on housing in order to comply with other applicable recommendations from the CDC and OSHA. If all workers are housed in the same building an out building should be constructed to accommodate the potentially ill. Sick and well workers should not share restrooms, or other facilities, such as dining areas. If no separate space is available sick workers must be moved offsite to prevent infecting others. Sick workers should seek medical care, and should be encouraged follow the advice of their medical provider with regard to further treatment.
Many farms may encounter road blocks in obtaining assistance from migrant farm workers this season due to current national and international travel restrictions. If possible, farms should consider utilizing Mexican workers who were issued H2-A visas last year, and should seek additional advice about available workers from the USDA. Also, farms should be mindful of recommendations from OSHA, the CDC, and other agencies, in order to keep migrant farm workers safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
This article is intended to be for informational and discussion purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice or as a legal opinion on which certain actions should or should not be taken. For additional legal assistance specific to your farm or business reach out to your usual contact at the firm, or contact Melissa Green ([email protected]).
Since 1979, the Syracuse-based law firm of SCOLARO FETTER GRIZANTI & McGOUGH, P.C. has provided sophisticated tax, business, litigation, employee benefits, estate and trust planning and administration services to its individual, business, entrepreneurial and professional clients throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and other states in which its attorneys are admitted to practice.