Following an agricultural season struck last year by coronavirus outbreaks, North Carolina will now reimburse farmers who bear the economic toll of quarantining their workers.
The state has made $2 million available for farmers who employ immigrant farmworkers with H-2A work visas that allow them to work temporarily in the United States, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said.
Funding for the department’s COVID-19 Farmworker Quarantine Reimbursement program comes from federal CARES Act money approved by the state legislature.
Approximately 20,000 H-2A farmworkers will come to North Carolina to work the 2021 agricultural season, a majority of them from Mexico, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
After COVID-19 outbreaks spread widely in farmworkers’ congregate housing across the state last year, the state has been actively moving to vaccinate the vulnerable workforce. Thousands already have received their vaccine shots, The News & Observer reported.
The application period opened April 14 and will continue through Dec. 15, or until program funds are exhausted, the department said.
The exact economic toll of COVID-19 is unknown across the roughly 1,000 farmers in the state who employ H-2A workers.
But Lee Wicker, deputy director of the N.C. Growers Association, told The N&O he estimates that “the loss of productivity and yield would be in the millions of dollars across the state.”
Wicker said farmers are grateful for the assistance as they’re required to provide housing as a condition of employment. It’s those crowded housing conditions at labor camps that left farmworkers vulnerable to COVID-19.
“(Growers) are maxed out,” Wicker said. “Their housing is full and they don’t have the infrastructure on farms to quarantine someone who has been exposed or tested positive, so this is a important step in trying to mitigate and end the COVID-19 epidemic.”
In addition to lost production stemming from quarantined workers, some farmers have incurred costs from paying for housing at hotels to quarantine workers, he said.
“The farmers who participate in the H-2A program were specifically precluded from participating in the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program),” Wicker said.
He called it “patently unfair” that growers were excluded from the aid while being required to pay workers’ wages while they were quarantined.
North Carolina ranks fifth in the number of H-2A workers employed in 2020 among the top 10 states who participate in the program, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Under the state’s reimbursement program, employers will be eligible for reimbursement of the cost of meals and lodging for workers in quarantine if it occurs from March 11 or the rest of the 2021 season, not to exceed the per diem rates for federal employees, the N.C. Deparment of Agriculture said.
Employers may submit reimbursement requests on behalf of any farmworker requiring to be quarantined following a positive test for COVID-19, provided the employer covered the initial eligible expenses out-of-pocket.
“Farmworkers have always been critical to agriculture, but the pandemic has shown how essential a healthy workforce is to agriculture and our food supply,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler in an news release. “While it is a priority for all farmworkers to get vaccinated, this program will enable employers to safely quarantine workers who test positive for COVID-19 and hopefully minimize spread to their coworkers and others.”