NJ farms push back against proposed COVID protections for workers
TRENTON — State legislators are looking to put greater pandemic protections for New Jersey farm workers into law, including mandatory testing for infections, employer-provided personal protective equipment and state inspections to make sure rules are being followed.
Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said state guidance adopted in May is enough and the proposed law is an overreach with a heavy enforcement mandate that scares farmers.
“In New Jersey, when a farm gets shut down, the local economy and the farm are harmed as much as the workers. So everybody is taking this very seriously,” Wengryn said.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said many farms adhere to the rules but a few don’t.
“While the guidance appears to be very good, everything was structured with words like ‘we encourage,’ ‘we would like to,’ ‘we suggest,’” said Ruiz, who said the bill was kept narrowly focused and could have focused on other issues of concern such as wages.
Wengryn said 385 of around 4,500 farm workers who were tested came back positive for COVID-19 this spring. State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, said that’s a sign that stronger rules are needed.
“I guess the entire point is that even with taking very responsible and very much appreciated action, COVID still managed to affect farmers and managed to affect farm workers,” Pennacchio said.
Jessica Culley, general coordinator for CATA-The Farmworkers Support Committee, said farms in Gloucester and Salem counties cooperated with allowing federally qualified health centers to do on-site COVID testing but a bunch in Cumberland and Atlantic wouldn’t grant the health centers access.
Culley said that on Wednesday, an Evangelical pastor in Bridgeton told her the majority of her congregation came down with COVID.
“Most of them work on area farms and nurseries, and most of them had been forced to go back to work within three days of their diagnosis because of their immigration status and being threatened with losing their job,” Culley said.
Lawmakers also moved a companion bill that would provide farms with $5 million in federal COVID-19 funds to help them cover the improvements.
Despite that possible financial assistance, State Board of Agriculture member Paul Hlubik opposes the plan, saying the extra costs imposed by the needed equipment upgrades would cost workers’ jobs, not protect them.
Hlubik said the proposal singles out agriculture when seasonal migrant workers also are employed in food processing, butchering, grocery stores, landscaping and other industries. He also said farmers can’t control the actions of employees around the clock.
“If a worker contracts the virus offsite during off hours, it seems inequitable to further penalize the farmer, as called for in the legislation,” Hlubik said.