COVID-19 pandemic takes toll on New Jersey’s Hispanic farm workers

Every year, they leave their homes and families to come to New Jersey. Farmworkers have always been essential, but especially so for the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of New Jersey’s farmers are Hispanic or Latino. And their stories are often ones of risk and bravery.
As the sun rises over a field in Vineland, one may hear the sounds of crickets and engines. It is 7 a.m. and the farmers have already been in the field for hours, harvesting flowers and crops. They are led by a man named Edwin.
Edwin is from Puerto Rico and has been a New Jersey farmer for more than 30 years. He says he fully embraces his role as the field’s “Jack of all trades.”
Edwin and his fellow farmers work out in the fields rain or shine, seven days a week -- no days off, not even during the pandemic.
“They didn’t stop. They have to keep working and it was not like because of COVID the farm didn’t stop,” says Nayeli Garcia-Paz.
Garcia-Paz leads the farmworker program for Pathstone, a nonprofit that serves the tristate area and beyond.
“Our job is sometimes to bring those resources to the farmworkers. Let them know what’s going on outside of the farms, things that they can do,” says Garcia-Paz.
“Farm work is a really hard job,” says Jessica Culley with the group CATA.
CATA is a New Jersey-based nonprofit that works primarily with the state’s Latino immigrant community.
“The organization from its beginning has had the mission of working with the community to improve working and living conditions for farmworkers and other immigrant workers here in South Jersey,” says Culley.
These nonprofit groups are crucial for New Jersey’s agricultural community. According to a recent report by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), farmworkers are at least four times more likely to catch COVID-19.
JAMA cites a lack of workplace benefits, overcrowded housing and difficulty in social distancing.
“They don't have the ability to have them work in like in on separate spaces or things like that,” says Garcia-Paz. “…they came to work, but they were afraid that they were not going to come back to their house.”
Edwin says that it was difficult to tell if any of his fellow workers were sick. And it was hard to be separated from their families.
“It was hard for them. We have a few ones that they really cried because it was not easy for them,” says Garcia-Paz.
Edwin says that he has three children. Two are in school and he wants to show them the value of hard work and sacrifice and the importance of family.
“If we don’t do this job, who will?” Edwin says through a translator.
Both organizations also help farmworkers pursue careers outside of farm work.