CHERITON, Va. — Each spring, a thousand or more Mexican tomato pickers descend on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to toil in the fields of Lipman Family Farms, enduring long hours stooped over to pluck the plump fruit and then hoisting it on their shoulders onto a waiting truck. An adept worker will fill a 32-pound bucket every two and a half minutes, earning 65 cents for each one.
The region is considered the toughest on the tomato circuit: Heavy rain brings the harvest to a halt for days at a time and can cut into production, a source of anxiety for people eager to maximize their earnings in the United States. The muck ruins shoes and turns moist feet into hamburger.
This year, there is a new and even more difficult working condition: To keep the coronavirus from spreading and jeopardizing the harvest, Lipman has put its crews on lockdown. With few exceptions, they have been ordered to remain either in the camps, where they are housed, or the fields, where they toil.
The restrictions have allowed Lipman’s tomato operations to run smoothly, with a substantially lower caseload than many farms and processing facilities across the country that have wrestled to contain large outbreaks. But they have caused some workers to complain that their worksite has become like a prison.
In Virginia, gone are the weekly outings to Walmart to stock up on provisions; to El Ranchito, the Mexican convenience store, to buy shell-shaped concha pastries; and to the laundromat to machine wash heavily soiled garments.
“You put up with a lot already. I never expected to lose my freedom,” said Martinez, 39, who is in his third year working in the tomato fields along the East Coast. He said workers spent months on end without interacting with anyone at all outside the farms, though Lipman eventually relented and organized a carefully controlled trip for groceries each week.
“You’re practically a slave,” said another worker, Jesus, who like others interviewed for this article asked to use only a first or last name for fear of losing his job and, with it, his permission to work in the United States.
Lipman’s battle with its workers underscores one of the signature conundrums of the coronavirus pandemic. Locking down its employees — a drastic measure that would be intolerable to most American workers — appears to have kept both the employees and the community safe. But at what cost?
The large tomato enterprise has been able to impose the restrictions on its workers because they are beholden to the company for their visa, housing and wages. Invited to the United States under one of the country’s only remaining temporary worker programs, employees who refuse to comply could face the cancellation of their contracts and immediate expulsion from the country.
“If employers in any industry were to tell their American workers, ‘You cannot leave your worksite,’ there would be a societal outcry,” said Jason Yarashes, lead attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, who has met with concerned farmworkers. “But, for farmworkers, this level of control is deemed acceptable.”
By the time they arrived on the Eastern Shore, a spit of land dangling off the Delmarva Peninsula where tomato fields stretch all the way to the horizon, the workers were already demoralized by the restrictions they had endured earlier in the harvest at Lipman farms in Florida and South Carolina.
“In years past, when we didn’t work, we were free to go to the beach, visit friends,” said Oscar, 36, who worked in the United States to pay his ailing wife’s medical bills. “Now, they don’t let us go anywhere.”
Agriculture workers are especially vulnerable to infection. They are often housed in crammed trailers or barracks, sharing rooms, kitchens and bathrooms, and are transported to the fields with up to 40 people on a bus.
Once the coronavirus infects a worker, it is almost impossible to prevent it from ripping through entire crews. Major outbreaks have been reported from vegetable and fruit farms in Florida and California to meat and produce packing plants in South Dakota and Washington.
Purdue University researchers estimate that more than 149,500 farmworkers had contracted Covid-19 as of Oct. 16. Jayson Lusk, the agricultural economist leading the study in collaboration with Microsoft, estimated that 3,750 have died.
Many farming operations rely on undocumented immigrants for a vast majority of their labor force; like American citizens, they generally live in the country year-round and go home at night to homes and families. Lipman, by contrast, has hired field workers under the H-2A agricultural visa program, one of the few temporary worker programs still in place after President Trump suspended the others this year to protect Americans from competition for jobs.
Under the program, laborers who travel across the Mexico border by the thousands ahead of the harvest each year are transported to pick strawberries in California, apples in Washington, tobacco in North Carolina — and tomatoes along the Eastern Seaboard.
Growers sponsored a record 258,000 workers for the temporary visas during the 2019 fiscal year. Lipman, which farms tens of thousands of acres across several states, received approval from the Labor Department for 2,658 of those positions.
The company would not disclose total coronavirus case numbers, but employees said they knew of no cases at the Virginia operation following about six infections that occurred before most of the seasonal workers arrived. Kent Shoemaker, Lipman’s chief executive, said the company was proud of its record protecting both its employees and the surrounding communities.
“As of today, we do not have any confirmed Covid-19 cases on our farms or in our packing facilities,” Mr. Shoemaker said in mid-October.
“And because of these practices over the last few months,” he said, referring to the lockdown measures, “our positive cases among farmworkers have remained substantially below the positivity rate in each of the communities within which we operate.”
Through the course of the pandemic, the federal government has yet to establish enforceable safety measures to contain the spread of the virus at agricultural operations.
Only 11 states stepped in to require growers to test workers, sanitize workplaces, enforce social distancing and provide protective gear. About 20 states issued unenforceable guidance, and the rest did nothing.
At Lipman, Mr. Shoemaker said, “we acted early to put measures in place that meet or exceed the latest public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control,” which recommended isolation for people who had become infected and 14 days of quarantine for those who came in contact with them.
The Fair Food Program, a Florida-based initiative that promotes humane treatment of farmworkers, credits the grower with keeping the tomato pickers healthy by restricting them to the farms.
“By limiting workers’ potential contacts with the coronavirus, the decision significantly reduced the risk of contagion in Lipman’s camps and surely contributed to extremely low rates of infection,” said Laura Safer Espinoza, director of Fair Food’s standards council.
But Mr. Yarashes said Lipman could have offered workers protections short of locking them down, such as assigning fewer workers to a barrack, making more bus runs to the fields and allowing state health authorities to conduct widespread testing in the camps.
The Virginia Department of Health was rebuffed in early June when it contacted Lipman about performing large-scale testing of the workers who were expected in large numbers the next month.
“The response we got from Lipman was ‘No, we are not interested in testing all our workers’,” said Jonathan Richardson, chief operating officer for the Eastern Shore Health District.
Without health insurance or paid sick leave, many workers said they feared coming forward if they had symptoms and worried that positive tests could cost them earnings, Mr. Yarashes said. “They were worried about being quarantined for two weeks without pay.”
Lipman does not provide paid sick leave for the field workers and is not legally required to.
In interviews, five workers employed at Lipman’s tomato operation said they felt fortunate to have been selected for the H-2A program after being interviewed in Mexico by labor brokers representing Lipman. In the United States, they could make in a day what it took a week to earn at home. If they proved to be reliable and productive, they would be invited back year after year.
“You kill yourself on the job, but thank God I have this work,” said Oscar, who was in his fourth season working for the company.
The workers remain in the country for four to 10 months, on average. In March, “the situation got complicated because of the pandemic,” said Martinez, who arrived last year. “They told us we couldn’t go anywhere. If they caught us leaving the camp, we would not be able to re-enter.”
He and other workers said that several people had been terminated for violating the policy.
In previous years, a company bus would take them once a week to cash their checks, send money home and shop at Walmart. On Saturday or Sunday, it would take them to the laundromat.
When it introduced its “shelter in place” order, Lipman began to provide staples, including beans, rice, milk and eggs, free of charge. It arranged for mobile check-cashing outlets and money-transfer agents to visit the camps to enable workers to send money home. Small grocers in a van brought tortilla flour, canned tuna and other items to sell.
But the workers said the prices were inflated, $4.50 for a 4.4-pound bag of tortilla flour compared with $2.88 at Walmart. And, in addition to buying food, they wanted to go out to buy T-shirts, trousers and underwear. Washing by hand was not getting their filthy clothes clean, they said.
“It’s illogical. We wear masks and take the same precautions as everybody else,” a farmworker called Juan said.
The workers were no longer allowed to hitch rides to the beach or convince the “busero,” the crew’s bus driver, to make a pizza run.
“Every human being deserves a little diversion from the grind,” said a worker named Antonio, in his first year on the job.
Some workers developed rashes from rewearing garments caked with dirt, moisture and sweat until worker advocates dropped off Vaseline and diaper-rash cream.
Workers filed complaints about the lockdown, and the company in July began allowing organized shopping trips to local grocery stores and some visits to Walmart. The workers said they were taken by bus to Food Lion once a week but to Walmart only once a month, at the whim of their bosses. They were still prohibited from leaving the camp otherwise.
Several workers have quit before the end of their contract, forfeiting wages and an employer-paid flight back to Mexico. One of them, a field worker named Manuel, said he understood it was unlikely he would be asked back next year.
“Our rights are being violated,” he said. “I couldn’t stand it anymore.”