Seasonal Farm Labor and COVID-19 in 2020

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COVID-19 had myriad effects on the food supply chain in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic tested the ability of our highly efficient, yet relatively inflexible, food system to adapt to severe shocks. One of the earliest stages in the food supply chain is the farm itself. In a working paper, I examine the relationship between historical farm employment and changes in the incidence of COVID-19 within counties. I use monthly county-level employment data from the 2019 Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) and data on monthly COVID-19 cases and deaths in 2020 from the New York Times. I use historical employment because the pandemic had no bearing on historical hiring decisions.

The QCEW records employment by sector each month. Data are suppressed for some county observations when there are few firms in the sector (and firms might be easily identifiable). I record zero employment when data are suppressed as there are typically few workers in these observations. However, my findings are robust to the exclusion of counties with suppressed farm labor data. My findings are also robust to the exclusion of metropolitan counties[1] and several other robustness checks.

Results show a statistically significant positive relationship between monthly variation in Fruit, Vegetable, and Horticultural (FVH) employment within counties and new COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 deaths. Specifically, I find that 100 additional workers in the FVH sector in 2019 were associated with a 4.5% increase in COVID-19 cases within counties. Equivalently, 100 additional FVH workers were associated with an additional 25.17 COVID-19 cases and 0.48 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 total workers in the county-month observation in 2019. I do not find a statistically significant relationship between employment in grain and oilseed production, other non-FVH crops, or animal and livestock and COVID-19 cases or deaths. This suggests that the positive association is specific to agricultural production that requires a large seasonal workforce. However, it is important to note that these findings do not necessarily indicate that COVID-19 was spread on farms or in agricultural activities. Correlated factors such as labor migration, communal activities, or racial variation in probability of contracting COVID-19[2] could all be responsible for the observed relationship.

These findings have important implications for agricultural production. Although the incidence of COVID-19 in the United States declined quickly in the spring of 2021, these results show that the seasonal agricultural sector faced unprecedented risks associated with worker health and safety. Some states implemented costly restrictions on agricultural producers, such as Washington state’s emergency restriction on the distance from place of employment to a hospital emergency room and Oregon state’s emergency rules stipulated increased spacing between beds in farm worker housing.[3] If the costs incurred by agricultural employers to protect the health of their employees in 2020 were sufficiently high, this might lead some producers to seek out alternative labor-saving technologies or to transition to less labor-intensive crops.

[1] These are defined based on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) 2013 Urban Influence Codes.

[2] See for example Bui, D., K. McCa_rey, F. M, and et al. 2020. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities Among COVID-19 Cases in Workplace Outbreaks by Industry Sector-Utah.” Centers for Disease control and Prevention.

[3] Rural Migration News. 2021. “Northeast, Midwest, Northwest.” 27(2). https://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/ Accessed June 1, 2021.

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About Author

Diane Charlton is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. She received her Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of California, Davis. She has done research on agricultural labor markets in Mexico and the United States along with researching the determinants of migration. She never tires of talking about agriculture with her sister and brother-in-law from their almond orchard in the Central Valley of California, and she is looking forward to learning more about and researching agricultural production in Montana and the northern Great Plains.

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