Seasonal Farm Labor and Increasing Incidence of COVID-19

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The potential spread of COVID-19 is still a major concern for employers, including farm employers. Given the delicate timing of agricultural harvest, a COVID-19 outbreak among workers could be devastating. Despite employer precautions, there were still numerous COVID-19 outbreaks on farms in 2020. In a forthcoming paper in the Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy, I examine the relationship between month-to-month variation in historical agricultural employment and changes in the incidence of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths within U.S. counties from April-August 2020.

I find that employment of 100 additional workers in fruit, vegetable, and horticultural (FVH) production was associated with 4.5% more COVID-19 cases within counties or an additional 18.65 COVID-19 cases and 0.34 additional COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 individuals in the county workforce. I also find evidence that employees of Farm Labor Contractors (FLCs) are positively associated with increased incidence of COVID-19 within counties. This is an important finding since FLCs have traditionally served to help connect farm employers to additional workers when the farm labor supply is tight. Thus, at a time when employers face risk that workers could get sick and need to quarantine at a moment’s notice, FLCs may not provide an adequate solution.

Regressions include controls for state-by-month fixed effects to control for changes in state mandates and attitudes regarding social distancing, quarantine, or other social practices. Results are also robust to extending the analysis through December while dropping counties with large post-secondary education institutions, dropping counties with meat packing facilities, and controlling for seasonal employment in post-harvest crop activities (like fruit packing), construction, retail & trade, and accommodation & food. I find no effects of month-to-month variation in employment in more mechanized crops, including grains & oilseed, other field crops, and animals & livestock on changes in COVID-19 incidence within counties. These findings suggest that positive association between farm employment and COVID-19 incidence is limited to labor-intensive FVH crops.

It is important to note that this analysis does not identify causal mechanisms. Many factors could correlate with both changes in agricultural employment and new COVID-19 cases. For example, most seasonal farm workers are Hispanics, who also appear to be particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Furthermore, approximately 8% of crop workers, excluding H-2A guest workers, were follow-the-crop migrants in 2016. The migratory nature of this work might expose workers to increased risk of contracting viruses. Activities off the farm or dense living quarters might also help spread the virus. Understanding the precise mechanisms of the positive relationship are beyond the scope of this analysis.

The findings from this paper illustrate that COVID-19 is an important source of risk for workers and employers in the food supply chain, beginning at the farm. Strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 on farms and in employer-provided housing are also costly. This may induce some employers to seek out alternative risk management strategies, including increased use of technology and mechanical equipment to plant and harvest crops. The long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic on agricultural production and food supply chains are hitherto unknown.

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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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