Maryland Lacks Appropriate Systems to Track COVID Cases Among Poultry, Migrant, and Seasonal Farm and Food Workers

Marylanders for Food and Farm Worker Protection Coalition calls on the state to adopt new measures to help curb infectious diseases by collecting better COVID-19 data for the poultry industry and migrant seasonal food and farm workers

Right now, migrant and seasonal farm workers are arriving in Maryland to support the state’s immense agriculture industry. However, even as COVID-19 cases surge across the state, Maryland does not have sufficient and necessary measures to track COVID-19 data for the poultry industry and migrant seasonal food and farm workers. Without this basic information, the state could face a labor shortage and potential risk to the food supply.

The state is not collecting and reporting data about COVID-19 infections by industry and occupation categories consistent with best practices used by other government agencies. Therefore, it is unclear how many farmworkers, poultry and crab processing plant workers in Maryland have become ill with COVID-19. Under Maryland’s current categorization system, agricultural workers are classified under the occupational category of “Other Non-Public-Facing” and poultry workers and crab processing workers are classified as “Commercial Construction and Manufacturing.”

“These categories are so broad and non-specific that they don’t reveal the critical information needed to make effective public health decisions to protect our essential workers,” said Debbie Berkowitz, Worker Safety Policy Consultant, Fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown University. “Without relevant information, effective interventions targeted at reducing the impact of the epidemic are impossible. This undermines the ability of the state to mount a public health response tailored to specific needs of our communities. We know that workplace exposure is a driver of infection, and outbreak and data reporting is key.”

Even before the current public health crisis, the poultry industry was considered one of the most dangerous industries for workers nationwide. According to the most recent data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the poultry industry has a self-reported rate of serious illnesses and injuries to workers that is almost triple the average rate for all private industry. Previously, poultry plants along Maryland’s eastern shore were forced to destroy over 2 million chickens due to COVID-19-related worker outages.

“Current data collection masks infections in the meat and poultry processing industry, which nationally have been a COVID-19 hotspot,” Leila Borrero-Krouse, Organizer, CATA Maryland, the Farmworker Support Committee said. “The pandemic has further revealed the great vulnerabilities faced by many essential food and farm workers, who are disproportionately workers of color in low-wage industries. The state needs to establish a modern and effective public health system that can monitor, prevent, control, and mitigate the spread of infectious disease.”

Other essential workers in our food supply chain face similar challenges. Maryland farmworkers typically experience crowded housing and work transportation conditions, which increase these workers’ risk of infectious disease transmission. They are frequently exposed to highly toxic pesticides and heat stress which adds to their physical vulnerability. Pandemic conditions often result in greater isolation for workers, making it more difficult to access health care, groceries, laundry facilities and attend to other basic needs.

“Working to support crab picker women in the Eastern Shore, we know low-wage essential workers in Maryland, particularly those in protein processing industries, experienced disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infections. Access to transparent and disaggregated data about affected workers is essential to improve worker protections,” said Maria Perales Sanchez, Senior Policy Manager at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.

The state must collect and report data using the more specific standardized North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) and Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes to characterize risk across different groups and target interventions. Other states, such as Virginia, already include occupation and industry questions for COVID-19 reporting.

The state could also convene the Maryland Public Health Modernization Workgroup, which was created as part of the 2021 COVID Response Act. This workgroup, which has yet to meet since its creation, could lead the charge in developing a more robust and accurate system of reporting COVID-19 cases among migrant farm workers.

“We call upon the Hogan administration to adopt these new data collection methods through strategies such as the Maryland Public Health Modernization Workgroup,” Emily Ranson, Maryland State Director of Clean Water Action said. “Failing that, we urge the Maryland General Assembly to mount a legislative initiative to change the way Maryland collects and reports COVID-19 data for the poultry industry and migrant seasonal food and farm workers. These workers deserve this commitment, and our state agriculture industry needs this information in order to successfully operate.”