Veteran farm worker staying put till US COVID crisis passes
Seventy-four-year-old Roy Burns has been picking apples in Vermont for nearly 40 years, but while the United States seasonal agricultural programme has been beneficial to him and his family, he will not report for work this year. At least not until the threat of COVID-19 recedes.
“I am due to leave Jamaica in July, but if the conditions don’t improve with this terrible disease, I will not be going anywhere,” said Burns, who hails from Sherwood Content in Trelawny.
Burns has built his life out of travelling to the US to work, but acknowledges that the opportunity presents “a huge risk at this time” when novel coronavirus cases in America near 400,000 and deaths approach 13,000.
Just last week, several Jamaican farm workers left Jamaica for the COVID-19-afflicted United States and Canada after agreeing in a signed document that if they are infected by the deadly virus, the Government of Jamaica will not be liable.
“I understand the situation they are in, because most of us, when we are out here, we don’t work and some have kids and families to maintain, so they take the chance, but I am afraid of this thing, I would have to wait until it is gone,” said Burns, who was honoured by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security in January for his devotion to the programme.
While noting that his employers have treated him well in the past, Burns said that he has never been offered insurance. Taking that risk now amid a global pandemic would leave him on a wing and a prayer, he admits.
“They provide the worker with accommodation, but sometimes you have eight persons in a space, and if you are lucky you might get an apartment to share with another worker,” Burns told The Gleaner. “If you get injured on the job, you will get something … like if you fall off the ladder while picking the apple, they will take care of you, but otherwise, you have nothing to get.”
Gebbers Farms, a leading producer of apples, pears, and cherries, is located in the state of Washington. It has been employing Jamaicans for years. Attempts to get a comment were not successful, as the company did not acknowledge questions sent via email.
When The Gleaner was connected to the office of Sonya Gebbers, who is the spokesperson for the family-owned US firm, an unidentified woman said that Sheldon Brown, the company’s liaison officer at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security in Jamaica, could answer all questions in relation to the welfare of the workers. However, when the ministry was contacted, Brown could not be located.
Jeremiah Knight, counsellor for public affairs at the US Embassy in Kingston, said that provisions were made under the Federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, for H-2A visa holders, to enrol in qualified health plans.
“Depending on income level, they may also be eligible for federal tax credits to reduce the monthly premium and cost-sharing reductions to help lower the cost of healthcare services,” Knight said.
Additionally, a reliable source who has been close to negotiations between US farms and successive governments told The Gleaner that the structure was different within the 53-year-old Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme (SAWP) in Canada, where daily deductions are made from workers’ wages to fund insurance and other benefits.
“What I will say is that several attempts have been made across different administrations, but it comes to a point when it becomes a contractual arrangement between the employer and the worker,” the source said.
During the awards ceremony in January, Shahine Robinson, the minister of labour and social security, revealed that participants in the US employment programmes have generated upwards of an estimated US$300 million in earnings since 2015.
Robinson further noted that while men were the sole participants in the agricultural component over the years, the trend was broken in 2017 when the first group of 64 women took up employment at Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Washington.
According to the minister, an average of nearly 7, 000 Jamaicans are employed each year.