Behind the Scenes of Madison County Farm With Over 100 COVID-19 Cases
What's going on inside Green Empire Farms in Madison County where 122 employees tested positive for COVID-19? Several employees, who wish to remain anonymous, give us a look inside the coronavirus hotspot.
The first employee says 80 people were hired last August at the produce farm Wampsville. "There were no bathrooms, no running water and no break rooms," the employee explained. "We used porta potty trailers, foot pumping hand washing stations and picnic tables in the corridor. We were told it was only temporary."
Three months later the farm had 300 employees with still no bathrooms or break rooms. "Employees can see no construction is happening on bathrooms or break rooms and are understandably getting frustrated, using porta potty's in CNY winters, and no proper way to wash hands."
The break rooms and bathrooms were completed in February but employees were told not to use them yet. "Its now been 7 months in the bathroom trailers and foot pump cold water hand washing."
Several employees at Green Empire Farms are contract/migrant workers from Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico, and Hati. "They travel to different farms all over the U.S. and are currently staying in central New York hotels. There are 250 of them that all ride in 3 vans and one short bus. They sleep 4 to 6 in one hotel room and walk together in groups, making it almost impossible to separate them. When they walk to and from break and lunch they all walk in clusters of 20-30 intermingling with our local employees."
When in the green house and working down rows, it's easier for employees to social distance. "It's when they all come out for breaks and in break room the problem starts. And when the Health department comes for an inspection we're told to postpone breaks to limit foot traffic on the concrete path so we look compliant. Several sanitation procedures have been suggested to limit exposure, but nothing changed."
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 at the farm came in March. "A list of 50 employees who had close contact with the individual was turned over to the health department. The initial direction was to call all 50 individuals and tell them to quarantine. Shortly after the list was reduced from 50 to 5."
One of those employees said the Health department explained they were identified as a person that needed to quarantine due to being in contact with a positive COVID-19 person. "I was told I needed to quarantine as a safety precaution, avoid sleeping in the same room as family members and stay at least 6 feet away at all times while wearing a mask at home. I also needed to check my temperature twice daily and report to the health department if I ran a fever or experienced symptoms."
However, when they said they were an essential employee, they were told they could return to work if they wore a mask. "Everyone that was exposed in the recent cases were told to quarantine for 14 days but then were called and told they could go to work but nowhere else."
Temperatures are now being taken when employees come to work. Employees are going through the entire facility with disinfectant spray. Breaks and lunches are spread out. "However, 50 to 60 employees still go at once."
A former employee claims the conditions at the farm are ripe for bacteria. "There is dirt and algae in the aisles where the berries are grown."
Another employee, who has been at the farm since the beginning and also asked to remain anonymous, says they have been misled. "I have been there from the start. It's not what we all were told it would be. We were told it was going to be a place for all of the local work force. Meanwhile they were focusing on building a Bunk House for foreign workers, instead of building actual functional bathrooms and break rooms for their current employees."
The health and safety of employees is the top priority at Mastronardi Produce, which owns Green Empire Farms. "We’ve made several changes to help all our employees stay healthy during this time," said President and CEO, Paul Mastronardi in a press release. "These changes include remote work-from-home policies where possible, and for those employees who need to remain on-site, we have updated our cleaning, sanitation, shift schedule and workspace policies."
We have reached out to Green Empire Farms, Madison County Health Department Director Eric Faisst and the New York State Health Department for comment and are currently waiting to hear back.
Testing continues at the farm and Madison County Supervisor John Becker said there were positive cases walking around who are now in quarantine, according to WIBX.
Becker said 83 seasonal workers, who live in Madison County, have tested positive for coronavirus and the Health Department will continue working with the greenhouse to make sure proper procedures are being followed.