The Immokalee Way: Protecting Farmworkers Amid a Pandemic

While some companies do everything to escape accountability, the Fair Food Program proves there’s an alternative.

“When I first heard about the virus, it was April. I was in Pittsburgh, staying with friends,” “Rosy,” a 45-year-old Haitian farmworker, said through a face mask. She’d come to the United States, eager for work, she explained. But when a job materialized offering decent wages for picking tomatoes in upstate New York, she hesitated. “We knew New York was the worst,” she said, regarding the spread of Covid-19. “But,” she shrugged, “I needed money. I needed to work.”

Rosy (who, like most farmworkers I interviewed, asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation) arrived in Oneida, a leafy Erie Canal town about four hours northwest of New York City. She was immediately taken aback by the lax workplace precautions. In spite of the virus’s well-publicized infectiousness, she said workers on and off the job were neither wearing masks nor paying special attention to social distancing. Rides on the company bus to and from the job site were crowded, as was seating at the worker cafeteria.

Worst of all, she said, were the housing arrangements. Upon arrival, she said, she’d been deposited at a Days Inn motel in nearby Canastota. “Those in charge initially placed me in a room with three people. I was the fourth. We would have to sleep two per bed. I was told I’d have to wait for more space to free up,” she said. Imprudent as it seemed, she thought, “Well, since everyone else is accepting this, I will, too.”

Rosy was one of about 300 vegetable pickers and packers from Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Texas, and elsewhere hired in late 2019 and early 2020 to work at Green Empire Farms, a state-of-the-art high-density greenhouse operation owned by Ontario-based Mastronardi Produce, the largest distributor of hydroponic, indoor-grown produce in North America, and owner of at least six such facilities across the United States.

Green Empire consists of a 270-acre site with two adjacent 32-acre greenhouses creating a structure so large, workers told me, that walking from end to end takes half an hour. The buildings are capable of producing millions of strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers per year.

For an operation juggling staggeringly complex logistics—from controlling light, temperature, and humidity to following protocols for planting, tending, harvesting, shipping, and food safety, not to mention dealing with pricing, contracts, procurement, and (last but not least) bumblebees, which must be enlisted to aid crop pollination—the company seems to have put remarkably little forethought into worker safety.

That may be because Green Empire didn’t hire the workers. Instead of employing them directly, the company looked to an Indiana-based contracting firm named MAC Contracting (which has also supplied workers to Mastronardi facilities in Michigan) to provide its workforce.

Labor contractors, also known as recruiters, are common in low-wage industries like forestry, meat processing, and building maintenance. Especially widespread among fruit and vegetable growers in California and in the Southeastern United States, they are often tasked with hiring and housing workers who may lack papers and local language skills. For decades critics have charged that their primary purpose is to serve as a legal firewall, shielding larger employers and corporations from civil and criminal liability for failure to comply with labor, worker safety, and immigration laws.

In the case of Green Empire, MAC shouldered the blame for the workers’ cramped accommodations, even though Green Empire itself had promised better housing. According to a property-tax-abatement application filed with Madison County officials in March 2018, the Green Empire complex planned to build four on-site worker dormitories, each with a capacity of 72 beds. By March of 2020, construction had begun on only two. Left to improvise, MAC placed workers in area motels: the Super 8 in Oneida, the La Quinta in Verona, and the Days Inn, Rosy’s new home.

Throughout February and March, as the virus spread throughout the United States, workers at meat processing plants—who, like farmworkers, were deemed “essential”—were forced to remain at their jobs. By late April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thousands of infections would be reported at over a hundred meatpacking facilities Farmworker advocates around the United States warned that crowded farmworker populations could be next. Starting in late March, Emma Kreyche, the director of advocacy, outreach, and education at the Worker Justice Center of New York, sent letters urging Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state lawmakers to issue Covid 19-specific guidelines to protect farmworkers. Despite a flurry of communication, that didn’t happen until it was too late.

Artwork on the wall at The Coalition of Immokalee Workers headquarters.Image: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

“Nobody didn’t give a shit,” said another Green Empire farmworker, a stocky, garrulous Mexican American I’ll call Beto. “We’re like, ‘Coronavirus? Whatever.’ We weren’t wearing masks. And then shit started popping off. And then there was a point where we’re like, ‘Oh, this shit is for real.’ And people had it. People close. I was scared, because I seen videos of people dying.”

By late April, when two Green Empire workers turned up at Oneida Health hospital’s emergency room with Covid-19 symptoms, the outbreak had begun. Workers, largely asymptomatic, had infected one another, health officials would later determine, both at the farm and in the motels where they’d been inadequately housed. By early May, 171 of Green Empire’s workers had tested positive, producing what was then the largest spike in upstate New York.

The outbreak at Green Empire, critics say, was the inevitable outcome of a legal structure that allows companies like Green Empire, Mastronardi, and the fast-food and grocery chains they supply to escape accountability for the safety of the farmworkers who pick their fruits and vegetables.

“The large corporate buyers at the top of the food supply chain are by far the most influential players in the food system, ultimately setting prices and determining pay and conditions for workers on the ground,” Kreyche said. State and federal laws are only as good as their enforcement, she added, so any hope of protecting workers from Covid-19 or any other dangerous conditions rests in enlisting the help of the larger employer, not the labor contractor. “You really have to home in on the supply chain.”

The workers’ housing arrangements in Oneida prompted an outcry from both local media and county officials—such as John Becker, chairman of the Madison County Board of Supervisors, who said he was “aghast” to learn that workers were living in such close quarters. But scrutiny and blame largely focused on MAC Contracting, which had failed to register with New York state for the proper housing permits, as required by law.

When asked about the lack of permits, a Mastronardi spokesperson said that under its agreement with MAC, its recruiter is “required to follow the law wherever they’re hiring and working” and that the question about registration should instead be directed to them. When reached by phone, MAC’s head of human resources Cris Schultz told that workers had never stayed more than three to a room, that the company had followed social-distancing rules on its buses and in the motels, and that the housing arrangements were not responsible for the infections.

Neither Green Empire nor its parent, Mastronardi, commented publicly about the outbreak, aside from a boilerplate statement issued in May by CEO Paul Mastronardi, attesting that “our employees are the heart of this company, and they are incredibly passionate about what they do. Without this team, we would not be here, and making sure they’re protected is something that I personally take very seriously.”

The fact that MAC, rather than the workers’ ultimate employer, was left to answer for the latter’s shortcomings is precisely what farmworker advocates say perpetuates the kind of abuse common in low-wage industries.

“When companies are insulated by the labor contractor, the mantra generally is, ‘We had no idea about those conditions—because we’re not the direct employer,’” explained Laura Safer Espinoza, executive director of the Fair Food Standards Council, the governing body of the Fair Food Program (FFP), an initiative launched in 2011 by pickers, consumers, workers’ rights advocates, and religious groups to improve workplace conditions.

Greenhouses, similar to the ones operated by Green Empire, in Spain.Image: Niccolo Guasti/Getty Images

The organization was founded in Immokalee, Fla., by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers after a spate of particularly egregious labor violations, including sexual harassment, rape, wage fraud, and forced labor. As FFP cofounder Greg Asbed told me, “We were fighting these abuses, case by case, working with legal authorities and going through the legal process, but we were always coming in behind the abuse. We could never get ahead of it. We’d seen from our experience that neither consumers nor brands really want food that’s associated with slavery, much less sexual abuse. Since the brands have the most power in the food system to determine conditions, why not enlist their help to fix the system together—to prevent the abuses before they happened—from the top down?”

Since its founding, the FFP has enrolled some of the country’s biggest food suppliers, including Yum! Brands (the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut), McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Compass Group (a $17 billion company supplying meals to universities, prisons, and institutions), Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods.

The program requires participating corporations to sign a legally enforceable contract committing them to buy their Florida tomatoes exclusively from participating growers and to cancel their contracts if growers are found, intentionally or not, to be violating a strict code of conduct. (The FFP has since expanded to cover additional crops in states besides Florida.)

As part of the program, growers pledge to comply with all legal requirements with regard to wages and worker safety and to eliminate long-standing industry accounting iniquities like forcing workers to wait unpaid at the edge of fields for the morning dew to dry off tomato plants. Participants also agree to pay a penny-per-pound surcharge to boost wages. Through 2020 the surcharge has generated nearly $35 million in extra income for tens of thousands of pickers in Florida and other states—the first meaningful pay increase for these workers in 30 years. And growers in the FFP agree that even if they use labor contractors to manage their workers, they themselves are the employer of record, responsible for the workers’ well-being.

Wage fraud within the FFP is virtually nonexistent because the growers are routinely audited, and at least 50 percent of farmworkers covered by the program are interviewed every year. Since 2011, a hotline run by the program and staffed with Spanish- and Creole-speaking investigators has received nearly 3,000 complaints. Fifty supervisors on FFP farms have been disciplined for sexual harassment. Twenty have been terminated.

In 2017 Harvard Business Review described the progress the FFP has made—a pilot-level stand-in for what could happen with all of American agriculture—as one of “the most important social-impact success stories of the past century.” That same year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded a $600,000 genius grant to one of the FFP’s architects and said the program’s “visionary strategy…has the potential to transform workplace environments across the global supply chain.”

Despite near-universal praise for the organization and its success in ending abuse in Florida’s tomato fields, holdouts remain, including Kroger’s, Publix, and Costco grocery chains and—alone among America’s big five fast-food chains—Wendy’s, which purchases produce from Mastronardi.

Those refusals will bring more harm similar to or worse than what farmworkers endured in Oneida, say organizers from the campaign. “Buyers who refuse to help impose accountability throughout the system enable the continued existence of unconscionable actors who perpetuate the labor abuse so common in agriculture,” explained Safer Espinoza. “It creates a market for them to continue operating. But now, during the pandemic, it’s worse: They put our food supply in jeopardy, along with their workers and the community in which they live.”

Labor contractors, she added, can’t do the job alone. “Labor contractors are neither inclined nor equipped to implement company-wide measures like mask protection, sanitization, and social distancing.”

If the fate of Green Empire’s workers in Oneida offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of labor contracting, the example stands in contrast to the more inspiring, even revolutionary model of farm business labor management offered by FFP participants.

Jon Esformes is the CEO of Sunripe Certified Brands, a fourth-generation, multistate fresh produce grower with sales of more than $100 million per year. He speaks, swears, and guffaws with the rasp of a former three-pack-a-day smoker.

Since high school summer breaks spent working in the family packing houses, Esformes said, he’d known that “lots of bad shit went on” in agriculture. Was he part of the problem? He didn’t think so then. “I was just moving through the world,” he told me. Recounting the days when he walked his fields carrying a gun or an axe handle, he said, “The story I told myself is, ‘I’ve gotta be able to defend myself if anything happens.’ Looking back on it, it was a form of intimidation.”

Esformes’s unlikely path to model employer began after a series of acrimonious confrontations between the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, the trade association representing the state’s largest tomato growers, and the founders of the Fair Food Program. As a member of the Exchange in good standing, Esformes felt bound to his group’s opposition to labor reform. But after a life-threatening—and life-changing—bout with substance abuse and treatment, Esformes emerged with a fresh perspective. In 2010, he broke ranks with the Exchange, and he, alone, sat down with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, eventually convincing his colleagues to sign up.

Esformes likened the modernization of farmworkers’ rights brought about by the FFP to the evolution of modern food-safety practices. Today, he said, “No one asks ‘How much does it cost to keep your food safe?’ ‘Can we afford it?’ But when it comes to farmworkers, people ask it all the time. Is there a number I shouldn’t spend to make sure the people who honor me with their work have a safe and fair place to work?”

From the onset of the pandemic, he said, Sunripe took its cues from scientists around the world posting online the best practices for grappling with the pandemic. By early March, Sunripe began purchasing more buses bringing workers to the fields, implementing social-distancing protocols and temperature checks at the pickup spots, and washing and sanitizing buses between trips. The company expanded handwashing stations in the field and worker camps, barred visitors from entering facilities and packing houses, and insisted that everyone, workers and management alike, wear masks. Sunripe paid workers for time lost to testing or quarantine, and worked with local health officials to provide isolation housing for those in need.

Some protective measures, Esformes admitted, remained beyond reach. “Packing houses don’t allow six-foot spacing between every worker. It’s just not mechanically feasible,” he told me. In the end, the company settled for four-foot spacing and slowed down the line to reduce the number of people working in the facility.

Esformes can’t state precisely how many of his workers have become infected, but his best guess is that of a core contingent of some 900 workers traveling north with the crops from Immokalee, through Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia from late March through mid-July, fewer than 20 were ever confirmed to be Covid-19 positive. Comparing that to an estimated 36 percent infection rate for all of Immokalee, he said he felt relieved. “I think, by and large, we were able to stay just ahead of it.”

I spoke with one of Esformes’s employees, a picker from Oaxaca named Alejandrina Carrera who lives in Immokalee and has worked with Sunripe for over a decade. Normally, she said, she’d be traveling up the Eastern seaboard with Esformes’s other workers, but with three kids to guard from infection, it seemed smarter to stay behind this year.

“When I first heard about the virus, I was scared. But in the early stages of the pandemic,” she said, Sunripe “called two big meetings and began talking to us. We’re used to being rowdy and talking to each other, coughing, sneezing, shouting. We didn’t realize that was dangerous behavior,” she said. “But they educated us about social distancing and gave out PPE and gloves.”

The company’s approach made her feel valued, she said. “They trained us early on and changed a lot of practices. They really treated us like human beings.”

Carrera keeps in regular contact with her boyfriend, who traveled north with Sunripe’s migrant crew. There had been an outbreak of 10 workers in Georgia, she said he told her, but they were quickly isolated and quarantined.

The difference between Sunripe’s workers—who feel free to mention their last names to a reporter—and those of at Green Empire is stark. As Safer Espinoza explained, “Growers on FFP farms have had nine seasons of looking at their workers as direct employees and protecting and monitoring their health and safety. When the virus hit, we were in a very different position. Whether it was because they wanted to avoid liability or because they’ve come to recognize the humanity of their workers, FFP employers have gone the extra mile.”

Executives from Walmart, Whole Foods, and other large corporate food buyers with whom I spoke seem pleased with their decision to join the program. As Cheryl Queen, former vice president of corporate communications for Compass Group, an early member of the FFP, told me, “Companies don’t do things to get a good warm feeling in their hearts. They do things for business reasons.” Sure, she said, it feels good to help improve historically horrible labor conditions in agriculture, but doing so also makes it easier to recruit and retain socially conscious college graduates and millennial employees.

While 14 of America’s largest food buyers have signed on to the program, a few have declined. Seven years ago, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched a public campaign to urge Wendy’s to enroll—so far, without success.

For years, Wendy’s has characterized its resistance to joining the FFP as a matter of principle. While the company has long claimed to support farmworkers’ rights, it explained, in a now-deleted blog post from 2013, that when it comes to paying a penny-per-pound surcharge to workers employed by someone else, no matter how exploited they may be, Wendy’s draws a line. “We believe it’s inappropriate to demand that one company pay another company’s employees. America doesn’t work that way.”

Wendy’s Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito told me that while Wendy’s is aware of the history of abuse in agriculture, the company prefers to hire corporate social responsibility monitors rather than engaging directly with workers, as stipulated by the FFP. “We require all our ag suppliers to go through a process where they assure us, where they demonstrate to us that they’ve been audited by a credible human rights organization, including labor rights,” Esposito said.

In a more recent interview, Wendy’s spokesperson Heidi Schauer declined to answer questions about when Mastronardi facilities were last inspected or comment on whether the use of farmworker labor contractors perpetuates exploitative conditions in agriculture. Instead, replying by e-mail, she fell back on the company line. “Our Supplier Code of Conduct requires third-party reviews related to the human rights and labor practices for suppliers of hand-harvested, whole, fresh produce such as tomatoes. We also conduct our own regular Quality Assurance audits at the farms, plants, facilities and other operations locations of all our Suppliers.”

Wendy’s board has long been led by Nelson Peltz, head of Trian Partners, a multibillion-dollar New York investment firm. As Wendy’s largest shareholder (controlling, through Trian, an estimated 18 percent of the company’s shares), he also serves as non-executive chairman and, ironically, head of Wendy’s social responsibility committee.

Peltz, 78, is known as an activist investor and operations genius, lauded in ForbesThe Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere for goading entrenched, complacent corporate boards to streamline and rationalize organizational structure to maximize shareholder value. With an estimated net worth near $2 billion, Peltz, when accused of overcompensation, once quipped, “I believe in pay for performance.”

Peltz lives with his third wife, former model Claudia Heffner, in two of America’s largest private homes: High Winds, a 27-room mansion on a 130-acre estate in Bedford, N.Y., protected (allegedly, according to lawsuits from former employees) by bodyguards, and featuring a lake, a waterfall, an indoor hockey rink with a Zamboni machine, and a flock of albino peacocks; and Montsorrel, a 44,000 square-foot French Regency–style home in Palm Beach, valued in 2015 at $95 million, with a guest mansion, a tennis court, and an orchid house. Their daughter Nicola is engaged to marry Brooklyn Beckham, son of soccer star David Beckham and fashion mogul Victoria Beckham.

Peltz did not respond to requests for comment, but the company he controls has, it seems, gone to costly lengths to avoid participation. In 2014, after several years of being pressured by the FFP, Wendy’s, citing quality concerns and weather disruptions in Florida, announced plans to shift all winter tomato purchases to Mexico. Repeating previous assurances regarding the company’s existing labor monitoring protocols, Esposito told me, “We have all kinds of NGOs we partner with.”

After a 2014 Los Angeles Times series by investigative reporter Richard Marosi described conditions in Mexican agriculture that included rampant wage theft, child labor, rape, and forced labor among workers employed by one of Wendy’s suppliers, and in the face of a high-profile boycott initiated in 2016 by the FFP, Esposito announced that Wendy’s would be reversing course and repatriating the vast majority of its tomato purchases. Henceforth, the company announced, almost all Wendy’s produce would be obtained from greenhouses in North America. (It has avoided buying tomatoes from Florida, where 90 percent of production is now covered under the terms of the FFP.) Tacitly acknowledging the sting of the boycott and the reality of horrific labor conditions in Mexico, Esposito concluded, “We are thrilled to support this higher level of comfort and safety for workers in greenhouse farms.”

But the assumption that farmworkers would be safe toiling away in greenhouses in North America under poorly monitored conditions enforced by labor contractors is unfounded. In Migrant Dreams, for example, a 2016 documentary about Canadian greenhouse production, filmmaker Min Sook Lee chronicles cases of debt peonage; overcrowded, unsanitary worker housing; and rampant abuse of workers in greenhouse operations under the putative employ of, once again, contractors.

At Wendy’s annual shareholders meeting on May 27, 2020, after questions from the audience about the company’s refusal to join the FFP, Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor said that Wendy’s no longer purchases fresh produce from outdoor field grown tomato operations. It now buys exclusively from high-tech indoor hydroponic greenhouses. While Wendy’s has confirmed buying produce from Mastronardi Produce, when asked if the company buys from Green Empire Farms (a wholly owned subsidiary of Mastronardi), Esposito said, “There’s a question of whether that operation is in our supply chain. And the answer is no. It is not.”

Two crisis management consultants I interviewed suggested that Wendy’s is likely spending tens of thousands of dollars per month to defend against the social media campaign being waged against it by the FFP, arguably about as much as it would cost to simply join the FFP.

By early July, nearly every worker I spoke with in Oneida had been infected with the virus. But despite its wildfire-like spread through the community, Covid-19 has so far led to one death: an immunocompromised, stage 4 cancer–suffering, 68-year-old husband of one of the motel staff exposed to Green Empire’s farmworkers.

Rosy, the Haitian who’d told me of being forced to sleep four to a room, considered herself lucky. “I stayed home for a week and drank green tea with garlic and cloves.” She said she never even developed a fever. “Through God’s grace I was spared. I know many people were badly affected by this.”

Beto said, “I think I probably had it at one point, because I didn’t have no taste or sense of smell.” He and his roommates noticed one evening that they could no longer taste food or smell marijuana. “We were like, what the hell? We got Covid!”

By the first week of May, when authorities discovered the Covid-19 outbreak and initiated testing of Green Empire’s worker, Mastronardi Produce announced a new program to protect its workers, including strict use of masks, handwashing, social-distancing protocols, and a regimen allowing workers to stay home when sick. Regulations from state and local officials followed, including an order from the Madison County health department that Green Empire finish its worker dormitories by July 1 and that workers be out of the hotels by June 1.

That deadline was subsequently extended, but in mid-August, the dormitories remained unfinished, and about 80 workers were living out of the motels, though now limited to one person per bed, except for families.

The workers I spoke with praised both Green Empire and MAC Contracting. “The environment here improved. Now it’s two to a room. We each have a bed. Everyone follows social distancing. Everyone wears this,” said Rosy, pointing to her mask.

Regardless of measures taken, say farmworker advocates, the housing situation for Green Empire’s workers may still be unsafe. Workers, as I saw for myself, were bunked at the Super 8 and other nearby motels, cooking, sleeping, drinking, watching TV, entertaining friends, and sleeping two to a room on beds about four feet apart. Given the latest research of aerosol transmission, could they stay healthy in the face of a resurgence of the virus in Oneida?

On the day of my greenhouse visit in July, what impressed me most was the vastness of Green Empire’s operation. At 64 acres, the complex is as big as 320 city blocks. Interior expanses as large as parks were devoted to single crops: cucumbers, vine-ripe tomatoes, cherry tomatoes. Strung up over raised canals of nutritious hydroponic gunk, fruit-bearing plants, by the tens of thousands, looked plentiful enough to supply entire states.

Meanwhile, the company is charging full steam ahead. Half the workers I met were newly arrived recent hires. Motel staff I interviewed said the plant was looking to hire 300 more workers and that Sunday and nights shifts had been added.

About the reporter

John Bowe

John Bowe

John Bowe is the author of I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection.