Viane Mbabajende fled the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and after years of waiting as a refugee in Uganda, he arrived in upstate New York in January, 2020. He thought he and his family would be safe at his new job at Green Empire Farms.
Mbabajende, 32, found work in Oneida, four hours northwest of New York City. At a newly built greenhouse the size of 48 football fields, he worked 12-hour days harvesting strawberries and pruning tomato plants alongside other immigrants from Congo, Venezuela and Haiti. They made $12.83 an hour, a dollar above the minimum wage.
One morning in early June, Mbabajende reported for work as usual at 6 a.m. But hours later, he was coughing and feeling feverish. At a nearby clinic, he tested positive for COVID-19.
“I got it at work,” Mbabajende said, where he spent most of his waking hours and where it was hard to stay distant from others while working. “There was no place to stay six feet. We were very many.”
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He wasn’t alone; at least 179 of more than 300 Green Empire Farms workers tested positive during a COVID-19 outbreak at the greenhouse, although none died. The farmworker covid outbreak began in April and lasted into early June, according to emails from the Madison County Health Department obtained by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project.
Despite the outbreak, work at Green Empire continued uninterrupted, ensuring that city dwellers could buy a 12oz container of Sugar Bombs cherry tomatoes for $4.99 at Whole Foods. Workers remained at risk into last fall, as complaints of noncompliance with safety protocols reached the health department. When vaccines became available late last year, farmworkers were not on the priority list even though the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended they be vaccinated in Phase 1b, along with other “frontline essential workers.” The committee also suggested placing migrant farmworkers at the front of the vaccine queue. But even as health workers, seniors and educators got vaccinated, farmworkers had to wait until April 6, when the state broadened eligibility to everyone 16 and older.
Jessica Maxwell, executive director of the Worker’s Center of Central New York, a grassroots organization focused on workplace justice, said farmworkers in New York regularly live in overcrowded housing and that migrant workers are more vulnerable to unsafe working conditions. At the newly built greenhouse, Green Empire Farms’ migrant workers were also new to the state, lacking connections to advocates or health workers.
“None of these are isolated factors,” Maxwell said. “It created the perfect storm.”
“Responsibly grown, farmworker assured.”
The first Green Empire Farms greenhouse, located in the town of Oneida in Madison County, opened in August 2019. Mastronardi Produce, the parent company of Green Empire Farms, is a family-owned Canadian company that grows its fruits and vegetables in at least five U.S. states, selling most produce under the Sunset brand. In 2016, Mastronardi took in about $1 billion in annual global sales.
Internationally, Mastronardi is recognized as a company that values its “Flavor Army” – how it refers to its workers. Last March it was named one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for the 11th year in a row, an honor which recognizes companies making over $25 million that invest in their workforce and technology. The Equitable Food Initiative, which aims to address labor and sustainability issues in produce, certifies Mastronardi’s Mexico-grown produce as “responsibly grown, farmworker assured.”
But in the United States, Mastronardi facilities have been subject to fines by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Labor. Since 2011, OSHA has issued two dozen citations for workplace hazards and conducted eight inspections at one warehouse in Livonia, Michigan. The Department of Labor ordered the company to pay a total of $166,788 in 2013 for wage and work visa violations at a Michigan greenhouse, Maroa Farms, including wages owed to 161 workers on H-2A agricultural guest worker visas.
In March 2021, a Maine greenhouse owned by Mastronardi was ordered to pay more than $337,000 in wages and penalties to workers after the Department of Labor found that the company, Backyard Farms, fired U.S. workers to make room for guest workers and paid U.S. workers lower wages for the same work.
Last year, COVID-19 outbreaks occurred not just in New York, but at two Mastronardi greenhouses in Michigan.
At Green Empire, as the facility grew and more workers were hired, it quickly became clear that housing was a problem. The bunkhouses Green Empire was building for its workers were supposed to be ready in spring 2020, but construction was delayed. Labor contractors put up the workers in four hotels in Madison and Oneida counties, where they lived three and sometimes four to a room.
About 260 of those workers, most originally from Venezuela and Haiti, had been hired by Mac Contracting to work at the greenhouse for a few months. The rest were hired by another labor firm: Martinez & Sons.
Under New York state law, companies that house migrant farmworkers must apply for a housing permit, in part so that local county health departments can inspect housing for compliance with state public health protocols. In February 2020, Green Empire and the Madison County Health Department exchanged emails about approving the unfinished bunkhouses for occupancy, according to documents obtained by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project. But neither Mac Contracting nor Green Empire Farms asked the county for a permit to put workers in hotels.
“It would’ve been nice and it would’ve been appropriate if we had been told sooner by Mac or by the greenhouse [that workers were living in hotels],” Eric Faisst, public health director of Madison County, said in an interview in April 2021.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration has rules that guard against “inadequate, unsafe, and unsanitary housing conditions” for migrant farm workers. One rule specifically states, “beds used for double occupancy may be provided only in family accommodation.” Mac Contracting owner Martha Alaniz said only workers who were family members shared beds.
Super 8 owner Harry Patel in Madison County said he told workers that two or three could bunk together, but he had no way of knowing how the workers were distributed. “I just gave them the keys,” Patel said. “I had no idea how many people would be in the room.”
Cris Schultz, a former Mac employee, said the company was unaware that it needed a migrant housing permit. “We were new to New York state. That’s a lot of the reason why people want to blame us,” she said. In the past, Mac had supplied workers to Mastronardi greenhouses in Michigan and Ohio.
On March 21, a worker in Green Empire Farms was found positive for the coronavirus. Days later, a hotel worker sent the health department a Facebook message saying that hotel residents were congregating and failing to social distance. It was only then that the health department found that some greenhouse workers were living in the hotels, said Samantha Field, the county’s information officer. But the county did not know then how many of the hotel guests were farmworkers covered under the migrant housing law.
Aaron Lazzara, the county’s environmental health director, called the hotels to remind them of cleaning protocols and asked Green Empire Farms about masking and limiting the number of people in the vans that transported workers to their hotels, Lazarra said in an interview.
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On April 17, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring masks in public. Prompted by an anonymous complaint through the New York Department of Health complaint system, the Madison County Health Department called the greenhouse the next day, according to Field. The health department wanted to make sure that Green Empire was aware of the laws requiring social distancing and masks.
Language barriers between workers made it difficult to communicate the new coronavirus measures, and staying far from others on the rows wasn’t always easy. “If you’re picking strawberries right next to another person picking strawberries, you’re within 6 feet,” former pest management worker Karen McGinley said.
To encourage social distancing, Green Empire placed tape on the benches in the indoor break room where workers ate but the room was crowded and workers took off their masks to eat, according to interviews with five current and former workers. “I didn’t feel comfortable, especially with everybody walking around without their masks,” said worker Betsy Braun. Instead, she ate lunch in her car.
On April 29, local hospital Oneida Health informed Faisst that six greenhouse workers staying at the hotels had tested positive in the emergency room. By the next day, one was hospitalized, according to emails from Faisst obtained by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project. Local health officials conducted two days of mass testing at Green Empire with help from the state.
In the hotels, infected workers were quarantined in rooms away from those who tested negative. The health department and generous volunteers provided meals to the workers, who received a week’s pay while in quarantine.
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By then, the contagion had spread in the Super 8 hotel. Patel was hospitalized, and housekeeper Roxanne Whaley and her husband Lanny also fell ill. Lanny Whaley, who had other medical conditions, died on May 7.
“It seems like the media and public want to know how we messed up,” Field wrote in an email to Faisst on May 9. “Why we didn’t site [sic] the contractors a month ago when we found out there were multiple people to a room?
Although Mac’s failure to get a migrant housing permit could have resulted in a fine from Madison County, the health department opted not to fine Mac. “Our focus was the spread of the disease,” Faisst said in a recent interview. “We probably could’ve fined [Mac], but there was no reason they couldn’t stay in the hotel. They weren’t overcrowded, they were compensated for food and laundry and everything else.” Moreover, he said, the bunkhouses for the workers had not yet been built.
By early June, most workers had recovered, including two workers who had been hospitalized, and returned to work. On June 18, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened a still-ongoing investigation into Green Empire Farms, Mac Contracting and two other contractors.
Green Empire Farms continued to struggle with coronavirus safety measures in the fall.
On Oct. 16, an anonymous Green Empire worker reported to the New York Department of Health that social distancing rules were being violated in the break rooms. During a field visit on Oct. 22, a member of the Madison County health staff observed Green Empire workers not wearing masks, prompting the health department to issue a $500 fine.
This was the greenhouse’s third incident involving coronavirus safety measures. In April 2020, it got a phone call from the health department about masking and procedures at the greenhouse. The October visit triggered a fine. “The first one was a friendly phone call. The second one is a friendly visit. And the third one was a friendly fine,” Lazzara said.
Meanwhile, Mastronardi CEO Paul Mastronardi received an award in October from the Leamington District Chamber of Commerce in Ontario for his proactive pandemic leadership, including implementing health and safety policies.
At the award ceremony, the Chamber praised Mastronardi’s SHIELD program, an acronym for preventative actions like Social Distance (S) and Deep Clean (D). In a press release announcing the SHIELD program on May 5, the company wrote that in late February, “vigorous measures were taken to protect workers who needed to remain onsite, including social distancing practices and increased cleaning and sanitation.”
In late 2020, Green Empire applied for permission to bring in 100 foreign guest workers under the H-2A program, requesting that they start work on Nov. 3. The H-2A program provides a temporary visa so foreign farmworkers can fill the demand for seasonal labor. Green Empire said the workers would live in bunkhouses.
Green Empire also ended its relationship with Mac Contracting in November. By December last year, Mac workers had left the state or switched over to Martinez & Sons. After the company’s departure, Patel, who had spent a week in the ICU in the spring after catching COVID-19, was left with unpaid bills amounting to more than $90,000 and a reputation for owning the “covid hotel.”
On April 9, 2021, almost a year after mass testing at the greenhouse during the outbreak, Madison County provided vaccines to Green Empire’s workers at a popup site at their workplace.
The vaccine promises a safer summer for farmworkers. But former farmworker Viane Mbabajende continues to suffer what he believes are lasting effects of the coronavirus, including joint pain, headaches and fatigue. He blames his infection on Green Empire Farms.
“They don’t care about their employees,” he said. “Their irresponsibility is why I’m like this now.”