Historically, during times of perceived labor shortages in the U.S. agricultural industry, the federal government has enacted policies to ensure the availability of temporary agricultural guestworkers. The current H-2A Temporary Agricultural Guestworker program has been in place for decades, and its use is expanding rapidly. Yet, policies that guarantee a stream of agricultural workers have often failed to protect the health and safety of those workers while they are in this country. Factors such as preexisting health issues, occupational hazards like pesticide and heat exposure, and conditions related to low socioeconomic status merge and accumulate for agricultural workers to negatively impact their health and well-being. H-2A workers face the same occupational and environmental health issues as all agricultural workers, but characteristics of the H-2A program may alter underlying determinants to make these workers even more vulnerable. The consequences of a lack of protective health measures became evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Agricultural workers, including H-2A workers, were deemed essential during the pandemic and the H-2A program was expanded to meet critical food security needs of the nation, but there was no corresponding additional protection for workers’ health at the federal level. Although some states implemented specific protective health measures for agricultural workers, most did not, and there were multiple reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among worker populations. Activists, advocates, and workers themselves recognized the risks of the situation and, as these groups have historically done with environmental health issues, rallied for reform.
This Article explores how past policies concerning the public health of agricultural workers, and especially guestworkers, mirror current policy. It offers a framework with which to contextualize the environmental health of agricultural workers, including the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on this occupational community. It describes the efforts of agricultural workers and their advocates to address the current public health crisis. Finally, it recommends that, at the very least, lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic should be incorporated into future policy reform of the H-2A program