During a live, online education session at the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Conference, employer representatives spoke about the challenges and solutions of managing a workforce during a pandemic and protests. ( Screenshot by Amy Sowder )

The coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice protests added to the usual challenges employers face when managing their workforce, said panelists at the Sept. virtual United Fresh Washington Conference.

Still, they’ve found some solutions and shared what has worked so far at the Sept. 23 “Managing Workforce Challenges in a COVID-19 Environment” session.

“We started with identifying our COVID response team to make sure we could get (personal protective equipment) and the soap and toilet paper that the rest of America was looking for, and IT support so we could work from home,” said Laura Penera, human resources manager of about 1,400 employees at Braga Fresh Family Farms, Soledad, Calif.

Lipman Family Farms, Immokalee, Fla., which has operations in 15 states and in other countries, created a COVID-19 response task force, said Toby Purse, chief farm officer.

It was important to include people from several different departments, from the CEO to safety experts and social responsibility staff. They met almost daily for awhile, and now weekly, Purse said.

Some employers gave employees letters stating their essential worker status in case they were pulled over by law enforcement during shelter-in-place orders, including Braga Fresh and some members of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said Jon DeVaney, association president.

The protests put national attention on the treatment of people of color, which comprise a large portion of the agricultural workforce, DeVaney said. 

It was a challenge for employers to stop the spread of rumors in the surrounding communities of orchards and packinghouses, he said.

“They were criticized for not doing enough to protect their workers or for singling them out as different,” DeVaney said. “Some employers felt like they couldn’t win.” 

The answer for that is as much communication as possible. Internal communication is also a priority.

Purse said they had to deter workers coming to work when not feeling well because they wanted the hours by telling them they had quarantine facilities and they will have their jobs when they come back.

“It’s just constant communication,” Purse said. “Assuring them they have a job and please don’t put others in jeopardy.”

The three panelists said their companies’ food safety rules, as well as illness and injury prevention programs already in place, were repurposed for COVID-19 response.

Prior Food Safety and Modernization Act requirements had prepared employers for at least this aspect of their pandemic response.

Still, the rules were changing.

Braga Fresh became aggressive with contract tracing, while still respecting the patient’s right to medical information privacy in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“As an HR practitioner, everything I’d ever learned and practiced was out the door,” Penera said. “With contract tracing, when you call in sick, we call and ask who you were riding with, and make sure we were identifying and doing a contract trace. If we don’t know, we can’t do anything about it. We’re not going to put people at risk.”

Nurses have visited Braga Fresh to answer employee questions and tell them what they’re seeing. The company used a local clinic to provide testing and had two drive-through clinics at one of its ranches.

“How are you talking about this to the communities in which you operate? We’ve seen a lot of negative press saying that we don’t treat our workers well,” asked session moderator John Hollay, United Fresh Produce Association’s senior director of government relations and public policy. “Ag worker COVID numbers are actually far below the national average.”

It’s tough to get the facts out clearly because there’s no single audience and the public doesn’t understand the dynamics of agricultural labor, DeVaney said.

“The most important thing we can do is be transparent,” DeVaney said.

Some people thought that agricultural workers coming from out of state are a danger to the local community, or that the workers are the victims of the danger.

Lipman Farms doesn’t typically talk to media, Purse said. Out of 2,100 workers, the company had 54 positive cases, seven hospitalizations and zero deaths, he said Sept. 23.

Companies had to try though.

“Transparency, communication, training and being OK with the unknown and the uncomfortable: It’s OK, and it’s important to share,” Penera said. “Our company has invested so much into our workforce that I’m proud.”

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