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Essential, but isolated: COVID-19 threatens foreign workers underpinning central Wisconsin's food industry

Foreign workers in the W-2A visa program work on Hsu Ginseng Farm fields in Wausau, September...
Foreign workers in the W-2A visa program work on Hsu Ginseng Farm fields in Wausau, September 2019 (WSAW Photo)(WSAW)
Published: Apr. 9, 2020 at 8:33 PM CDT
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“Mother nature doesn’t care what emergency orders are out there right now. I’ve got plants that are starting to grow.”

Chuck Gering manages operations for Hsu Ginseng Farms in Wausau, a 45-year-old family operation that for the past five years has relied heavily on the H-2A seasonal agricultural visa program. Guest workers, mainly from Mexico, make the annual trip from Monterrey to Wausau to work for the summer—a critical component of the farm's operations.

Like many food and farming industries, ginseng farms in Marathon County depend on them. Last year, out of 147 seasonal agriculture workers approved to work in Marathon County, all but two were on ginseng farms according to data

“We can’t find labor that is as talented as a lot of our foreign labor,” farm owner Will Hsu said. “It’s not just work ethic and hours worked and how hard they work…it’s the familiarity with it.” More than that, it’s nearly impossible to hire locally.

“Quite honestly, when we place ads locally, we just can’t get people that are willing to do farm work,” Gering said. The H-2A visa program requires employers to prove they were unable to hire domestically before putting in their application for guest workers.

Twenty workers are scheduled to arrive at the farm later in April, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged state and federal economies and taken more than a hundred lives in Wisconsin. They’ll have come in buses or vans from Monterrey, Mexico as a single group, and will quarantine for two weeks before working together in the ginseng fields—housing with each other as well in the farm’s multi-family housing unit.

For essential farm workers like them, COVID-19 is a threat that’s compounded by language access and economic issues.

“When you don’t speak the language, you’re left out,” Gering observed. He’s made every effort to collect and disseminate COVID-19 information and recommendations in advance from public health organizations. Language barriers are a concern, as are the conditions of farm work, limiting exposure to the virus once they arrive, and unreliable health care access. While the farm offers health care coverage to their workers, the vast majority of guest workers opt out of coverage because of their temporary stay and to save money—choosing to care for medical needs at home in Mexico. Uninsured, they're potentially left without recourse when emergency care is needed, as could become necessary if infected with the SARS-CoV-2, a novel strain of the coronavirus.

That worries him. “These guys have become like family…some of them have been with us for five years and are coming back for their sixth year.”

Those challenges are similar in other parts of the immigrant community where workers now considered essential under COVID-19 emergency orders are also without legal papers. According to

based on the U.S. census, undocumented workers comprise 24% of the immigrant population in Wisconsin. A 2009 UW-Madison study found that the immigrant population made up 40% of farm workers in the state—a number that interpreter and central Wisconsin Hispanic community advocate Tony Gonzalez says is likely far higher.

“Those numbers are very conservative, very low,” he noted. Especially in the dairy industry that can't access the seasonal visa program due to its year-round nature, farm workers form a critical part of the state’s essential food industry, he says. Gonzalez believes they’re also being left behind in the government’s coronavirus response, with no established communication structure that can reliably reach the invisible community with vital public health messages.

“We don’t know who they are. We don’t know where they’re at. If the census doesn’t count them, we don’t know that they exist,” he said. “There is not a structure in place to be able to reach.” That’s compounded by the Hispanic community in central Wisconsin being scattered across rural communities primarily in Marathon and Clark counties, where broadband is unreliable and the community lives hidden from authorities.

“We do have a lot of people in a much larger area, which makes it harder to communicate,” he noted. He had failed to receive grant funding through Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin fund, which he had applied for in partnership with area health organizations. In his application, he noted that Hmong and Hispanic communities were at risk of being disproportionately affected due to unreliable communication structures and aggravated by language, cultural and literacy barriers as well as a lack of trust.

“If [an undocumented worker] become in any way a public charge, you’re deportable. So what does a guy do if he’s sick?”

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICD) notes

that during the pandemic, they will not carry out enforcement operations in health care facilities, and that individuals shouldn’t avoid medical care because of fear of immigration enforcement. Wisconsin’s Department of Health Service considers COVID-19 testing and care as emergency care, which is covered under the state’s Medicaid and available to undocumented immigrants, according to Elizabeth Goodsitt with the DHS. But according to

most seasonal farm laborers are not eligible for Medicaid, and the overwhelming majority are not insured.

Ultimately, Gonzalez says the lack of a reliable structure for ensuring the immigrant community in central Wisconsin is getting safe and accurate messaging about the pandemic is a public safety issue. His phone is ringing daily with calls for help—lost jobs, no money for bills, and for many, no promise of stimulus money to tide them over.

“They are in dire need right now, and no hope in sight at this point.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this article included a typo identifying the H-2A visa program as W-2A. This has been corrected.