Cayuga County farmland

Doug Kerr

According to 2017 data, there are over 840 farms in Cayuga County.

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In the farmland of upstate New York, when an undocumented farmworker loses her or his job it typically also means losing their shelter, because the farm often pays their rent or hotel bill. The arrangement is usually that when the season ends, the worker moves on. In the meantime, under a decades-old interpretation of state law, the workers enjoy the rights all tenants have.

However, what happens to these farm workers when a farm is faced with an economic crisis–which could shorten the season–amid a global health emergency? 

Despite the state’s current eviction moratorium until June 20th becuase of the novel Coronavirus epidemic, undocumented migrant farm workers are facing evictions as farms in upstate New York encounter financial losses, according to farm worker advocacy groups.  

In the first week of April, at the height of the Coronavirus epidemic where the death toll was tripling overnight, Cayuga County reported that three undocumented farm workers from a nursery farm had been tested positive for COVID-19. All fifteen workers at the farm, including the three who tested positive, were told to quarantine in their hotel housing, which was provided by the farm. 

The farm workers told City Limits that the hotel was pressuring them to leave because their farmer had stopped paying for their housing. Farm workers say once local nonprofits found out their circumstances and alerted county officials things became better. They received health services and housing. Then, workers began to move on.

“Four of them, two couples, left the hotel on [April 14th]. The next week [April 20 to 24], eight moved out. I [moved out] on April 30. One moved out on May 1 and there is one [farm worker] still there,” said Rick,* one of the migrant farm workers who were in quarantine.

“I moved out on May 1”, says Jack*, another worker. “The hotel owner told me first he wanted to clean up the entire place or even close it indefinitely’ Later on, the owner asked me, when would I leave?”

Housing uncertainties amid a crisis

The Workers Justice Center of New York, an advocacy group for agricultural and other low wage workers, and NYFarmNet, founded by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, say they have received an increasing number of calls from farm workers.

Despite the lack of hard numbers on how many farms have shuttered and how many farmworkers have lost their jobs since the Coronavirus hit New York, the number of calls to the NY FarmNet-800-line increased. “April saw the highest call volume we have seen since last August 2019,” said Kate Downes, NY FarmNet outreach director, in an email to City Limits. March was no different, throughout the month “there were 100 incoming calls to the 800 line.”

Prior to COVID-19 outbreak in the state, “it’s not been uncommon to receive calls from workers who’ve been laid off or fired or for some reason, and they’re in a panic because they don’t have anywhere to go. So we try to make sure people have some short term stability, are able to stay in their housing, that the employer knows they cannot evict people like that,” says Emma Kreyche, Advocacy Director at Workers Justice Center of New York.”That usually buys people some time to go find a new job and figure out a new housing arrangement.”

Tenants rights for farm toilers

In New York State, farm workers housing is tied to their employment; typically a farmer will provide the housing for its workers. Those workers enjoy tenants’ rights under a 29-year-old state legal interpretation 

The rule was made decades ago in 1991 by then-State Attorney General Robert Abrams in a formal opinion. The request for the opinion came from then-Acting Commissioner of the State’s Department of Labor Thomas Hines who asked whether migrant farmworkers in employer provided housing had the legal right to receive visitors–whether clergy, medical or other service providers, lawyers, representatives of labor organizations, the press and others could be subject to prosecution for criminal trespass, or if migrant farmworkers may assert the common law rights of tenants to invite whomever they wanted into their labor camp housing?

In response, Abrams wrote in his opinion, “Though labor camps only provide temporary shelter to migrant farmworkers, the camps are nonetheless the residences of the farmworkers who are lodged there. In our view, migrant farmworkers living in labor camps are tenants within the meaning of New York State’s Real Property Law. As tenants, migrant farmworkers have the common law right to receive guests of their choice.” 

John Marsella, senior labor and employment attorney at Workers Justice Center of New York, says in order for farmers to move a worker out of his housing a formal eviction process must be implemented. However, in most circumstances, the due process comes down to a three-party negotiation among the employer, advocates, and the employee in which the employer basically agrees on proving a fixed number of days to let the farmworker find a new job and/or housing. 

Every situation is different, but there are some guidelines that apply. “In New York, whenever a guest stays past the 30-day period the person essentially becomes a tenant,” and a individual’s immigration status seems not to change the tenant’s rights, says Marsella. 

Last week, Cuomo said the eviction moratorium would last another two months through Aug 20th but would only apply to tenants who qualify for unemployment or can demonstrate other hardship as a result of COVID–new language that seems to add more uncertainty for undocumented tenants who may not have proof of income readily available. 

A county manages the COVID-19 crisis in their farms 

Cayuga County is located in the western central part of New York State and is known for its acres of waterfront land due to its proximity to the Finger Lakes region. According to a 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, there are over 840 farms with an estimated 225,204 acres of farmland that produced $287.9M in market value of products sold. Farms come in all shapes and sizes from small nurseries to farms that have over a thousand acres to manage for agricultural production. 

According to Cayuga County Health Department Director Kathleen Cuddy, County residents, documented or undocumented, who are unable to afford shelter due to special circumstances and require a place to qurantine are guaranteed shelter by the county. Otherwise, when it comes to farm workers, their farmers are responsible for their employee’s housing needs.  

Cuddy would not comment on the specific cases of the migrants City Limits spoke to for this article. 

Under the state’s emergency order guidelines, farms and their employees are listed as essential. But that hasn’t spared New York’s farms from economic devastation–and the housing consequences of vanishing farm employment. While farm workers usually have to find new housing once a growing season ends and a job wraps up, the pandemic appears to be forcing farms to end those arrangements early, leaving workers in a uniquely difficult position.

“However, we’re in uncharted territory now, because of the shelter in place and social distancing orders that are in effect. If somebody loses their job or is laid off, first of all, there may or may not be any work for them to find elsewhere,” Kreyche said. “Secondly, it may not be safe for them to go out and seek new work on another farm. They may need to be under quarantine and they may need to stay sheltered until medically necessary quarantine has passed. So I think that is a concern we’re seeing now.” 

Small farms, which operate with far narrower margins, are silently being hit the hardest during this coronavirus crisis, advocates say.

Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program, says the program she coordinates has heard of five small farms closing indefinitely, pushing their workers out of jobs and housing. “This is one of the invisible consequences of the pandemic,” says Dudley.

Dudley said typically farm workers stay a few days while they find new jobs, but others such as Rick moved out of the hotel room paid by his farm employer because he said he felt pressured to leave the hotel without job security. 

Luis Jiménez, president of the farmworker-led, grassroots organization Alianza Agricola, knows that three small ranches have closed. Even at the dairy farm Jiménez works in, there are rumors about whether the farm owner will sell cows to decrease production and lay off some workers, or do just one of the two.

So far, there is just anecdotal information available about how many small or medium-size farms have closed temporarily or indefinitely since the coronavirus hit New York in early March, but what is clear for advocates is that “this is happening every day,” says Dudley.

Even agricultural lending organizations such as Farm Credit East recognizes that “certainly, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on many farm businesses,” writes Tom Cosgrove, Farm Credit East’s executive vice president for knowledge exchange, public relations and marketing.

Not all farms are hit equally. “Dairy relies heavily on institutional purchasing, and with universities, schools, and restaurants closed that market has suffered,” said Kate Downes, NY FarmNet outreach director, in an email to City Limits. “However, on the flip side, many direct to market farms are having banner years –they’re getting requests for more beef, chicken, or pork, and cannot keep up with production because raising animals takes time and money. Slaughterhouses are booked up for weeks, so even if an animal is ready, the farmer may not be able to get an appointment to have it processed.”

But even before the pandemic hit, many farms were suffering. A report by the American Farm Bureau Federation found farm bankruptcies, filed as Chapter 12, had increased nationally prior to the COVID-19 crisis. “Chapter 12 family farm bankruptcies for the 12-month period ending March 2020 totaled 627 filings, a 23 percent increase from the previous 12 months, according to recently released data from the U.S. Courts. Chapter 12 bankruptcy filings have increased for five consecutive years, and the 627 filings over the previous 12 months is the third-highest total over the last 20 years – behind 743 filings in 2011 and 632 filings in 2003,” read the reports. 

“Currently, the increase in bankruptcies is not related to the pandemic and the data only goes through March,” Cole Staudt, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s media relations chief, explained in an email. Staudt said the impact from the Coronavirus could possibly push more farms to the brink or over the edge. 

*City Limits uses pseudonyms for undocumented migrant farm workers.