Richard Egan, Lassen County’s administrative officer and public information officer for lassencares.org, the county’s COVID-19 response alliance, confirmed Tuesday Sept. 23 some farm workers who have arrived in Lassen County from Mexico have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
“Of course we’re going to monitor the situation, “ Egan said, “and if there’s a threat to the public, we’re going to respond to it. They’ve got a good plan in place and they’re following it.”
The farm workers are employed by Sierra-Cascade Nursery to work in the strawberry fields near Susanville. According to its website, the company also has California operations in Bonanza, Tulelake, Butte Valley and the San Joaquin Valley. It also has an operation in Reno, Nevada.
Susan Quale, human resources officer for SCN, referred lassennews.com to SCN’s CEO, but he did not return our phone call by deadline.
Egan said the nursery and the county public health department have developed a plan to respond to the infected workers.
“They’re a really good partner,” Egan said of the nursery. “They’re working hand in hand with the county.”
Egan said he did not know the details of the plan, the protocols that have been put in place or the number of infected farm workers, but he said, “Essentially, they’re all quarantined at the Lassen County Fairgrounds for the duration of their stay … They’re not out in the population in the county … regardless of whether they’re positive or not.”
Egan said the nursery had a zero tolerance policy, and any worker who violated the quarantine would be sent back to Mexico.
He also said since the farm workers are not Lassen County residents they would not be included in Lassen County’s counts, but that may change.
“I’m not sure (if the numbers would be counted for Lassen County), this is kind of a unique situation,” Egan said. “They’re not residents of the county, their Mexican residents. They’re not going to be counted in our county numbers, at least not now.”
Egan said all the farm workers are being tested for COVID-19 upon their arrival, “and there are some who have tested positive.”
And Egan said the SCN is a significant economic resource in the county.
“It’s a big operation out there,” Egan said, “and they’re a big contributor to the community. It’s an essential function. It’s agriculture.”
Egan also said the farm workers are working age people, so that also should be weighed when considering the risk.
According to an October 2018 story in the Lassen County Times, Susan Quale, a representative for SCN, told the Lassen County Board of Supervisors about 500 foreign workers would be coming to town and most of them would be dwelling at the Lassen County Fairgrounds.
According to that story, the Mexican farm workers are hired through the H-2A program. The program, enacted as part of the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, allows an agricultural employer to hire nonimmigrant workers from outside the United States. The employer must first obtain Department of Labor certification that it can’t find local labor to meet its needs, and that hiring foreign workers won’t drive down the wages and working conditions of domestic laborers.
The foreign workers who receive H-2A visas can work only for the company recruiting them, and only for less than a year. At the end of the contract they must return to their country of origin.