It wasn’t so much the headache or stuffy nose that worried Martha Olivares Garcia when she joined dozens of other Mexican crab pickers who got COVID-19 this summer while laboring on the Eastern Shore.
Rather — in a job characterized by tedious work — it was the alienation she felt from co-workers and the fear that she might not get invited back next year under a visa program she relies on to sustain her family in Veracruz, Mexico.
“Why me?” asked Garcia, 65, who makes between $10 and $11 an hour helping set up equipment for mask-wearing colleagues as they crack shells with tiny knives and pile the meat into plastic containers. “I didn’t ask to get sick.”
About 50 crab pickers tested positive in July, Dorchester County Health Department spokesperson Angela Grove said in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun.
There were outbreaks — defined as five or more cases in a two-week period — at two plants, said Grove, who declined to identify the facilities. No one died and one person was treated in a hospital, she said.
But migrant worker advocates remain concerned for the continued safety of the laborers, mostly women, who typically stay in Maryland until November.
In most summers, there are as many as 500 of the workers in Dorchester, many clustered on a remote string of three islands collectively known as Hoopers.
Only 180 came this summer because of a combination of caps on the H-2B visas they use and coronavirus-related restrictions. But dozens more are expected to arrive in October for the fall season.
The women work and live together in close proximity.
“I very clearly remember telling my team it’s just a matter of time when we hear of these outbreaks happening,” said Sulma Guzman, policy director and legislative counsel of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant rights organization with offices in Baltimore and Mexico.
“Workers continue to go to work because of economic necessity.” Guzman said. “Their employment — their visa — is tied to their employer. There is this fear that if they begin to feel COVID-like symptoms, they will jeopardize their job.”
Before leaving Mexico in the spring, Garcia was torn about making the trek to the United States, where she has been a guest worker for nearly 30 years in Maryland and Virginia.
The processing plant at Lindy’s Seafood, where she planned to work, is a squat, white, cinder block building with limited space for distancing. Workers typically position themselves around long, stainless steel tables for picking.
While she wanted to work, she said in April from Mexico: “Without our health, we can’t do anything and we are talking about a virus that is very contagious. That’s the most worrying thing right now.”
She ultimately decided to come to Maryland again, vowing to take every possible precaution against catching the disease.
Around the country, there have been multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at meat packing and poultry processing plants. Maryland health officials reported in June that COVID-19 killed five workers from two Eastern Shore poultry plants and infected more than 200 other employees.
As crab season began in April, plants said they were taking unprecedented steps, including cutting the size of shift crews to maximize spacing and monitoring workers’ temperatures. The crab pickers already were wearing masks.
“I have every reason to believe things are under control,” said Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
Grove, the health department spokesperson, said Saturday that there “haven’t been any more issues among the crab pickers.”
She said the department conducted home visits to monitor workers’ symptoms, “provided cleaning supplies and thermometers, and paid for culturally appropriate food deliveries while employees were in quarantine.”
Many workers live in air-conditioned houses with bunk beds near the processing plants. Brooks said plants that experienced COVID-19 cases had “set aside living quarters for potential quarantining.”
Interviewed in Spanish, Garcia said she doesn’t know how she got infected.
She said that when she got sick, she was moved immediately to another house to quarantine with other ill workers. Garcia and her colleagues drank tea, took Tylenol, and kept each other company. After 10 days, she went to a church in Dorchester County and got tested again, this time coming up negative.
Culturally and geographically isolated, the workers are a tight-knit group. That made it difficult, Garcia said, to return to work and notice that a co-worker refused to touch anything she came in contact with.
“I never had strong symptoms from the virus or felt discomfort at all. But the rejection I was getting from some of my peers … that’s what hurt the most,” Garcia said.
Her boss, sales manager Aubrey Vincent, said Garcia should not fear for her job at Lindy’s. Vincent said she gave Garcia her normal hourly pay while she was isolating.
“This is happening to everybody,” Vincent said. “There is no one not affected by this.”
She said there have been a handful of COVID-19 cases among her company’s 60 H-2B workers, but none have been seriously ill.
Uninsured patients, including H-2B workers, are eligible for free COVID-19 testing and treatment under the CARES Act that Congress approved in March. In such cases, health care providers are eligible for reimbursement from the federal government for those costs.
Vincent said she reduced the number of people working together from 30 to groups of 20 to 25 to allow more spacing. She said she maintains a separate “quarantine shift” for workers who did not test positive but lived in a house with others who did.
“I’ve got some older employees and I don’t know how I’d feel if something were to happen to somebody,” Vincent said.
Older adults and people with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk than others for developing serious complications from COVID-19.
Dorchester County reported 461 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Monday, according to the Maryland health department, and six related deaths.
Selling crabmeat to supermarkets and restaurants is particularly profitable for the Eastern Shore plants. Selling crabs whole usually yields far less money.
Demand for the H-2B program is so high that members of Congress often complain there aren’t enough workers for jobs in landscaping, seafood processing and other industries. In recent years, the Eastern Shore plants have pleaded with the Trump administration to make more visas available because they say they can’t get enough domestic workers to keep up with the volume of crabs.