RANTOUL – At least eight migrant workers who were infected with COVID-19 waited several days before isolating because the company they worked for, Bayer, declined to pay for expedited tests, Champaign County health officials said.
The company’s rejection came after its occupational health team had agreed to pay about $5,000 in quick testing for about 60 migrant workers, the officials said. Across the country, migrant and seasonal workers are vulnerable to the virus because they often live in cramped quarters and ride to job sites in crowded buses. Fourteen have died from COVID-19 nationwide, according to tracking from the Food and Environment Reporting Network.
“My opinion, companies should test and pay for the testing to keep the migrant workers healthy,” said Julie Pryde, who leads the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
Bayer spokeswoman Susan Luke did not deny the company declined to pay for expedited testing. Bayer “regularly cooperates” with health officials to get their migrant workforce tested, she said.
For years, Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, has hired farm labor contractors to bring migrant and seasonal workers to Champaign County to work in fields growing seed corn during the summer and fall months.
In late June, upon urging from C-U Public Health staff, Bayer’s occupational health team agreed to spend about $90 per test — or about $5,000 total — to have the workers’ results within a day, according to an email Pryde sent two Illinois state senators and a state representative. The email was obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at The Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
With that arrangement, the workers, who were living in Rantoul, would have known quickly whether they needed to isolate. The matter was particularly urgent, because among a group of 15 workers who had been tested earlier, one was positive, Pryde said.
However, according to the email, Bayer decided to not pay for expedited tests, opting to instead have Pryde’s agency arrange to collect samples for analysis at the state’s public health lab, which takes several days to return results. At least eight were positive.
“This is not an ideal option when individuals are living in congregate housing and riding school buses to their job sites,” Pryde wrote in her June 29 email. “This pre-employment testing is crucial and will prevent local outbreaks which could lead to hospitalizations and potential deaths.”
Pryde said she’s unsure whether the eight COVID-19-positive workers went on to infect others between the time they got tested and the time they received their results and were isolated. But the health department assumes people living in close quarters spread it to others, she said.
“That always happens,” she said in an interview. “Especially (with) household contacts.”
Pryde did not provide the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and Illinois Newsroom an estimate of how much it cost in staff time for the health department to test the workers.
In her email to senators, Pryde wrote that it was communicated to the health department that Bayer “did not want to be seen as the company that required pre-employment testing.”
When asked if that was an accurate representation of company thinking, Luke did not provide an answer. She also did not provide an answer when asked why Bayer might not want to pay about $5,000 for expedited testing.
Last year, Bayer had a net income of more than $4 billion, according to the company.
Luke emphasized that, ultimately, every worker was tested.
“Every contractor in the group in question who wanted to be tested on June 27, was,” she said. “We do our best to connect employees and contractors to their own healthcare providers when needed – that’s the case for all our employees and contractors worldwide.”
As part of Bayer’s attempt to keep workers safe, their temperatures are taken daily, and they’re required to wear a mask while riding the bus to the job site, Luke said. Buses also have assigned seating so workers are spread out, she said.
The company has also asked contractors to limit the number of people assigned to each room to two, whenever possible — and contractors must sign agreements to comply with health and safety measures, she said.
When workers receive a positive test result, Luke said they are isolated in a separate room and still receive pay.
One of the state senators Pryde emailed about her concerns was Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet.
Rose said he was primarily worried about ensuring all the workers had been tested. By the time Pryde emailed him, that had happened, he said.
“That’s where it ended,” he said, adding that the federal government provides oversight of employers of migrant workers.
Also, not receiving test results in a timely manner is a nationwide problem, he said.
“I think people should be tested as quickly as possible,” he said.
The other state lawmakers Pryde emailed, Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, and Rep. Mike Marron, R-Danville, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
It’s unclear how many migrant workers have been tested for the coronavirus in Illinois, because the state does not track that data.
At least 100 migrant workers in northern Illinois had tested positive by early July at the Harvard branch of the Community Health Partnership of Illinois, a federally funded health center that provides primary care services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers.
In June, the Community Health Partnership launched state-supported mobile health units aimed at testing migrant workers for COVID-19. As of Aug. 25, 983 farmworkers plus family members have been tested through these mobile clinics, identifying 42 positive cases, said Jina Ramirez, the organization’s director of operations.
Since the pandemic’s start, Community Health Partnership staff have tested nearly 1,700 people for COVID-19, with an overall positivity rate of 14%, said Eleace Sawyers, the group’s CEO.
As of Aug. 17, 28 workers, who were tested through state-supported mobile clinics targeting migrant workers, were still infected, an Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson said.
Since employers are not required to have workers tested for the coronavirus, Sawyers said whether testing happens depends on clinics like hers building relationships with companies, contractors and hotels that house migrant workers, to arrange times and locations for mobile clinics.
Ideally, testing would happen immediately upon arrival of the workers to their housing site, she said, to minimize the spread of the virus among crews as they live, travel and work together in situations where physical distancing can be challenging.
This is why Sawyers said she supports having testing made mandatory for employers.
“To test before entry is a preventive measure,” Sawyers said.
Her clinics have had some difficulty beefing up staff to be able to do as much outreach and testing as they would like. Sawyers said some staff have concerns about the health risks associated with testing a vulnerable population.
In some cases, the clinic staff face challenges getting access to migrant workers.
“Sometimes we don’t get the permission (from companies) to come in,” Sawyers said. “Sometimes even when we get to a location, we are not allowed to test.”
So, she and her staff focus on building partnerships “to make sure everyone understands what our aims are so we can collaborate better.”
This story is part of a reporting partnership between the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and Illinois Public Media.
Sky Chadde is the Midwest Center’s Gannett Agricultural Data Fellow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christine Herman is a reporter at Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter: @CTHerman