Each spring, a thousand or more Mexican tomato pickers descend on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to toil in the fields of Lipman Family Farms, enduring long hours stooped over to pluck the plump fruit and then hoisting it on their shoulders onto a waiting truck. An adept worker will fill a 32-pound bucket every two and a half minutes, earning 65 cents for each one.
The region is considered the toughest on the tomato circuit: Heavy rain brings the harvest to a halt for days at a time and can cut into production, a source of anxiety for people eager to maximize their earnings in the United States. The muck ruins shoes and turns moist feet into hamburger.
This year, there is a new and even more difficult working condition: To keep the coronavirus from spreading and jeopardizing the harvest, Lipman has put its crews on lockdown. With few exceptions, they have been ordered to remain either in the camps, where they are housed, or the fields, where they toil.
The restrictions have allowed Lipman’s tomato operations to run smoothly, with a substantially lower caseload than many farms and processing facilities across the country that have wrestled to contain large outbreaks. But they have caused some workers to complain that their worksite has become like a prison.