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Following Lawsuit, Agriculture Producer Agrees To Extra Coronavirus Precautions For West Texas Workers

Following a federal lawsuit, Village Farms, a major agriculture company, has agreed to implement additional coronavirus protections for its workers at its facilities in Monahans, Texas. 

Issued by a federal judge in El Paso, the Jan. 15 court agreement outlines several safeguards the company will provide its Monahans workforce, including on-site quarantine housing for workers who are symptomatic but haven’t been tested for the coronavirus as well as transportation to get tested.

The lawsuit was originally filed in November after employee Maria de los Angeles Calzada Navarrete said she approached Village Farms management to ask for a change in their coronavirus policy because “she didn’t feel comfortable at work,” according to Maxwell Dismukes, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, who represented Calzada Navarrete. 

Calzada Navarrete lives in El Paso, but is among the transient workers who live in company housing while working on-site at the Monahans facility. In September, Calzada Navarrete said she was exposed to a roommate  who tested positive for the coronavirus but said Village Farms failed to inform her. 

“She stood up and demanded that change,” said Dismukes. “And she was able to achieve a result that has made things dramatically safer for her and over one hundred of her colleagues.

As agreed upon, the settlement requires Village Farms “to notify any employees when they have been exposed to someone who is known or suspected to have COVID-19.” 

Representatives with the company maintain there was already a policy in place to notify all employees who share housing about confirmed cases.

“We hope that this case will be a beacon for other agricultural employers across the region, across the country to acknowledge that they're obligated to provide reasonably safe housing, to implement certain basic COVID protocols,” said Dismukes.

Other requirements stemming from the court agreement include Village Farms conducting contact tracing, helping employees who are symptomatic or suspected of having COVID get tested, and providing housing for workers who are isolating or quarantining. 

Derin Gemmel, vice president of human resources at Village Farms, said the company had existing coronavirus precautions in place and continues to revisit and update their safety policies. 

“To state we weren't doing very simple things for our employees is an understatement of the efforts that we're putting in place day in and day out,” said Gemmel. 

Since last February, Gemmel said the company has done daily temperature checks at all its facilities spread across the country, held daily “toolbox talks” to go over coronavirus precautions and ensured workers were practicing social distancing

The isolation housing Village Farms must provide to workers at the Monahans facility is something Gemmel said wasn’t done before because of limited housing resources, but was “a really good idea.”

Village Farms will provide COVID-positive workers with housing where “they may be isolated with others who have also tested positive for COVID-19,” as outlined in the court order. 

While the settlement and its requirements are specific to the Monahans facility, Gemmel said Village Farms is working to extend additional protections, like the isolation housing, to its greenhouse sites near Marfa and Fort Davis. 

Gemmel expects the extra housing units will arrive sometime at the beginning of next month but won’t be immediately available. 

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.