After a farmworker in the rural Texas Panhandle died of complications from COVID-19, his family and federal investigators want answers.
By Dana Ullman
September 16, 2020
Editor’s note: Some names in this story have been changed to protect farmworkers from potential reprisal.
On June 30, Marco Antonio Galvan Gomez left his home in Guanajuato, Mexico, on a 1,200-mile journey to a sprawling potato farm in the Texas Panhandle. The breadwinner for his family, Galvan, always easygoing and athletic, was undaunted by the backbreaking labor and months away from home. The 48-year-old missed birthdays, soccer games, and home-cooked meals, but the comparatively high wages for farmworkers in the United States made it all worthwhile. And at the end of each season, he always came back to his wife and daughter.
This year, however, only his ashes returned.
Galvan was one of hundreds of Mexican farmworkers to make the annual trip to Dalhart, a tiny town of 8,300 tucked into the far northwest corner of Texas. Straddling the border of Dallam and Hartley counties, the conservative, predominantly white town is a hub for the Panhandle’s bustling agriculture industry comprising farms, dairies, feedlots, and slaughterhouses. Dalhart lives and dies by the industry’s success, which likewise depends on farmworkers like Galvan. Larsen Farms, where Galvan worked, is one of the biggest potato producers in the nation with operations in at least four states. Larsen potatoes are distributed across the country to brands and retailers including Green Giant, Whole Foods, and Wendy’s.
For eight years, Galvan came to Larsen Farms on an H-2A visa, part of a federal program that allows foreigners to work in the United States on temporary contracts. This year, that meant traveling in the middle of a global pandemic that had already hit the rural Panhandle especially hard. COVID-19 cases surged this spring in Amarillo, about 80 miles south of Dalhart, largely due to outbreaks at regional meatpacking plants. Just east of Hartley, Moore County, home to a JBS slaughterhouse complex, had the highest per capita infection rate in Texas for months. As of Wednesday there have been a combined 357 cases and nine fatalities in Dallam and Hartley counties. Approximately 30 COVID-19 cases have been reported from Larsen, according to the Department of State Health Services’ COVID-19 response team. At least 28 people who worked at nearby farms have also tested positive.
The novel coronavirus shuttered businesses in the Panhandle and across the nation for months, but Galvan and his co-workers were deemed “essential” by the federal government. As a result, they endured perilous working conditions, including close contact with other workers that increased their risk of infection, without adequate protective equipment or other safety precautions, two people interviewed for this story say. Larsen Farms did not respond to detailed questions regarding those allegations and others about working conditions on the farm.
Farmworker advocates are concerned the pandemic exacerbates existing health and safety risks associated with overcrowded housing and shared transportation, increasing the risk of infection and community spread. An outbreak among farmworkers sickened 14 and killed one in Santa Barbara County, California, this summer; a small community composed mostly of agricultural workers in southern Florida’s rich tomato fields has suffered 49 COVID-related deaths. An analysis conducted by the Food and Environment Reporting Network estimates 6,830 COVID-19 cases among farmworkers in 17 states, though that figure is likely an undercount due to sparse reporting and testing.
Larsen Farms employs more than 400 people and annually recruits roughly 100 H-2A workers who live in a constellation of sixteen trailers and bunkhouses nicknamed La Academia—a reference to a popular Mexican “Big Brother”-esque reality TV show. Up to 11 H-2A workers are certified to share one trailer, U.S. Department of Labor documents indicate; during harvest season, overflow workers share motel rooms throughout Dalhart.
Across the country, H-2A workers live in isolated employer-controlled housing and depend upon their employer for transportation to access basic needs such as healthcare and food. Long hours, with only Sundays off, make it difficult to access services during normal business hours. Neither the feds nor state officials have done much to protect agricultural workers before the virus came or as COVID-19 tore through rural communities with limited resources. How many have to die before they do?
Galvan arrived at the 45,000-acre farm on July 2. Though he was hired as a truck driver, Galvan instead was instructed to work in la bodega, the warehouse where potatoes are stored, his family says. According Cesar Nuero, a former Larsen employee, and others, the warehouses were infamous for their temperatures—nicknamed helados or “freezers”—and infested with vermin. “I wasn’t afraid of the mice, I was afraid of the snakes,” Nuero says. “It was so gross. I mean [the potatoes] were cleaned up but we had to go through all that crap.”
There, Galvan worked from sunrise past sunset, without lunch or bathroom breaks, on just a few hours of sleep each night, says Silvia Garcia Rodriguez, Galvan’s wife. Garcia says some of her husband’s co-workers in la bodega were infected with COVID-19; Galvan worried he would catch it.
After 10 days of working in the warehouse, Galvan told his wife on July 12 that he was feeling ill and that he had collapsed at Larsen Farms. He reported having common COVID-19 symptoms: a fever, body aches, a sore throat. The next day, bedridden, he told Garcia he couldn’t possibly go to work.
He returned to work the following day. Galvan was transferred from la bodega to the potato fields, where he was told to hoe. The high temperature that day was 101 degrees. Garcia, speaking by phone through an interpreter, remembers her husband’s exasperation with the heat and hard labor when she spoke to him that day, along with his fear that he would lose his job if he didn’t work. Concerned her husband wouldn’t receive adequate medical care in Texas, Silvia urged him to ask for permission to come home. According to Carlos Apraiz, a co-worker who accompanied Galvan to the farm’s office, they were told that “no one had permission to leave.” Galvan got a ride to a local clinic after his shift but it was too late for testing that day, Garcia says. He returned to the farm with Tylenol and a jug of tea and was ordered to quarantine with two other employees in a trailer. Galvan tested positive for COVID-19 at Dalhart Family Medicine Clinic the next day.
For five days, Galvan depended on his colleagues for food and over-the-counter medicine while in quarantine. He received no medical treatment or follow-up from local health officials, Garcia told the Observer. She spoke to him daily, noting his symptoms: fever, body aches, sore throat, shortness of breath. Soon he lost his appetite and couldn’t sleep.
“I was very worried. He didn’t sound well at all,” Garcia says. She told her husband to let a supervisor know how sick he was. “It’s not worth it,” he responded. “Let me tell you it will be in vain. They don’t give me a pill or anything.” Five days into his quarantine, on July 19, Galvan could hardly breathe or speak when Garcia called, but he was comforted by her voice. “Talk to me, talk to me,” he said. “I need to be listening to you because it gives me strength to continue fighting everything that I’m suffering here.”
It was the last time Garcia spoke to her husband. He died the morning of July 20.
Larsen Farms was already a difficult place to work before the pandemic, seven workers and their families told the Observer. Cesar Nuero, the former Larsen Farms worker, says he and his cousins were routinely harassed and intimidated by supervisors and eventually fired for complaining. He still remembers a child working at Larsen who went without medical attention after a work-related injury until Cesar intervened. “You’re not going to come back next year” was a common threat used by supervisors to keep employees silent, he says.
Rose Gaines, a U.S. citizen previously interviewed by the Observer, says she once took a job at Larsen Farms sorting potatoes, but says she only lasted a few hours before quitting because the managers tirelessly implored her and other workers to toil ever faster. Gaines still has friends who worked there, who complain of constantly changing schedules and a lack of breaks. Other former employees spanning seven years shared similar experiences, including wage theft, injury, and retaliation. In 2015, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid represented Larsen Farms employees in a federal lawsuit against the farm. The case was settled in 2016.
On July 21, a former Larsen Farms supervisor was arrested on federal charges related to labor violations while employed at the company. José Ramón Huaracha Escamilla, the farm manager’s brother, is accused of engaging in a pay-to-play-scheme in which he charged H-2A workers illegal recruitment fees of up to $1,500 for a job. The arrest was made after the U.S. Department Of Labor opened an investigation into allegations of labor trafficking at the farm. Garcia says her husband never paid recruitment fees to work at Larsen, but the family was aware of the situation. Though the company did not respond to Observer questions regarding the allegations, company president Blaine Larsen told Univision that he was “shocked” by them. Larsen said he would sue Huaracha if the allegations proved true.
The reportedly callous attitude Larsen Farms takes toward its workers took center stage after Galvan died.
Shortly after his death, Garcia asked a Larsen supervisor about her husband’s worker’s compensation insurance stated in his contract. (Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, H-2A employers are required to provide workers’ comp.) She says the supervisor told her the insurance plan didn’t pay in cases of death from coronavirus and was only valid for an accident at work or if he required a doctor. But for days Galvan had been ill without medical attention, quarantined on company property. “Why didn’t they use his insurance for medical treatment?” she asked the supervisor.
To add insult to injury, Larsen Farms’ office manager told Galvan’s family the cost of returning his remains would be $2,500 at the family’s expense. In solidarity, Galvan’s co-workers started a Go Fund Me page to raise money. “It could have been any of us,” says Apraiz, Galvan’s coworker and long-time friend. On July 30, Galvan’s niece received an email from Larsen Farms that the company, without explanation, was covering expenses.
A Larsen Farms’ spokesperson expressed doubt that Galvan’s death was related to COVID-19 at all, despite the fact that it was reported as a COVID-19 fatality by the local hospital district on July 21. The spokesperson said Galvan died of a heart attack, suggesting that health officials erroneously attributed the death to the virus. While the immediate cause of death was a heart attack, the underlying causes were respiratory distress, possible blood clot, and COVID-19, according to his death certificate.
Some Larsen workers returned home following Galvan’s death, afraid they would meet a similar fate. “I worked with him in the fields that day and then he was dead,” says Apraiz, who tested positive for COVID-19 and was quarantined but returned to Mexico for medical care.
Current and former workers say at least 36 workers from their states of Guanajuato and Sinaloa, Mexico, were quarantined after testing positive. It’s possible more were infected, but some workers didn’t mention symptoms to avoid being “locked up” in quarantine. And the case numbers at Larsen may be undercounts, since the company reportedly hasn’t offered testing to all employees. Beth Moore, Hartley County’s justice of the peace, confirmed at least one other Larsen employee, along with his wife who did not work on the farm, died of COVID-19 in the spring, before Galvan.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched an investigation into the death on August 7, but only after being contacted by the Observer for this story. The agency was apparently unaware of the death, despite the fact that employers must report a fatality within eight hours. A Larsen employee told the Observer he was fired for speaking with OSHA investigators.
With no clear process for onsite testing, farmworker advocates are concerned this is the tip of the iceberg as harvest season approaches. On August 7, Every Texan, an advocacy group in Austin, emailed Texas legislators, Governor Greg Abbott, the Texas Department of Emergency Management and the Department of State Health Services urging them to do on-site testing at Larsen. Only the office of state Representative John Smithee, a Republican from Amarillo, replied, saying there wasn’t much they could do about it, according to Anne Dunkelberg, Every Texan’s associate director. Smithee’s office did, however, notify local and state authorities of the situation.*
Dunkelberg says farmworkers deserve as much attention as workers in meatpacking plants or hospitals.
In an email, a DSHS spokesperson said the local health authority is investigating the outbreak at Larsen Farms and is conducting contact tracing. No new cases have been identified in more than a month.
A month after he died, Galvan’s ashes were returned home. Her loss finally sank in when Garcia received them at the airport on August 18. “He died so painfully and I carry this pain,” she says. “I had to accept the reality but it also gave me a sense of closure.”
Garcia now hopes the federal investigation and public attention on Galvan’s death leads to widespread COVID-19 testing at Larsen Farms. The family has retained Texas RioGrande Legal Aid to represent them. “I did not have the opportunity to attend to my husband as I would have liked,” Garcia says. “Today, I have the opportunity to fight for justice, and for the people who are there to have a decent job. A job where they are well; they are happy; treated in a humane, fair way.” Something her husband did not experience, she says.
In September, more workers are expected at Larsen Farms.
*Clarification: A clarification was made to indicate that Smithee’s office notified state and local authorities of the situation.
This article was reported with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation. It was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network.