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In Florence's Wake, Uncertainty Haunts Migrant Workers

A cow wades in floodwater caused by Hurricane Florence near Fayetteville, North Carolina, Sept. 17, 2018.

Francisco Javier Jaramillo and Victor Chavez should be picking sweet potatoes at a North Carolina farm and sending much-needed money to their families in Mexico.

Instead, Hurricane Florence has forced the migrant workers to evacuate their farm and seek refuge at a school-turned-shelter near the tiny hamlet of Spivey's Corner, where they sleep in school hallways, wait and worry.

"If the sweet potato fields are flooded, we cannot work. If we cannot work, we will be sent home. We will have nothing," said Chavez, 39.

When Florence tore through the Carolinas last week, bringing wave after wave of wind and rain, the storm not only disrupted a harvest but also jeopardized its harvesters.

Known for its fields upon fields of sweet potatoes, tobacco and peanuts, North Carolina's agricultural engine is powered by more than 83,000 migrant workers.

Many come from Mexico and other Latin American countries to toil on restrictive contracts working fields that double as floodplains when the weather sours.

The contracts guarantee a certain number of working hours but that can be nullified if a farmer declares an act of god if, for example, fields are so flooded or hurricane-battered their crop cannot be salvaged. That would mean these workers get sent home without the hours, or money, promised.

A spokeswoman for North Carolina's agriculture department said there are no estimates yet of the extent of crop damage.

At peak harvest in 2016 there were more than 83,000 migrant workers on North Carolina farms, according to the Employment Security Commission.

Workers on an H2A visa for temporary agricultural workers are among the most vulnerable people hit by a hurricane, according to advocates, lawyers and outreach workers who talked with Reuters. They have the least means to cushion the blow and the most to lose.

"H2A workers are very isolated, very vulnerable," said Lariza Garzon, with the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry. "They may not know their rights."

Lee Wicker, deputy director of the 700-farmer North Carolina Growers Association, said maybe decades ago that might have been true but now resources are in place to ensure workers have the supports they need.

A flooded farm is seen during a flight by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter after the passing of Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, over central North Carolina, Sept. 16, 2018.
A flooded farm is seen during a flight by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter after the passing of Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, over central North Carolina, Sept. 16, 2018.

About 20,000 of the workers come to North Carolina every year on H2A visas, which tether them to an employer on whom they rely for housing, transportation and, in many cases, information about the outside world, said Caitlin Ryland, a supervising attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina's farmworker unit.

They are frequently housed in areas close to farmland that can be prone to flooding, Ryland said.

Wicker said that sometimes happens, but said storms like Florence have outsize effects.

For workers like Jaramillo and Chavez, in a precarious labor position and with limited access to outside information, leaving camps for a few days to wait out a storm can be daunting.

Misinformation is rampant: many believe fleeing a storm can get them deported and barred from returning.

If their employer reports them as having abandoned their job, under the terms of the H2A visa it can start the clock ticking on having to leave the United States, Ryland said.

Fleeing for their lives in the face of a storm does not count as abandoning a job, she said, but many workers may not know that.

A spokeswoman for North Carolina's Department of Labor wrote in an email that "the Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau has not received any complaints from migrant workers concerning unsafe housing conditions due to the storm."

Five migrant workers Reuters spoke with at a supermarket outside Clinton, in Sampson County about 35 miles (56 km) east of Fayetteville, had elected to stay in their work camps despite the threats presented by the weather.

Explaining why he stayed, Miguel Hernandez motioned to the cement blocks used to build his barracks in an area under a flash-flood warning - surely they could withstand a storm, he said.

But Luis Alberto, a 25-year-old migrant worker from the Mexican state of Nayarit, was scared for his life when he and four friends decided to go to a shelter several miles away.

Luis Alberto, who asked not to use his last name, regularly sends money home to support his family. What worries him now is what happens next -- if the crop is destroyed, if they cannot get the contracted hours of work they need.

"We want to know what is going to happen to us," he said. "Can we keep working? Will we be sent back to Mexico?"