Friday, May 8: Borders and bonds

The Post-Standard is focusing on the Green Empire Farms coronavirus outbreak today, and examines just who was working at the exceedingly spacious Canadian-owned plant, and where they came from. Although the company employs many local Central New Yorkers who make $13 an hour, more than half are migrant workers under contract from MAC, an Indiana firm. These are the ones who were living allegedly four to a room in area motels, an arrangement made by the labor contracting firm, who takes money out of their paychecks to pay for the housing.

Cris Schultz, a MAC employee in Indiana, disputed the county’s account in an interview Thursday with She said the workers never stayed more than three to a room. She said the workers pay for some of the housing out of their paychecks, but she would not say how much. She disputed that the workers’ living arrangements made them ill… She declined to say how MAC helped the workers follow social distancing when they were on the buses or at the hotels. County officials said that, after prodding, MAC spaced the workers out on the buses and vans and began wiping down the vehicles several times a day. Schultz would not say how many workers were sick with symptoms from the virus. At one point in she said “enough” were sick; then she said none were ill. County officials said two of the workers are hospitalized. “I am worried about them, their health,” Schultz said. Then she hung up.

As reported elsewhere, the usual ugly grumblings about “illegals” have cropped up, despite these migrant workers being (probably) documented. At least local officials have gotten out in front of this talk. In other parts of the state, it’s like there isn’t even a pandemic going on and it’s just business as usual for the same old MAGA wankery. Here’s a screenshot of the Lockport paper’s website this morning. Clearly they believe their readers, cooped up and out of work, are desperately concerned with far more pressing matters.

But back to Green Empire Farms. The problem really isn’t the migrant workers — who fill a critical space that most American workers won’t enter — but the foreigners that Central New York is actually doing business with. We have a Canadian company contracting with an Indiana firm to bring these workers in. While being Canadian doesn’t automatically make a business pure of heart and motive, it’s a lot easier to suspect what Indiana business values might be. Governor Cuomo and the other Northeastern governors recently made a pact to do business with each other in the PPE trade. Why then are we bringing in potentially labor-abusive firms from deep red states to do business in Central New York? There’s a very real possibility that their red-state values have had a negative impact on our region’s public health (and our business, since we’re currently struggling to meet metrics in order to reopen).

As a local Republican maxim says, “It’s easier to regulate businesses than people.” (I will never let go of that quote, sorry.) This is why no local leader (that I know of) has shown much of a stomach for siccing the police dogs on anyone not wearing a mask (well, maybe that’s just an upstate thing). Part of the local plan for restarting has to do with making sure local businesses absolutely comply with measures designed to protect public health. The Green Empire Farms situation plainly shows that who you do business with, matters. And foreign businesses (including from foreign states) that don’t conform to regional values should be made to conform, or else run out of town on a rail.

One of the revelatory aspects of the COVID crisis has been how problematic our national and internal borders are when it comes to preventing the spread of disease, and also laying down policies to restart local and state economies. National borders can be quickly shut, causing problems; state borders are weak and porous, also causing problems. The North Country and Western NY are feeling the pinch of less cross-border commerce, while the Southern Tier is nervously watching what Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier counties are doing, having no control over what local PA officials allow and having no power to shut the state border. (And of course, New York City is a gateway to the world, which was the unavoidable source of all our trouble.)

Central New York, however, is in a unique position in this oddly shaped state. With neither international nor state borders to worry about, in a time of near-complete national economic shutdown, it is well placed (literally) among the state’s regions to lay the groundwork for its economy in a more controlled, locally decided fashion. (This is also true of other similarly situated regions such as the Mohawk Valley or parts of the Finger Lakes or so-called Southern Tier ESDC regions.)

That groundwork ought to include a committed rethinking of what sort of community, business and human bonds that we value, and that we want to emphasize as we search for our own recovery. We can and should begin wherever the opportunities present themselves. The future is now.