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British Workers Try Their Hand at an Unfamiliar Job: Berry Picking

LONDON — If this were any other year, Ella Chandler, 19, would be playing cricket almost every day. Zak Oyrzynski, 23, would be looking for a job as a chef in London. Beth Blease, a 24-year-old personal trainer, would be helping her clients get into shape for the summer. Sam Richards, 32, would be behind a desk, working in sales.

But in this pandemic year, these Britons can be found in fields across the country, doing something they probably would not have imagined a few months ago: working as farm laborers, picking berries.

And pretty much enjoying it.

“It’s been really fun, but it’s been tiring and hard work,” said Ms. Chandler, a professional cricket player for a team in New Zealand whose season was cut short. On a recent day, she said, she picked almost 556 pounds of strawberries in about five and a half hours. “It’s quite satisfying,” she said.

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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

She had seen on the news that pickers were needed on British farms because of an expected labor shortage and said she had decided to apply to work on one near her home in Surrey, a county southwest of London.

Besides the chance to make some — though not a lot of — money, the pickers said, it was a good way to meet and talk to people while the country was on lockdown, and prove to themselves they could do something unexpected.

“At least I did something,” said Mr. Oyrzynski, who picks strawberries, too, at the farm where Ms. Chandler works. “I didn’t sit here and do nothing and be a couch potato. I’m proud of myself for doing that.”

The job isn’t glamorous, and the work is hard. A workday starts at 7 a.m., and the income can vary person by person.

“People say you can make a lot of money,” Mr. Oyrzynski said, “but it’s down to the picker.” He said the workers at the farm were paid Britain’s minimum wage — 8.72 pounds, or just below $11, an hour — but could earn more based on how much fruit they picked.

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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

At Hall Hunter, the company that runs the farm, the average weekly pay in 2019 was £414 (almost $520), according to the company’s website.

“A couple of young people dropped out because the pay was not what they expected,” Mr. Oyrzynski said. And while the job started off fun, he said, it was also strict, with rules about how to behave. (Someone was written up for throwing an orange peel in a bush, he said.)

“It’s not the ideal job. It’s not something I would always do,” Mr. Oyrzynski said, but “it kept me busy, and it’s educating me.”

Fruit picking in Britain is traditionally done by seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. Over all, 70,000 to 90,000 seasonal workers are needed to pick all the fruit and vegetables that grow in the country.

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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

Because of travel restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, many of those workers haven’t been able to make the trip, have been delayed or have chosen not to come. By the time the pandemic hit Europe, most of the crops had been planted.

As a result of the looming labor shortage, the government started a “Pick for Britain” campaign in April to attract British workers. Prince Charles released a video in which he said the country needed “pickers who are stickers.”

Among those who signed up was Ms. Blease, a self-employed personal trainer who was unable to find work because of the lockdown. She works nine-hour shifts picking and packing strawberries and asparagus at Claremont Farm in northern England for minimum wage.

The work is rewarding beyond the pay, Ms. Blease said.

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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

“We’re all meant to be outside and growing our own crops and living off the land, and I think we forget that sometimes,” she said. When the pandemic eases, she added, she hopes to own a farm herself where individuals suffering from anxiety, depression or eating disorders can do the same work.

Ms. Richards also works at Claremont Farm. She lost her job as an account manager for a beer company during the pandemic.

“It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked, for the littlest money I’ve ever made, but it’s the happiest I’ve ever been — it’s bizarre,” Ms. Richards said.

“I think going forward I want to work in the outdoors,” she said. “I’ve just decided now that I don’t actually need that much to be happy. Being outdoors is more than enough.”

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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times
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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

Farmers say they have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest in these jobs. They were afraid Britons would stay away from jobs usually performed by overseas workers.

But the placement of workers has its challenges. Desk work this is not: There is reaching, twisting and bending, and the need for good eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills (to avoid tearing the plant when picking a delicate strawberry).

Four-fifths of the people who initially expressed interest drop out before moving to the next stage, such as an interview, according to HOPS Labour Solutions, a recruiter for farm work. Some realized that manual labor was not for them, or their job furlough ended, or the contracts offered by farms were too long.

  • Frequently Asked Questions

    Updated July 7, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

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      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

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      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

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      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

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      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

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