Advocates: There’s still time to save farmworkers from COVID-19

-The Hagstrom Report
The Environmental Working Group has posted an interactive map showing where farm labor is concentrated and the rise in cases of COVID-19 in those areas as of April 21. Red areas have a higher density of cases, and yellow areas have a lower density. Clicking on a county brings up details, including USDA payments for the trade war bailout. Environmental Working Group
Courtesy Environmental Working Group

While some farmworkers have tested positive for COVID-19, there is still time to create conditions to stop most farmworkers from being exposed to the pandemic during the upcoming harvest season, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and farmworker advocates said in a telephone news conference today.

Not enough has been done to protect meat plant and grocery workers, they said, but “maybe there is time to protect farmworkers,” said Scott Faber, the senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, which organized the media call.

Faber noted that EWG has created a map of counties color-coded to indicate the level of 2017 farm labor expenses. They are overlaid with a heat map indicating confirmed COVID-19 cases as of April 21. Red areas have a higher density of cases, and yellow areas have a lower density.

Taking up a frequent EWG theme, Faber said that instead of protecting the workers, the Trump administration “has provided unlimited subsidies” to some of the biggest farmers in the country. EWG’s map compares trade aid payments with the number of farm workers in each county.

Alexis Guild, director of health policy and programs for Farmworker Justice, said, “Farm workers are getting sick from COVID-19 and the worst may be yet to come.”

Guild said his group is getting reports that employers are not following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on workplace practices. She noted that farmworkers often lack access to handwashing facilities and live in crowded conditions in substandard housing.

Because a majority of farmworkers are undocumented they do not have regular access to health care and are ineligible for Medicaid and for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, she added.

In March, when the White House announced that immigration would be limited but that farmworkers would be exempt from the limits, Farmworker Justice wrote administration officials, “The administration must require H-2A employers to accept the responsibilities toward workers which arise from the special exemptions that permit H-2A visa processing and employment during this pandemic.”

Khanna said that the Essential Workers Bill of Rights that he and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have written would guarantee that farmworkers as well as other workers deemed essential get safe working conditions, health care benefits, child care, medical leave and premium pay.

Many people are working from home during the pandemic, but farmworkers, truck drivers and others who “make sure we are being fed” cannot, Khanna said. They should be “treated decently and with dignity” and that “is a responsibility not just of corporations but of all of us,” he added.

If the result is “I don’t have the same selection of all the foods” or having to wait a week for deliveries, “Those inconveniences are not worth putting people’s lives in jeopardy,” he said.

Workers should also have whistleblower protections and the right to organize, he said.

Khanna noted that he and Warren and more than 50 other l members sent their proposal for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urging them to prioritize basic protections in the next coronavirus relief package.

Khanna said he had gotten “a positive reception” from Pelosi’s office, but that expecting the entire bill of rights to be included in the next coronavirus package would be “ambitious.”

Although Congress has been unwilling to provide benefits to undocumented workers, Khanna said, basic worker safety provisions and access to protective equipment may be “an easier lift” because people don’t want the workers getting sick and infecting Americans.

“Basic worker safety is in every American citizen’s self interest,” Khanna said.

If farmworkers get sick, labor costs and food costs will go up, Faber added.

The advocates said, that despite Trump’s executive order to keep meat processing plants open, employers must not be exempt from liability for their workers’ well being.

Company executives can’t have liability protection unless the workplace is safe and “there is no way House Democrats can agree to blanket immunity without it,” Khanna said.

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