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How Decades of Local Activism Led to the Biggest Dam Removal Deal In U.S. History

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“The Klamath River is the center of our traditions, culture and community, and has always been the centerpiece of our way of life,” says Frankie Myers, vice-chairperson for the Yurok Tribe. “We are connected to the salmon in a really deep way, and there is a belief that their existence is our existence.”

The Yurok people have lived in the 15,700 square miles Klamath River Basin, in what is now called Northern California, for millennia. They are among the key organizers in a coalition of Indigenous groups, environmentalists, concerned citizens and commercial fishers that have joined forces in a decades-long movement to Un-dam the Klamath.

The Klamath was once home to the third-largest upstream salmon migrations (or runs) in the United States. Due in large part to the eight dams that were built along the river between the early 1900s and 1962, in what was called the Klamath Project, fish populations have drastically decreased in recent years. In particular spring-run Chinook salmon, which historically showed up in the hundreds of thousands, is on the brink of extinction, with less than 700 fish counted in their 2019 run. An effort is currently underway to designate the fish “as a distinct population and protected under the [U.S.] Endangered Species Act,” according to a report by National Geographic after it was recently discovered that they are a genetically unique species of salmon.

After years of organizing on the part of tribes, environmental groups and other local activists, the states of California and Oregon announced a historic new agreement on November 17 to move forward with the removal of the four dams that block the lower Klamath River. The agreement is between the Yurok and Karuk tribes, as well the electric utility PacifiCorp, which currently owns the four dams, all of which are hydroelectric facilities built without fish passage.

Over the years the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has played a key role in making dam removal a viable reality, and in 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and federal wildlife agencies reinitiated an ongoing process of ESA consultation for the Klamath Project. Because the dams were built without fish passage, they do not comply with the ESA’s requirements, and retrofitting them to comply with the act would not be cost-effective for the utility corporation.

In 2010, PacifiCorp and other stakeholders initially created and signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which together pave a path for removal of the four dams along the lower Klamath River. In 2016, all parties had reached an agreement over dam removal, but that agreement was stalled in July due to a federal regulatory decision. Under the 2020 agreement, however, the states of Oregon and California will take over ownership of the dams during the removal process and are set to apply to remove PacifiCorp from the license in January 2021.

The new dam removal plan hinges on approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and may require a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy consultant who has worked on the Klamath Dam removal effort since 2003, says he is confident the current agreement will hold, and dam removal will be underway within a year or two.

Tucker says he anticipates FERC will issue a draft approval order in March 2021, which will then require an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and an EIS. However, he hopes that since two EISs’ have already been published for this dam removal project and the utility corporation is on board with the removal agreement, the project could be fast-tracked with a supplemental EIS, and with the NEPA analysis being completed in 2021.

Meyers says he also expects the agreement to hold and dam removal to begin in the next couple of years.

“We have the utmost confidence that this was going to come to fruition,” he says. “I say that because of my personal experience working on all these campaigns, and my experience with protesting and activism, after seeing the other fights around this country… At the end of the day, this is still America, right? And in America corporations get what they want. And at this point what this [PacifiCorp] corporation wants is dam removal. We feel very confident it’s going to happen.”

PacifiCorp says in a November press release that it believes the “important agreement with the states of California and Oregon, and the Yurok and Karuk Tribes… will overcome the remaining obstacles to advance the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement and complete the largest dam removal and river restoration project in U.S. history.”

While more than 1,700 dams have been removed in the United States in recent years (90 of them in 2019), the removal of the four Klamath River dams will indeed be the largest dam removal effort in the U.S., as well as the largest salmon restoration project in U.S. history.

As detailed in a recent BBC article by Alexander Matthews, the dam removal and restoration efforts aim to restore 400 stream-miles of habitat for salmon, steelhead trout and other migratory fish. Michael Belchik, the Yurok tribe’s senior fisheries biologist, says in the BBC article that opening up spawning grounds that were previously inaccessible due to the dams will increase genetic diversity and reduce crowding for fish. He also tells BBC that elevated water temperatures—which are a major cause of fish declines—will be reduced as the restoration effort reconnects cold-water springs and tributaries to the larger Klamath River, improving water quality and reducing the risk of toxic algae blooms which have been a major cause for concern along the river. And, cooler water temperatures will help the fish to be resilient in the face of climate change, and free-flowing sediment will help to reduce the habitats for bristle worms that are secondary hosts for C Shasta parasites, which kill salmon, as Belchik explains in the BBC article.

The BBC article also quotes Yurok member Amy Cordalis, according to who the Klamath dam removal and restoration project will be a model for how to approach sustainable river restoration worldwide:

“I think the approach of working together with the company, with states, with tribes, with environmentalists, to reach an agreement that allows these dams to be removed for the tribes and for American citizens to benefit from the restoration of this river in a way that costs less money than it would be to relicense [the dams] – that’s really a model of how you might approach sustainable river restoration across the world,” she says.

Tucker, who has been working on the Klamath dam removal effort since 2003, says a unique set of factors make the restoration of the Klamath River uniquely viable.

“From a biodiversity perspective [the Klamath Basin] is an incredibly valuable place. And, it’s truly restorable in a way that some places aren’t. That’s to say that there are not that many people in the Klamath Basin, there are no real big cities [located there], most of the land is public land, and then you have these permanent stewards of the region that are the tribes, and for those reasons, I think the Klamath has a great chance to really being protected, preserved, restored.”

Guardians of the River

The environmental conservation organization American Rivers, which has been involved with the Klamath dam removal effort for years, recently released the short film “Guardians of the River,” produced by Swiftwater Films. It follows Yurok and Karuk people who live and fish in the Klamath Basin. The 15-minute film details the river’s dwindling health over the last several decades, the toll this has taken on the people who have called the river home for millennia, and their efforts toward renewed food sovereignty.

Dania Rose Colegrove, a member of the Klamath Justice Coalition and Hoopa Tribal member points out in the film that the state of California advises against drinking and swimming in the Klamath River due to the water’s toxicity levels. She says organizing for dam removal is not a choice and adds the 2002 fish kill was the “saddest part” of her life, in the film.

Talking about the obligation of her people to the river in the film, Colegrove says “It’s not because we want to, it’s because we have to.” “It’s an obligation for us to take care of this place, and take care of us.”

Samuel Gensaw, a 26-year-old traditional Yurok fisherman, narrates much of the film. In the film’s opening scene, Gensaw says his “grandpa thought he’d never see the day when he’d catch less than 50 fish when he went fishing.” Now, even with three teams, tribal fisher people are lucky to catch seven.

“Back in the day you did this all year round; you caught fish in the spring, there’s fish in the fall and there’s fish in the summer,” he says in the film. “Nowadays it’s just one time a year that we get a good fish run, and it’s really sad because this fish run is so small there’s not going to be enough fish pulled out of this river to give every tribal member one fish… Without these salmon our way of life is impossible.”

Gensaw is the founder and director of the Ancestral Guard, which is a community organizing network geared toward engaging youth with Yurok cultural values and ancestral knowledge. He has worked as an activist since he was a child, beginning in sixth grade after the local school district shut down the reservation school, forcing native students to travel 45 minutes on a crowded bus to Crescent city for school, where they endured racism from students and teachers. This situation garnered support from the ACLU.

“The ACLU came through and totally tore up that whole system to make the county act right when it comes to the education of Indigenous people,” he says. “They’re still fighting that battle, but it was really empowering to see that and I realized you can actually make a change.”

Gensaw began homeschooling, which provided the chance to connect with his grandmothers and tribal elders. By 10th grade, Gensaw became involved with the Undam the Klamath campaign after meeting Craig Tucker. Over the years he became increasingly interested in getting youth involved with preserving Yurok traditions, and helping them develop connections to the “old school rules” of being on the river and how to “think right” when fishing.

“I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers and luckily I’ve had a lot of elders [who are my] mentors like Archie Thompson, who was one of the last fluent speakers of our [Yurok] language,” he says.

The formation of the Ancestral Guard began with teaching youth about traditional fishing, from boating to treating the fish to making sure elders were fed.

“We did that for about three years until the salmon run population started dwindling,” he says, which was around 2010. “Then we started focusing on activism, asking ‘What can we really do to protect this river?’”

This led to getting more native youth involved with the Undam the Klamath campaign, among other movements to protect the river’s ecosystem as well as Indigenous rights to access the river.

“We fight so hard because we want a whole generation to grow up on a dam-free river,” he says. “We want them to not have to go through the same struggles and traumas that we have had, growing up on a sick river. It takes a lot out of you when you’re taught this place will take care of you for the rest of your life, and then all of a sudden it’s sick. Now it needs you to take care of it. [The river] is like a family member that we have, and the connection to the river is more than a connection. It’s a keystone piece of our existence.”

Gensaw says he never wanted to be an activist but has had to organize out of necessity.

“I never wanted to be involved in this process,” he says. “All I want to do is fish and feed my family. And that’s the same mentality of every fisherman out there. We just want to be able to fish or be able to provide for our families. And we want all the healthy opportunities that come along with living with a healthy river.”

Meyers, vice-chair of the Yurok, has been at the forefront of the effort organizing for dam removal for two decades. He points out that while the dams have destroyed aspects of the Indigenous way of life—contributing to gravely depleted fish populations and making it unsafe to bathe, drink and swim in a river that has been home since time immemorial—the Yurok haven’t even benefited from the electricity generated by the dams.

“For 50 years, the reservations here didn’t have electricity,” he says. “For the vast majority of the time the dams have been destroying our river and our way of life, but we haven’t even been able to get the luxury of electricity.”

He says his own parents, who live in a village along the river basin, just got electricity about five years ago, only because the tribe installed it.

Organizing ‘Undam the Klamath’

In 2002, a devastating event took place on the Klamath, known as the fish kill. Tens of thousands of dead salmon, steelhead and other migratory fish floated on the water. They were killed upon returning to the river to spawn, by disease related to high water temperatures that were likely caused by the culmination of steady habitat degradation created by the dams, water pulled from the river for upstream irrigation of farms and ranches during a drought year, timber sales along stream banks and groundwater withdrawals. The official estimate of mortality by the California Department of Fish and Game was around 34,000 fish, however, they have since reported that that number may have been significantly underestimated, and some estimates are upwards of 70,000.

Meyers says the fish kill took almost 80,000 of the 2002 fall salmon run—and the event likely could have been avoided had the regulators listened to the tribe.

“In 2001 we’d made a case to the Bureau of Reclamation about the importance of river flows to the river, and the importance of adequate flows to species viability,” he says. The bureau at first followed the tribe’s recommendations, releasing water back into the river, but the move caused economic distress for irrigators upstream. In 2002, the Bureau of Reclamation’s policy swung in the opposite direction.

“They augmented our river flows to beyond what we had told them would be catastrophic, and it was catastrophic in that year [2002].”

The fish kill was a call to action for many Indigenous groups in the Klamath Basin.

“It really became clear that we were never going to be able to get our salmon to return [to] any subsistent amount, as long as the dams were [there],” he says. “They cause too many negative impacts to water quality and there is no other way to mitigate that.”

Meyers notes that Indigenous people are not new to activism and organizing, as they’ve had to fight for centuries for most of the rights they have today.

“We had the fish wars in the 60s and 70s; we had the Red Cap War in the 1850s,” he says. “We’ve always been on the river and we’ve always fought for our way of life, we’ve always fought for our salmon and our ability to catch salmon, but it wasn’t until the 2002 fish kill that it became very, very apparent to us that dam removals would have to be necessary for us to continue our way of life. So we began the Undam the Klamath campaign soon after that.”

“We’ve been neighbors with Karuk and Hoopa people for millennia, since time immemorial, so there is some really deep-seated friction between the tribes that play out in all kinds of ways,” he says. “There was this animosity at times between the tribes, but that all was put aside after the fish kill. It was collectively decided… that our past fighting had to be put aside. Whatever problems we had with each other and our governments had to be put aside. This was about our survival as a species here on earth. That night at the river bar, it was all tribal people from the Klamath Basin, and regardless of tribal affiliation, we all started working together because we knew we were in a dire situation. We saw the terrible fish kill together.”

Meyers says the groups also realized the fight ahead would be a long one that would require a systematic shift involving massive hurdles, involving huge corporations and the overarching mentality of resource extraction and the industrial revolution.

“We knew this was going to take more than just consultation, this was going to take more than just government to government negotiations,” he says. “We knew the fight ahead of us was massive, but it was a decision that was made collectively, for the benefit of future generations. This was the fight we had to take up.”

Environmental groups as well as fisheries joined the effort, and over time the coalition-built momentum.

“The years after that really saw a collection of folks within the basin coming together and wanting to work on the solution for all of the communities in the basin,” Meyers says.

In 2006 PacifiCorp’s 50-year license to operate the dams expired, and since then the company has relied on annual licenses. Around 2008, the coalition began to restructure its efforts. They raised funds to hire a reputable firm to do a cost-benefit analysis of dam removal, with the aim to expand the narrative around dam removal from being centered solely on the tribes toward focusing on the financial, fiduciary responsibility of the corporation that owned the dams.

“We changed the message and we fine-tuned it,” Meyers says. “One of the big turning points for the campaign is when [the cost-benefit analysis] came out and we were actually able to show the corporation that at that point [dam removal] was in their financial interest. It sparked a whole other tone for the campaign, where this was not just about tribes, but now this was about the financial and the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation to make sure that their shareholders are getting their best possible return.”

As the Undam the Klamath coalition was able to push the conversation to include a financial and corporate structure debate, Meyers says they began to solidify partnerships and support from within the state governments of California and Oregon.

It has indeed been a long fight. In 2010, Klamath Basin stakeholders, including farmers from the upper basin and fishers from the lower basin, signed two agreements (KBRA and KHSA). In 2014, stakeholders signed the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement(UKBCA). Members of the California and Oregon delegations introduced legislation to Congress hoping to advance the Klamath agreements, but the 2015 U.S. Congress closed without authorizing them. The involved parties amended the KHSA and the 2016 Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement was created. After a federal regulatory decision dismantled that agreement, the states of Oregon and California resolved to make dam removal happen, agreeing to take on liability for the removal process in what is the current dam removal agreement.

“Hats off to Oregon and California for showing some true leadership at a governmental level,” Meyers says.

Tucker says that a coalescence of factors was necessary in order for this campaign to succeed.

“The activism piece is my favorite piece, and it’s the most exciting, sexy piece, but it only works coupled with legal strategy and good science and good policy advocacy,” he says. “We had all of that together. I would make the case that you don’t win by grassroots alone; you don’t win by direct action alone. You have to have these other pieces running in parallel. And that’s something we’ve had, and we’ve managed that because, for one, the tribes have the capacity to bring all of those pieces to the table. And we [have been] very good at coalition-building.”

Tucker says that the partnership between the tribes with commercial salmon fishers and environmental groups has been key.

“That sort of enviro- tribal-labor trinity was one of the winning elements of the campaign,” he says. Tucker notes that it wasn’t so long ago that Indians and commercial fishers were engaged in gunfights along the Klamath over fishing rights at the mouth of the Klamath.

“Commercial salmon fishers were very powerful allies in this battle,” he says. “I was worried that it would be hard to get commercial salmon, fishers, and Indians to work together well but it worked out wonderfully.”

He says the environmental groups involved in the Klamath effort, like American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and California Trout, contributed their prior experience in dam removal as well as nationwide advocacy capabilities.

“These are groups that have a lot of experience removing dams all over the country,” he says. “They brought a lot of that FERC expertise to the table, and helped us raise money. And they have nationwide memberships that we could activate to write letters and petitions.”

Another ingredient in the recipe that has made the Klamath effort successful, he says, is strong leadership.

“We just had some individuals, Frankie Myers being one of them, whose leadership skills and charisma were able to develop meaningful relationships between individuals leading these organizations, and the different constituencies. You have to have some really capable leaders to make stuff happen, and we’ve been blessed with very capable leaders.”

Meyers says the Klamath dam removal agreement marks a significant shift in policy and says the tribes alone could not have brought it about.

“I don’t think any one group or agency has the capacity to get something like this done,” he says. “It really did take a collaborative effort, working with some strategic partners in the NGO world, partners in the environmental conservation world, and also having really strong partners at the state level.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.


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HOW FARMWORKERS IN MICHIGAN ARE FIGHTING FOR LABOR RIGHTS AND RESPECT

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On December 6, 2020, a federal judge heard arguments on a motion to dismiss in Reyes-Trujillo v. Four Star Greenhouse, a case brought by a group of farmworkers alleging wage and hour violations against the greenhouse company where they worked. The case illustrates why a strong Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) joint employment standard is critical to raising labor standards in the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program and providing H-2A farmworkers with a meaningful remedy for labor violations.

The plaintiffs, H-2A agricultural visa holders from México, worked for Four Star Greenhouse, a Michigan corporation that cultivates and sells plants and finished crops. Four Star engaged a farm labor contractor to recruit its workers through the H-2A visa program, which allows employers to recruit foreign nationals to the United States to work in temporary agricultural jobs.

The farm labor contractor acted as the plaintiffs’ employer by applying for their H-2A visas, transporting them to the United States, arranging for them to work at Four Star, and paying them. However, the plaintiffs worked at Four Star’s facility, under Four Star’s supervision, and for Four Star’s benefit. Four Star also arranged for their hire and paid the farm labor contractor a rate for their labor that was based on the plaintiffs’ hourly wage and hours worked.

The farmworkers allege that, while working at Four Star, they endured egregious labor violations, including not being paid for all hours worked and having their work checks bounce. The plaintiffs complained to both Four Star and the farm labor contractor that they had not been paid, after which the contractor allegedly retaliated by orchestrating the arrest and deportation of some of the plaintiffs by federal immigrant agents.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, Farmworker Legal Services, and Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, sued Four Star for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Act (AWPA) based on the wage violations and retaliation they endured.

Four Star filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing, among other things, that it was not the plaintiffs’ employer so was not responsible under the FLSA or the AWPA.

In NELP’s amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs’ opposition to the motion to dismiss, NELP argues that Congress intended for the FLSA and the AWPA to expand accountability for labor violations to companies that insert contractors between themselves and their laborers while maintaining the economic power to prevent FLSA and AWPA violations.

The definition of “employ” in the FLSA and the AWPA—which includes “to suffer or permit to work”—is the broadest definition of employment used in a law. It derives from state child labor laws, which used the “suffer or permit to work” language to reach businesses that used middlemen to illegally hire and supervise children.   

Given this broad definition, it is clear that Congress intended both the FLSA and AWPA to cover businesses that allow work to be done for their benefit and have the power to prevent wage and hour abuses, even if they disclaim responsibility as an employer.  Because Four Star had the power to know about and prevent the egregious violations that the plaintiffs endured, it should be considered the plaintiffs’ employer under the FLSA and AWPA. 

Because Four Star had the power to know about and prevent the egregious violations that the plaintiffs endured, it should be considered the plaintiffs’ employer under the FLSA and AWPA. 

Furthermore, there is endemic exploitation in the H-2A visa program, and this exploitation cannot be curbed unless companies that hire H-2A farmworkers through farm labor contractors are held accountable. Coming from homelands with few job opportunities, H-2A workers—most of whom come from México—often arrive in the United States in serious debt, having paid significant fees and travel costs for the opportunity to work in the United States.  

Companies like Four Star that use farm labor contractors to recruit, transport, and pay H-2A migrant workers exacerbate the workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.  Labor brokers like the farm labor contractor in this case traffic in foreign workers whom they hire out to a variety of different employers.   

The workers are dependent on the farm labor contractors for their housing, food and transportation and on the agricultural operations like Four Star for their jobs and livelihood.  Many farm labor contractors have few assets, which means workers cannot obtain legal recourse from them for violations of their rights. Meanwhile the agricultural operations can attempt to avoid responsibility for their migrant workers’ exploitation by pointing the finger at the farm labor contractor. 

Meanwhile the agricultural operations can attempt to avoid responsibility for their migrant workers’ exploitation by pointing the finger at the farm labor contractor. 

This attempt to deflect responsibility is precisely what is happening in the Four Star case. Holding farm operators like Four Star accountable to their subcontracted workers as an employer will improve FLSA and AWPA compliance in an industry with rampant worker abuse.  

It will incentivize farm operators to hire H-2A visa farmworkers directly, or to choose farm labor contractors with strong compliance records and to set up procedures that detect their contractors’ unlawful labor practices. And it will increase workers’ chances of obtaining a meaningful remedy for violations of their rights.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on December 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Padin joined NELP in 2018 as a senior staff attorney for the Work Structures Portfolio.


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Will the Supreme Court Overrule Farmworker Union Rights?

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Not long before Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed suit against California’s farmworker access rule in federal court on behalf of two companies—Cedar Point Nursery in Siskiyou County and the Fowler Packing Company in Fresno. The foundation is a conservative libertarian group that holds property rights sacred and campaigns against racial equity. It fought hard for the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the high court.

The access regulation, which took effect after the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, allows union organizers to come onto a grower’s property in the morning before work to talk with workers. According to the labor board’s handbook, “The access regulations of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board are meant to insure that farm workers, who often may be contacted only at their work place, have an opportunity to be informed with minimal interruption of working activities.”

The board requires that the union give notice to the employer before taking access, and that organizers not disrupt work. They can talk only for an hour before and after work and during lunch, and can take access for only a total of 120 days during a year.

Growers have always hated the access rule, and many at first refused to obey. Former United Farm Workers organizer Fred Ross Jr. remembers being arrested several times in Santa Maria for taking access. “This was all about power and who had it,” he says. “Growers had it all, and their workers none. They wanted to dominate. For them, workers didn’t even have the right to talk.”

The suit filed by the PLF, Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, attracted more than the predictable support of the California and American Farm Bureaus. Amicus briefs came from a host of right-wing legal bodies, including the Mountain States and Southeastern Legal Foundations, the Pelican and Cato institutes, and even the Republican attorneys general of Oklahoma, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas. The company brief conjured up visions of “stampedes of third-party organizers” and warned, “If such a rule proliferates, property owners throughout much of the nation will see their rights greatly diminished as governments increasingly sanction invasions of their property.”

POLITICAL ATMOSPHERE

Had the political atmosphere in the country not changed in the 40 years since the regulation has been in effect, the suit might never have been filed at all. Agribusiness challenged the access rule from its inception and went all the way to the California Supreme Court, where the growers lost in 1976. In the last decade, however, visions of a liberal U.S. Supreme Court evaporated in the final years of the Obama administration, and Trump’s election led to the appointment of three right-wing justices, giving the court a 6-3 conservative majority.

When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Nov. 13 to hear the growers’ appeal from their loss at the U.S. Court of Appeals, many legal observers became concerned. “State court decisions over state issues used to be respected by the U.S. Supreme Court,” says Jerry Cohen, who helped write the law as the legal director for the UFW. “States’ rights used to be a Republican issue. Now the end product is all that matters.”

That end product is a continued erosion of power for farmworker unions. “Without the rule the union seems to workers like it’s not legitimate, and there really is no right to talk,” Ross says. “Losing it reinforces the growers’ power and control. It’s one more blow to the right to organize.”

The mundane genesis of the current suit was a short strike in Dorris, near the Oregon border, where hundreds of farmworkers migrate from Southern California every year to trim young strawberry plants. In 2015, according to one worker, Jessica Rodriguez, the company paid low wages, had dirty bathrooms and harassed and intimidated workers. They called the United Farm Workers, which sent organizers and filed under the access rule to talk with them on the property. The strike lasted for just a day. At Fowler Packing the union filed for access to talk with an unrelated group of workers, and the company simply refused to let organizers onto the property.

A VITAL TOOL

Over the years the access rule became a valuable tool for organizing workers. Jerry Cohen remembers his discussions with UFW founder Cesar Chavez, during negotiations with then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed the law during his first term in 1975. “Cesar told us to get things that were practical, that could help workers organize,” he recalls. “Where workers are together it’s easier for the union to talk with them.”

The access regulation came into effect at a time when the UFW was strong. The balance of power between workers and growers had shifted, and by the early 1980s more than 40,000 farmworkers had union contracts. To Eliseo Medina, who grew up in a farmworker family and became a leading organizer, “The rule was a very clear example that growers were not all-powerful. It was a huge change. People saw organizers coming onto the properties, and could have a conversation at work about their future. It gave people confidence that change was possible.”

In 1996, when a huge campaign began to organize the strawberry industry in Watsonville, organizers visited picking crews in dozens of fields. They taped butcher paper on the walls of the Porta Potties, and held meetings where strawberry workers wrote down their demands for raising some of the lowest wages in agriculture, for health benefits and an end to discrimination in hiring. Then in field meetings they planned marches to the company offices, where the demands were announced.

In 2015 the access rule was used in McFarland in the San Joaquin Valley, where workers angry over a wage cut went on strike. They called in UFW organizers, who used meetings in the fields during lunch and after work to collect signatures on an election petition. After workers voted overwhelmingly for the union, the blueberry pickers chose a ranch committee and eventually negotiated a contract with Gourmet Trading.

How a Labor Law Evened the Balance of Power in California’s Fields

In the winter of 1976, a year after the Agricultural Labor Relations Act took effect, lettuce cutters at George Arakelian Farms Inc. began organizing a union. The men lived in Mexicali, Mexico, just south of California’s Imperial Valley. Every day they left home at 2 a.m. and walked to the border. After crossing it, the company labor contractor put them into cars. As each clunker was filled, it took off for the Palo Verde Valley, a two-hour drive across the desert.

Union organizers also met the workers at the border and followed the cars. When they all arrived at the fields, however, the crews couldn’t immediately start work. In the winter, water freezes inside the lettuce. If a cutter grabs a head to harvest it, the ice cuts into the leaves and they wilt. Everyone has to wait for the ice to melt, when work can start.

Next to the fields, workers lit fires in 55-gallon drums. In those moments when they stood warming their hands and talking with the organizers, the union at Arakelian Farms began to take form. The laborers asked about the benefit plans, their rights under the new labor law and when they might be able to vote the union in. They set up a ranch committee to make decisions and convince the unconvinced.

When the ice finally melted, they began to cut, almost running down the rows with their knives. Packers followed, tossing boxes of lettuce onto trucks. No one took lunch. When the company filled its daily order, workers jumped into their cars and drove back to the border. They walked home with just with enough time to eat, say hi to their kids, catch a few hours’ sleep, and then wake up again and leave at 2.

Organizing their union this way was possible because of the access regulation, formulated by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. The regulation allowed the organizers to come onto Arakelian’s property in the morning before work to talk with the lettuce cutters. After a few weeks of field meetings, workers and organizers filed a petition for an election, which the union won 139-12.

Like many growers, however, Arakelian refused to negotiate a contract. It took nearly 10 years before the California Supreme Court found Arakelian had violated its obligation to bargain with its workers. Other parts of the law had to be changed to solve that problem, and George Arakelian Farms is no longer in business. The workers have moved on. But from the beginning, the access rule was the tool they, and others like them, used to help even the balance of power with the growers.

When Pacific Legal Foundation argued its case in 2017before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where it ultimately lost, its attorney Wen Fa declared, “The growers have no problem in the union talking with workers. It’s where they talk with the workers. … [There are] plenty of alternative means for the union to talk with workers … All the workers [at Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packing Company] live in houses or hotels. Many have cellphones.”

The ALRA had recognized, however, that it’s harder for farmworkers to organize than for other workers, and set up a much quicker process for gaining union recognition than the National Labor Relations Act did for other workers in 1936. Because farmworkers work only for a season, which can last just weeks, union representation elections take place a week after workers petition for them, and within just 48 hours if there’s a strike.

Growers are required to furnish a list of workers with addresses. “Those lists are notoriously bad, though,” Medina laughs. Most Cedar Point workers actually live hundreds of miles from their seasonal jobs. Addresses in Mexico are very hard to find, and workers on this side of the border often live in isolated colonias scattered over a huge geographical area. “By winning access it was easier to get their addresses so we could visit them, especially those who were afraid to talk in front of the foreman,” Ross explains.

The difficulty of reaching workers outside of work is even greater for a growing segment of the farm labor workforce— those workers brought to the U.S. under temporary H-2A visas. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Labor allowed California growers to fill 23,321 jobs with these contract laborers. “H-2A workers would be even more impacted by losing the access rule,” Medina charges. “They don’t have the legal right to organize — even undocumented workers have more rights than H-2A workers. They’re living in barracks under the growers’ 24-hour control. In Delano growers are taking over whole motels and making them into labor camps.”

The union, however, has used the access rule less frequently over the years. In her defense of it, ALRB chairwoman Victoria Hassid noted that it filed for access at only 62 of the 16,000 agricultural employers in California in 2015. “There is no indication,” she wrote, “that the access regulation poses a significant problem for California farms … petitioners have not actually alleged any negative economic impact on them (or anyone else) resulting from the regulation.”

HISTORY OF RACISM

Pacific Legal Foundation’s Fa made the growers’ root argument in response: “The Constitution forbids government from forcing property owners to allow unwanted strangers onto their property, and there is no exception for union activists.”

In an interview with this author, Fa claimed that growers’ economic losses growing out of the access rule could be “significant,” but couldn’t say specifically what they are. “This case is about property rights,” he said. In his winning defense of the access rule before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Matthew Weiss, deputy attorney general for the ALRB, noted that the effort to knock out the rule simply “privileges private property interests over all others.”

UFW general counsel Mario Martinez says the effort to knock out the access rule is further evidence of a history of racism toward farmworkers.

“The federal government has excluded farmworkers from all labor law protections under the National Labor Relations Act for 85 years,” he charges. “In light of this racially discriminatory exclusion, California granted to agricultural workers important labor protections to balance the historical imbalance of power between farmworkers and growers. A court review of California’s legislation appears to be another attempt to unfairly discriminate.”

The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear arguments in the case early next year and will probably rule by July.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration and the impact of the global economy on workers.


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How much would it cost consumers to give farmworkers a significant raise?

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The increased media coverage of the plight of the more than 2 million farmworkers who pick and help produce our food—and whom the Trump administration has deemed to be “essential” workers for the U.S. economy and infrastructure during the coronavirus pandemic—has highlighted the difficult and often dangerous conditions farmworkers face on the job, as well as their central importance to U.S. food supply chains. For example, photographs and videos of farmworkers picking crops under the smoke- and fire-filled skies of California have been widely shared across the internet, and some data suggest that the number of farmworkers who have tested positive for COVID-19 is rivaled only by meat-processing workers. In addition, around half of farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants and 10% are temporary migrant workers with “nonimmigrant” H-2A visas; those farmworkers have limited labor rights in practice and are vulnerable to wage theft and other abuses due to their immigration status.

Despite the key role they play and the challenges they face, farmworkers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the entire U.S. labor market. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that it would not collect the data on farmworker earnings that are used to determine minimum wages for H-2A workers, which could further reduce farmworker earnings.

This raises the question: How much would it cost to give farmworkers a significant raise in pay, even if it was paid for entirely by consumers? The answer is, not that much. About the price of a couple of 12-packs of beer, a large pizza, or a nice bottle of wine.

The latest data on consumer expenditures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides useful information about consumer spending on fresh fruits and vegetables, which, in conjunction with other data, allow us to calculate roughly how much it would cost to raise wages for farmworkers. (For a detailed analysis of these data, see this blog post at Rural Migration News.) But to calculate this, first we have to see how much a typical household spends on fruits and vegetables every year and the share that goes to farm owners and their farmworker employees.

The BLS data show that expenditures by households (referred to in the data as “consumer units”) in 2019 was $320 on fresh fruits and $295 on fresh vegetables, amounting to $615 a year or $11.80 per week. In addition, households spent an additional $110 on processed fruits and $145 on processed vegetables. Interestingly enough, on average, households spent almost as much on alcoholic beverages ($580) as they did on fresh fruits and vegetables ($615).


Data
 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service show that, on average, farmers receive less than 20% of every retail dollar spent on food, but a slightly higher share of what consumers spend for fresh fruits and vegetables. Figure A shows this share over time for fresh fruits and vegetables: Between 2000 and 2015, farmers received an average 30% of the average retail price of fresh fruits and 26% of the average retail price of fresh vegetables (2015 is the most recent year for which data are available). This means that average consumer expenditures on these items include $173 a year for farmers (0.30 x 320 = $96 + 0.26 x 295 = $77).

Farmers received an average 30% of the retail price of fresh fruit and 26% for fresh vegetables between 2000 and 2015

Farm share of fruit and vegetable retail sales, 2000–2015
DateFruitsVegetables
200026%26%
200128%28%
200229%26%
200328%26%
200425%23%
200528%25%
200630%26%
200730%24%
200827%26%
200928%25%
201029%27%
201133%25%
201236%23%
201335%27%
201435%25%
201538%27%

ChartData

Note: Data for 2015 are the most recent data available from United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Price Spreads from Farm to Consumer [Excel]. Share Tweet Embed Download image

According to studies published by the University of California, Davis, farm labor costs are about a third of farm revenue for fresh fruits and vegetables, meaning that farmworker wages and benefits for fresh fruits and vegetables cost the average household $57 per year (0.33 x $173 = $57). (However, in reality, farm labor costs are less than $57 per year per household because over half of the fresh fruits and one-third of fresh vegetables purchased in the United States are imported.)

To illustrate, that means that farm owners and farmworkers together receive only about one-third of retail spending on fruits and vegetables even though most, and in some cases all, of the work it takes to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables for retail sale takes place on farms (the exact share of the price farmers receive varies slightly by crop). For example, strawberries are picked directly into the containers in which they are sold, and iceberg lettuce is wrapped in the field. Consumers who pay $3 for a pound of strawberries are paying about $1 to the farmer, who pays one-third of that amount to farmworkers, 33 cents. For one pound of iceberg lettuce, which costs about $1.20 on average, farmers receive 40 cents and farmworkers get 13 of those 40 cents.

So, what would it cost to raise the wages of farmworkers? One of the few big wage increases for farmworkers occurred after the Bracero guestworker program ended in 1964. Under the rules of the program, Mexican Braceros were guaranteed a minimum wage of $1.40 an hour at a time when U.S. farmworkers were not covered by the minimum wage. Some farmworkers who picked table grapes were paid $1.40 an hour while working alongside Braceros in 1964, and then were offered $1.25 in 1965, prompting a strike. César Chávez became the leader of the strike and won a 40% wage increase in the first United Farm Workers table grape contract in 1966, raising grape workers’ wages to $1.75 an hour.

What would happen if there were a similar 40% wage increase today and the entire wage increase were passed on to consumers? The average hourly earnings of U.S. field and livestock workers were $14 an hour in 2019; a 40% increase would raise their wages to $19.60 an hour.

For a typical household or consumer unit, a 40% increase in farm labor costs translates into a 4% increase in the retail price of fresh fruits and vegetables (0.30 farm share of retail prices x 0.33 farm labor share of farm revenue = 10%; if farm labor costs rise 40%, retail spending rises 4%). If average farmworker earnings rose by 40%, and the increase were passed on entirely to consumers, average spending on fresh fruits and vegetables for a typical household would rise by $25 per year (4% of $615 = $24.60).

Many farm labor analysts consider a typical year of work for seasonal farmworkers to be about 1,000 hours. A 40% wage increase for seasonal farmworkers would raise their average earnings from $14,000 for 1,000 hours of work to $19,600. Many farmworkers have children at home, so for them, going from earning $14,000 to $19,600 per year would mean going from earning about half of the federal poverty line for a family of four ($25,750 in 2019) to earning about three-fourths of the poverty line. For a farmworker employed year-round for 2,000 hours, earnings would increase from $28,000 per year to $39,200, allowing them to earn far above the poverty line.

Raising wages for farmworkers by 40% could improve the quality of life for farmworkers without significantly increasing household spending on fruits and vegetables. If there were productivity improvements as farmers responded to higher labor costs, households could pay even less than the additional $25 per year for fresh fruits and vegetables.

If average farmworker earnings were doubled (rose by 100%) through increased spending on fresh fruits and vegetables, a typical household would see costs rise by $61.50 per year (10% of $615). That extra $61.50 per year would increase the wages of seasonal farmworkers to $28,000 for 1,000 hours of work, taking them above the poverty line for a family of four.

This blog originally appeared at Economic Policy Institute on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Daniel Costa is an attorney who first joined the Economic Policy Institute in 2010 and was EPI’s director of immigration law and policy research from 2013 to early 2018; he returned to this role in 2019 after serving as the California Attorney General’s senior advisor on immigration and labor.

Philip Martin is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis. He edits Rural Migration News, has served on several federal commissions, and testifies frequently before Congress. He is an award-winning author who works for UN agencies around the world on labor and migration issues. His latest book is Merchants of Labor: Recruiters and International Labor Migration, a pioneering analysis of recruiters in low-skilled labor markets explaining the prominent role of labor intermediaries, from Oxford University Press.


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Foreign Farm Workers Already Face Abusive Conditions. Now Trump Wants to Cut Their Wages.

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Pedro, a laborer from Chiapas, Mexico, worked 13 hours a day picking blueberries on a farm in Clinton, North Carolina. He had no time off, except when it rained.

“We had no Sundays,” Pedro (a pseudonym to protect his identity after he breached his visa agreement) says in Spanish. Working from May to June under the H-2A visa program for guest farmworkers, he saved only $1,500.

According to Pedro, his work conditions and payment violated the contract he signed when he was recruited by a middleman in Mexico. Still, he could not quit his job. The H-2A program requires guest farmworkers to work only for the employer or association that hires them. 

Pedro was entitled to a $12.67 per hour wage with no overtime, according to the H-2A provisions for North Carolina. However, Pedro says he never received more than $425 a week, or about $4.60 per hour.

“They took away our passport as soon as we arrived,” Pedro explains. His employer tried to dissuade Pedro and his workmates from quitting the job. Still, he ran away, leaving his passport behind. 

“Never in my life [have I] worked this hard, not in Mexico City or back in the fields in Chiapas,” Pedro says. Undocumented and with no official identification, Pedro now works at a construction site in Georgia. “All the other guys stayed in the farm,” he says. “They are afraid of being deported. They don’t want to get in trouble.”

Pedro’s story is all too common. The wage provisions in the H-2A program are “routinely” violated, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Farmworker Justice, and, as a recent Center for American Progress report put it, the lack of labor protections for foreign farmworkers like Pedro are already “particularly dangerous.” The H-2A program has led to so much abuse of workers that many liken it to modern-day slavery.

Now, things could get even grimmer, as the Trump administration is proposing to reduce the statutory pay rate for H-2A workers, just months ahead of the presidential elections. 

Workers’ wages are already “extremely low by any measure, even when compared with similarly situated nonfarm workers and workers with the lowest levels of education,” an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report found in April.

Wage cuts

North Carolina is among the top recruiters of H-2A guest workers in the United States. The state, like the rest of the country, has grown increasingly dependent on this labor force. Nationwide, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of H-2A visas approved since 2005, climbing to 258,000 in 2019. Most of these workers are Mexicans or Mexican-Americans. 

The growing reliance on H-2A visa farmworkers is often linked to a shortage of local labor, even among the undocumented population that comprises at least half of the U.S. agricultural workforce. The reality could be more problematic.

H-2A visa holders “are seen by employers as very productive. Employers often say they are better workers than the locals, but it has nothing to do with their performance,” according to Bruce Goldstein, president of the farmworkers’ rights group Farmworker Justice. “It has to do with the fact that the H-2A visa workers are not free.”

Even undocumented workers, who are not necessarily tied contractually to their employers in the same way as H-2A workers, have more legal recourses to obtain compensation if they claim workplace abuse, according to Goldstein. H-2A workers are excluded from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), the main labor law that protects farmworkers. That’s why, he says, H-2A guest workers are “very desirable by employers.”

To satisfy the agriculture industry’s desire for guest workers, the Trump administration, contradicting its anti-immigration stance, relaxed the rules around H-2A hiring and exempted farmworkers from a broad ban on foreign labor during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, the U.S. Department of Labor is considering publishing changes that would recalculate guest workers’ wages. According to Goldstein and to publicly posted information, the changes could come as early as August

Instead of using a labor market survey, the proposal would allow farms to hire workers at an “arbitrarily lower wage rate,” according to Farmworker Justice. In Florida, for example, the $11.71 per hour wage would be cut by $3.15. 

Though Congress could stop these changes, the Republican-led Senate makes this a remote possibility. Another option is taking the administration to court, although the outcome would be far from certain, Goldstein explains.  

“The only rational explanation for lowering the wages of H-2A farmworkers right now is corporate greed and unquestioning subservience to agribusiness on the part of the Trump administration,” according to the EPI report. 

If implemented, the wage cut would come even as farm owners received as much as $23.5 billion in federal aid due to the pandemic.

The new guidelines would mean that workers deemed “essential” and expected to keep working amid the pandemic, would risk their lives for even less money and no mandate for employers to provide them with Covid-19 protections.

Unfree labor

Violations of the H-2A visa holders’ rights are “rampant and systemic,” according to a 2015 Farmworker Justice report. The Department of Labor “frequently approves illegal job terms in the H-2A workers’ contracts,” its findings show.

Five years after the report, the guest workers’ conditions remain unchanged, according to Goldstein. They are similar to the ones under the Bracero Program—through which millions of Mexican farmworkers labored in the US from 1942 to 1964—which was ultimately terminated because of its notorious abuses, including wage theft, according to the report.

Even when employers comply with the contract obligations, H-2A farm laborers are among the nation’s lowest-paid workers. The Covid-19 pandemic has made their jobs even more dangerous

Farm owners are not mandated by the federal government to provide protective equipment or enforce social distancing in often overcrowded and unsanitary housing facilities, despite the risks to foreign workers’ health, according to Anna Jensen, executive director of the nonprofit North Carolina Farmworkers Project. (State guidelines vary across the country.)

It’s not unusual that laborers are only given one option to buy food, regularly overpriced, or that workers cannot receive visitors, says Jensen. It’s also common that the employers do not reimburse H-2A workers for traveling to the U.S., she adds, a practice that is very often illegal.

The violations often start in the hiring process. Two of the former deputy directors of the North Carolina Growers Association, the largest recruiter of H-2A farmworkers in the state, pleaded guilty in 2015 of fraud related to the program. Another infamousNorth Carolinian farmworker recruiter, Craig Stanford Eury Jr., also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

Many H-2A workers, who aspire to return to the U.S. farms in the following seasons, do not mention their mistreatment for fear of being blacklisted by employers. But even if they wanted to, filing complaints “is really difficult,” Jensen says.

The North Carolina Department of Labor operates a complaint hotline, open only from 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, making it “not very accessible” for many migrant workers, according to Jensen. Twelve to 14-hour workdays, six or seven days a week, make filing a claim virtually impossible for guest farmworkers.

“The H-2A is an inherently abusive program,” Goldstein says. It practically assures employers that even workers who do not stand the poor treatment will not complain, even when their passports are taken away, which could be considered an act of slavery or peonage, according to Goldstein. 

If the Trump administration follows through with its plans, workers like Pedro could be forced to labor under these conditions while taking home even less money than they already make.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York.


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Migrant farmworkers are headed north from Florida, afraid of COVID-19 but with little choice

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Florida is hitting one daily high in positive coronavirus tests after another, and now some of the people in the hardest-hit communities are heading out for other states. Not wealthy snowbirds, but migrant farmworkers, who follow growing seasons north for the summer.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which fights for better wages and working conditions for farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, and beyond, has been sounding the alarm for months. The conditions the workers face, “the result of generations of grinding poverty and neglect, will act like a superconductor for the transmission of the coronavirus,” CIW co-founder Greg Asbed wrote in The New York Times in early April. “And if something isn’t done—now—to address their unique vulnerability, the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery in a matter of weeks, if not days.“ That was April. The Florida Department of Health didn’t even start seriously testing these communities until early May.

While the Coalition of Immokalee Workers did what it could by spreading information and working with the growers in its Fair Food Program to help protect workers with things like hand-washing stations and grocery delivery (Doctors Without Borders has been helping with response), it hasn’t been enough to undo the neglect and irresponsible leadership at the government level.

“You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public if you have an outbreak,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week, perhaps seeking to illustrate not only how irresponsible he is, but how vicious and dehumanizing he is as well.

As a result of that failure to lead, farming communities in Florida have alarming rates of COVID-19. Collier County, where Immokalee is, has a positive test rate about double the state level, and, the Times reports, “Lake Worth, a suburban Palm Beach County community of about 39,000 that has a large population of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, has 1,367 confirmed cases, slightly more than St. Petersburg, a city six times larger.”

The danger of the virus and the economic pressure to follow the jobs—low-paying and often abusive though they may be—is weighing heavily on workers. 

”We’re afraid,” Angelina Velásquez, a single mother, told the Times. “But where am I supposed to go? There is no work here.” Other workers are also making the very difficult decision to stay put. “I’m trying to take care of myself—for my wife, for my baby,” one said.

These migrant workers are in a no-win situation they didn’t create. And while it’s a systemic problem, the people who lead and benefit from that system are treating the workers as essentially disposable. This time, that may lead to the coronavirus spreading even further.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Undocumented Farmworkers Are Refusing Covid Tests for Fear of Losing Their Jobs

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As states reopen for business, the coronavirus is exploding among America’s 2.5 million farmworkers, imperiling efforts to contain the spread of the disease and keep food on the shelves just as peak harvest gets underway.

The figures are stark. The number of Covid-19 cases tripled in Lanier County, Ga., after one day of testing farmworkers. All 200 workers on a single farm in Evensville, Tenn., tested positive. Yakima County, Wash., the site of recent farmworker strikes at apple-packing facilities, now boasts the highest per capita infection rate on the West Coast. Among migrant workers in Immokalee, Fla.—who just finished picking tomatoes and are on their way north to harvest other crops—1,000 people are infected.

The growing numbers reflect the lack of safety guidelines for workers who labor shoulder to shoulder in the fields, travel side by side in vans, and sleep by the dozens in bunks and barracks. On June 2, the CDC and OSHA announced recommendations to help protect agricultural workers, following in the footsteps of WashingtonOregon and California. But there is still no nationally coordinated, mandatory response or tracking of the disease among farmworkers. 

The spike in cases is, in part, a result of increased testing. But that points to a new danger emerging that could make outbreaks even harder to contain: Some farmworkers are refusing to be tested for Covid-19.

Eva Galvez is a physician at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, a clinic that serves 52,000 mostly Latino patients in the agricultural regions that cradle Portland, Ore. When the clinic discovered in April that Latinos were testing positive for Covid-19 at twenty times the rate of other patients, Galvez pinpointed farmworker communities as one of the hotspots. So she worked with the Oregon Law Center to secure statewide hygiene and social distancing rules. (The rules are set to expire October 24.) Provisions include  enhancing safety in employer-provided housing, which In These Times has found is fueling outbreaks among farmworkers nationwide. 

But Galvez has other worries now. “Although our clinic has plenty of capacity to test, many people won’t want to be tested,” she says. “Because if they’re positive they can’t go to work.”

“The virus is a scarlet letter,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste (PCUN). The 7,000-member farmworker union is based in Marion County, Ore., which ranks third in the state for coronavirus cases per capita.

“Not only is there no paid leave [if you can’t work], but no job,” Lopez says. “That tells farmworkers they don’t have an incentive to tell people that they are feeling sick. The biggest fear is not necessarily the virus itself; it’s [not] being able to provide for family.” 

It is an undeniable crisis. But America is reaping what it has sown. Decades of anti-immigrant policies will make the coronavirus extraordinarily difficult to contain for a vulnerable population which has been forced deep in the shadows. 

As workers in an industry with few unions, a lack of basic worker protections, and a workforce that is estimated to be at least 48% undocumented immigrants, farmworkers have many reasons to fear losing their jobs. Most lack health insurance, sick leave, unemployment insurance, and legal status, and they support extended families here and abroad on poverty wages. Testing and social distancing guidelines may help prevent illness, but cannot prevent job loss. Personal protection is no substitute for social protections.

Trump administration policies have exacerbated the situation. Irene de Barraicua of Líderes Campesinas, a California-based farmworker organization for women, says some farmworkers are not seeking health care because of the “public charge” rule that threatens to deny green cards to those who rely on public services. H2A workers, who comprise over a quarter million workers whose temporary visas are tied to their employers, could be deported if they lose their jobs. Even the “essential worker” letters that some farmers provided to undocumented workers to show ICE in the hope of preventing arrests during the pandemic have backfired, Irene says.Workers interpreted the letter as a sign that raids would increase.

Now the coronavirus has upended agricultural production in ways that further threaten jobs. 

The Salinas Valley in California is nicknamed “America’s Salad Bowl” for its 1.4 million acres of farmland that grow everything from artichokes to zucchini. But this year lettuce, strawberriescauliflower, and spinach are rotting in fields as agribusinesses unable to pivot from institutional to consumer sales cut their losses by cutting workers.

Sinthia, 40, whose last name is being withheld to protect herself, her family and her job, is from Guanajuato, Mexico, and supports two children, her mother, a quadraplegic sister, and a brother who is deaf, mute and blind. Before Covid-19, Sinthia, who is a member of Líderes Campesinas, packed boxes of broccoli for up to 62 hours a week in Monterey County. Now her hours have been sliced in half. The restaurants and schools that purchased produce from her employer, PGM Packing, are shuttered due to the coronavirus. “There is no market, no place to sell, no orders,” Sinthia says.

One hundred miles to the southeast, it is the workforce that has been halved at a vineyard in Kern County, where Paola, 30, works. Twenty of 40 workers were fired in order to meet social distancing guidelines. “There is more pressure to get the work done now,” Paola says. A former teacher from Sinaloa, Mexico, Paola says her pay is the same but her expenses have increased. Her two school-aged children eat all their meals at home now and she has to support her recently unemployed parents. Out of fear of infecting them, Paola quit her second, night-shift job at a pistachio packing facility when a co-worker tested positive. “It was worrisome, scary, stressful,” Paola says.

“It’s a very desperate situation. They don’t have food. Many are being laid off,” says de Barraicua . “Farmers are deciding to let their crops rot. They’re also letting the workers rot.”

Farmworkers also fear they could be stigmatized by co-workers and that bosses could fire their entire crew, which often includes family and friends from their hometown. 

“We are hearing from advocates that workers would enter ‘death pacts’ where if they become sick they keep it to themselves because the entire camp will shut down,” says Lori Johnson, managing attorney at the farmworker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina. 

Rebeca Velazquez is a former farmworker and an organizer with Mujeres Luchadores Progresistas, an organization for women farmworkers based in Woodburn, Ore. One member, she says, was having a coughing fit at work when the owner of the farm walked by and told her to leave. Her supervisor said she needed to get tested for Covid-19. Two days later he told her not to bother: the entire crew of 30 workers had been laid off because of her. Another woman, Rebeca says, was shunned by co-workers upon returning to the workplace after being very ill with Covid-19. She left to work elsewhere and is keeping her illness a secret out of fear of discrimination.

Luis Jimenez, 38, a dairy worker in Avon, New York, says workers are in a bind. They have been told if they get sick and don’t say anything they will get fired. But if they do say something they may still lose their job. “The [bosses] don’t have a plan if workers get infected,” says Luis. “No plan to quarantine, no plan to feed them, no plan to take them to the hospital.” 

An explosion in cases among vulnerable farmworkers could overwhelm rural healthcare facilities and threaten the national food supply. The thin plastic line now separating workers in the fields is not enough to halt a pandemic or cure a diseased system. Increased protections for workers—including paid sick leave, unemployment compensation, and affordable housing and healthcare—are essential if the spread of Covid-19 is to be curbed.

“We don’t want to be called essential.” Sinthia says. “Show us with proof that we are essential. We need better working conditions, better living conditions, a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Fawcett has reported for Truthout, The Nation and The Progressive.

About the Author: Arun Gupta is author of Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (forthcoming from The New Press).


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The Food Industry’s Next Covid-19 Victims: Migrant Farmworkers

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Outbreaks have begun at farms around the country, thanks in large part to crowded employer-provided housing.

AVON, N.Y.—Luis Jimenez, 35, works 66 hours a week tending hundreds of calves at a dairy in upstate New York. He sends $800 home to his parents and eight siblings in Oaxaca, Mexico, every two weeks. “We want to build a house,” he says by phone. “I want my brothers and sisters to go to college.” A calf lows loudly in the background.

Jimenez is president of Alianza Agricola, an advocacy group led by migrant farmworkers. He says dozens of undocumented farmworkers in his organization are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. “If one guy gets infected, it’s easy to pass to the others because they live in the same house and come in the same car when they go to work,” he says.

The most widespread outbreak in the food system appears to be among meatpacking workers, with 15,800 documented cases linked to 193 plants, as of May 21. Wired magazine says Covid-19 thrives in the plants because of long hours, crowded workstations, “aggressive ventilation systems” and cold temperatures. But outbreaks on farms are increasing, and they disproportionately affect migrant farmworkers—at least 48% of whom are undocumented.

In These Times identified at least 349 coronavirus cases at 13 farm and agricultural sites in four states. According to farmworkers, medical personnel, advocates, lawyers and media reports, the reason lies in shared migrant housing.

Jimenez and other farmworkers live in so-called congregate living settings, also known as labor camps. Growers usually provide housing for migrants, who may travel thousands of miles for jobs. Jimenez says, on one dairy farm, “Six guys live in a small room, in three bunk beds.” It’s not a house, he says. “It’s a room attached to the farm office.”

Coronavirus outbreaks in upstate New York have hit a dairy, a nursery and a 32-acre greenhouse. At the greenhouse, run by Green Empire Farms, half of its 340 workers who tend tomatoes and strawberries tested positive, one of the state’s biggest outbreaks. According to local health officials, the grower-provided housing had four workers to a room and two to a bed in motels.

Farmworkers “are scared they will get infected and die,” Jimenez says. “We don’t have health insurance. We don’t have access to medical service.”

Woodburn is the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in Oregon—and headquarters to Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste, a 7,000-member farmworker union. “Our members work with dozens, sometimes hundreds [of workers], out in the fields, shoulder to shoulder,” says executive director Reyna Lopez, whose parents were migrant farmworkers. “They sometimes live 25 to a house. When one gets it, it spreads like wildfire.”

In central California’s Monterey County, home to the fertile Salinas Valley (with 1.4 million acres of farmland), The Mercury News reports that “unsanitary, overcrowded conditions” in congregate housing are “the perfect recipe for an outbreak.” Farmworkers account for 40% of Monterey County’s 308 confirmed cases as of May 12.

North Carolina has seen outbreaks on five farms with congregate housing. Lori Johnson, managing attorney at the farmworker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina, says migrant farmworkers “are sharing bathrooms, they are sharing kitchens, the number of bathrooms is low.” Under state law, agribusinesses can cram workers into dorms with as little as 50 square feet per person, one shower for every 10 people and one toilet for every 15.

“The likeliness of everyone in a camp contracting Covid-19 is very high,” says Amy Elkins, an outreach worker for advocacy group NC Farmworkers Project. “The majority of our workers live in barracks with up to 120 workers sharing approximately four toilets and four showers.”

In Salem County, N.J., 59 migrant workers tested positive on one farm, where up to 100 male farmworkers reportedly live in dorms. At an orchard with employer-provided housing in Douglas County, Wash., half of the 71 farmworkers tested positive.

Early indications suggest more outbreaks among farmworkers go unreported. Former dairy worker Wilmer Jimenez, 26, organizes workers on dozens of farms in western New York with the Rural and Migrant Ministry. “The health department confirmed three farm outbreaks. … But I spoke to a lot of other farmworkers who were sick,” he says. In Yakima County, Wash., The Seattle Times reports 70 “farm and fruit-packing workers” have tested positive, but the Yakima Health District estimates about 400 total cases among agriculture workers. In May, workers at six fruit processing facilities in the county went on strike after coworkers fell ill with Covid-19, citing more than 200 health and safety violations.

With 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers traveling the United States in the coming months, overcrowded housing may take a serious toll.

“We are some of the most essential workers in the country,” says Sinthia, an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, and one of 60,000 farmworkers who harvest the Salinas Valley during the summer peak. (Sinthia requested anonymity to protect herself, her family and her job.) “Now we have the emotional strain of having to go to work … but always thinking about what will happen with this virus.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Fawcett has reported for Truthout, The Nation and The Progressive.

About the Author: Arun Gupta is author of Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (forthcoming from The New Press).


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Trump deems farmworkers ‘essential’ but not safety rules for them. That could threaten the food supply.

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The Trump administration has deemed the millions of people who are cutting lettuce, picking cherries, packing peaches and otherwise getting food from farm to table to be “essential workers” but is doing little to keep them healthy during the pandemic.

The lack of federal action has left state and industry leaders scrambling to shield their farmworkers from the coronavirus. As harvest season ramps up, farmers across several major produce states have installed more hand-washing stations, instructed workers to keep their distance and provided face masks — but those efforts have been inconsistent and largely voluntary.

Farmworkers have long lived in the shadows of the American economy, an itinerant community that includes low-income citizens, about 250,000 legal guest workers from Mexico and Central America and hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who might travel from farm to farm with the changing harvest seasons. Now, labor advocates are warning that continuing to ignore this vulnerable population not only threatens lives but endangers the food supply.

“We’re very concerned that the worst is yet to come,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group. “With the limited protections that are available, we’re afraid that there’s going to be a substantial increase in Covid-19 cases among farmworkers.”

Goldstein and others have watched a crisis unfold in meatpacking plants, with dozens of facilities shuttered due to outbreaks that have sickened thousands and killed at least 20. But labor conditions on farms are less actively regulated than meat plants, in part because there are far more farms to police and very small farming operations are exempt from certain safety rules.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommended guidelines that cover a range of critical employment sectors, including farm labor. But the Trump administration has not made the guidelines mandatory, as the Department of Labor is empowered to do on an emergency basis. And the CDC has not released recommendations specific to field workers like it did for meatpacking employees as that industry fell into chaos in recent weeks.

Since March, advocates like the United Farm Workers have been urging federal agencies and states to make existing Covid-19 recommendations enforceable and to go further, ensuring benefits like paid sick leave, access to health care and a major revamp of housing standards that would allow for social distancing.

The CDC referred inquiries about workplace requirements to the Labor Department, which said in a statement, “Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time.”

Labor officials have said they have all the enforcement tools necessary to ensure worker safety. Employees can file complaints with the agency if they believe employers are violating the law, kicking off an investigation that can last months.

In addition, officials have said, the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to enforce existing standards such as its safety rules regarding respiratory protection and bloodborne pathogens. But safety advocates have complained that those standards don’t address the risks posed by infectious illnesses like Covid-19, and that undocumented workers won’t feel comfortable making complaints.

American fruit and vegetable growers, who are heavily reliant on migrant and immigrant labor, are taking note of what’s happening in meatpacking and processing plants as they try to avoid a similar catastrophe.

“We have a vested interest in the health and well-being of our workers,” said Chuck Obern, owner of C&B Farms in Clewiston, Fla., who hires more than 200 people each season to tend to a large number of labor-intensive crops, including kale, bok choy and a variety of herbs.

When Obern first learned about the coronavirus spreading in the U.S., his operation started communicating with workers about CDC’s advice on hand-washing and social distancing. He also started sanitizing the bus that transports his crew from field to field every day, a common point where workers are often not able to keep their distance from one another. Obern, like most growers, doesn’t think regulations are needed because the vast majority of farmers will act proactively on their own.

“We would be stupid to not care and not do everything we can to keep our workers as healthy as possible,” Obern said, noting that most farm work is highly skilled and difficult to master. “If Covid did come in and run through our crew, who would pick our crops?”

Relying on growers to voluntarily take precautions doesn’t satisfy advocates for farmworkers, who prefer to see consistent, enforceable standards that all farm operations are required to meet.

“There’s no clear rules that apply to agriculture around social distancing,” said Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, an independent union representing berry workers in northwest Washington state. “It’s been almost two months and there’s been nothing done to protect farmworkers.”

Farms suffer outbreaks

The threat of widespread outbreaks like those that have struck meat plants is not a hypothetical concern. There are already outbreaks involving farmworkers in several states. In New York, one of the largest coronavirus clusters in the state is a greenhouse farm where 169 out of 340 workers have tested positive. In Washington, one large orchard recently revealed that more than 50 of the 70 workers it had tested for Covid-19 tested positive, including many who were asymptomatic. Both the New York and Washington farms began testing workers after some showed symptoms. In North Carolina, a strawberry grower temporarily closed after eight workers tested positive. In Monterey County, Calif., a major berry growing area, nearly one in four coronavirus cases is an agricultural worker, according to local officials.

Most farmworkers live in close quarters, often sleeping in dormitory-style rooms with several bunk beds. They travel from field to field on tightly-packed buses and often stick together for errands like buying groceries or going to the bank.

“It makes it impossible to observe recommendations of social distancing,” said Gerardo Reyes Chavez, an experienced farm worker and organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Immokalee, Fla., an area known as the nation’s tomato capital.

It can also be difficult to maintain CDC’s recommendation of six feet of distance in the fields, depending on which crop is being harvested. Workers who pick tomatoes, for example, usually pick fruit into their own individual buckets and then run their haul to a common collection point, with speed being important since they are paid by the pound.

“You cannot be timing with everyone to see when they are bringing their bucket,” Chavez said. “They are all running.”

“It feels almost laughable,” he said, because the nature of the work does not allow social distancing.

It can be even harder for workers to keep their distance in packing operations, where it’s not uncommon for them to be placed elbow-to-elbow sorting and arranging fresh produce to be shipped out.

Labor advocates are always trying to get policymakers — and consumers — to care more about working conditions on farms, but they say there’s a new layer of urgency with Covid-19 cases now on the rise in rural areas.

“What we are going to see is a food crisis unfolding on top of a pandemic, which is the worst combination,” Chavez said.

A neglected workforce

The lack of standards for farm-worker safety reflects a long history of neglect of the workforce and the country’s inability to come to grips with its reliance on undocumented labor.

About 2.5 million farm workers are employed by farmers and ranchers in the U.S. — and the government estimates that about half are undocumented. About three-quarters are immigrants and most come from Mexico, according to data gathered by the Agriculture Department. They also make very little money: The average total income for an individual farm worker ranges from $15,000 to $17,499.

In recent years, a growing number of agriculture laborers have been H-2A foreign guest workers who have been granted temporary visas to work in seasonal jobs, such as berry or tomato picking. Farmers have increasingly struggled with finding enough workers to bring in harvests — especially as the Trump administration has cracked down on undocumented immigrants — and the industry has relied on the H-2A visa program to ease the persistent labor shortage on farms. In 2019, 242,762 H-2A visas were issued by the Labor Department, an increase of roughly 67 percent since 2008. The vast majority are from Mexico.

When the coronavirus was first spreading throughout the U.S., farmers were deeply worried about not being able to hire H-2A workers because embassies where visa application interviews take place were shut down across the world.

In order to keep the flow of foreign farmworkers steady, the federal government in March eased application requirements and also allowed farmers to hire from the pool of foreign workers currently in the U.S. And the USDA and DOL will publish information about H-2A workers with expiring contracts that may be allowed to transfer to other agriculture employers.

“Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “President Trump knows that these workers are critical to maintaining our food supply and our farmers and ranchers are counting on their ability to work.”

But while the departments that oversee the H-2A program have made it easier for farmers to hire help, the OSHA worker safety watchdog has taken no action to protect the workers by requiring that producers implement emergency safety measures.

Meanwhile, though farmers and ranchers have been major beneficiaries of billions of dollars in aid for lost markets, farmworkers on the front lines have been almost completely left out of any of the coronavirus aid packages.

Major industry groups favor voluntary standards, though some have lobbied the government to help the industry procure personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

In a recent letter to House and Senate leadership, a large coalition of produce industry groups pushed back against accusations that growers haven’t done enough to protect workers, calling them “unfounded.”

“With every stage of the emerging Covid-19 crisis, our industry has worked hard to embrace all public health advice for social distancing, personal and facility hygiene, face coverings and more,” the groups wrote.

But they also expressed some worry about procuring enough PPE for their labor force, noting that “farmers have some reserves of these supplies but as this crisis lingers, we are concerned about the ability to secure supplies in the future.”

Some of the largest produce growers in the country have dramatically changed their operations in recent weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, recognizing it as an existential threat.

But these companies have more resources than most, in some cases going above and beyond CDC guidance. Farmworker advocates at every level are urging state and federal policymakers to be more aggressive and impose enforceable standards to ensure operations of all sizes are keeping their workforces healthy.

“We’re hoping that some agricultural employers that have not yet woken up to the reality are going to realize that their business is in danger if their workers get ill,” Goldstein said.

A patchwork response

Even the most progressive states are struggling to figure out how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among this vulnerable class of workers.

In Washington, which is a major producer of tree fruit like apples and cherries, farmworker unions and advocates sued the state last month to press for mandatory Covid-19 protections.

State officials initially produced fact sheets with suggestions for how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on farms and in packing houses, but advocates criticized the documents as confusing and unenforceable. Labor groups want the guidelines to be legally required, so if workers raise concerns they have clear requirements to point to.

“The agencies aren’t big enough nor do they have resources to be out there protecting workers,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a firm representing farmworker groups in their litigation.

Even though Gov. Jay Inslee has been sympathetic to the farmworkers’concerns, there are no easy answers. It’s not just workplaces but housing, churches, buses and everything in between that present a possible risk for spreading the coronavirus in the agriculture industry.

Since the lawsuit, the state’s labor and health departments have proposed some emergency rules for agriculture aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19, but they have not yet been finalized.

The proposals include a temporary ban on the use of bunk beds in guest worker housing to allow for more distance between laborers, something that agriculture industry groups have strongly pushed back on, arguing that it’s expensive and unworkable.

“They’ve at least taken action here,” Morrison said. “They care, but the feds haven’t done anything.”

The Wenatchee Valley, a large fruit growing hub, is already hosting thousands of H-2A guest workers to help manage its extensive orchards and other farms, but within weeks as many as 20,000 more workers are expected to arrive as the harvest kicks off in earnest, which means worker housing is soon expected to become even more densely populated.

“You have to do something,” said Morrison. “It can’t just be business as usual.”

In Oregon, state agencies have imposed sweeping new requirements on farms, including a temporary ban on the use of bunk beds to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

California, which supplies much of the country’s vegetables, has been the most active in extending assistance to farmworkers, who have been given two weeks of paid sick leave from an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom. State lawmakers are currently debating legislation that would provide laborers with hazard pay, child care help and temporary housing to prevent crowding.

Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation, said that for the most part, farmers in the state have been working hard to ensure there are limited outbreaks, like taking steps to improve housing circumstances.

Some farmers with employees that have tested positive have rented hotel rooms for them to recover in isolation where they receive medical checkups and meals delivered, he said. Other producers are exploring renting additional housing so that workers are not living in such close quarters.

But he said the real trouble starts when shifts end. Labor organizers have had difficulty convincing workers to comply with distancing and sanitizing recommendations, in part because the workers have been hearing mixed messages from the U.S. and Mexican governments about the seriousness of the pandemic.

“In all these little rural communities, life is going on as normal,” he said, which he’s very concerned about, because numerous farmworkers testing positive would create “chaos” for the food system — potentially leading to higher prices and shortages at grocery stores.

‘Our well-being is tied together’

The recent havoc in the meat sector stands as a cautionary tale, farm industry leaders say.

The meat business has been upended. Nearly 50 percent of the nation’s pork production has dropped off due to dozens of major processing plants shutting down. Beef and chicken processing is also way down as plants shutter or slow down output as more workers fall ill. Industry experts say those closures, which have led to meat shortages, could have been avoided if the federal government had a plan in place before the virus spread.

“An outbreak can have devastating consequences on the average consumer’s life in the United States,” Hernandez said. At the supermarket, shortages could emerge very quickly from disruptions to the farm economy because workers have only a short window to harvest, package and ship perishable produce.

Without consistent requirements or standards to protect frontline workers, the extent to which growers are enacting Covid-19 protections depends on the leadership and resources of each business.

Larger produce companies have posted videos online to tout their prevention programs. In California’s Salinas Valley, known as America’s Salad Bowl, Taylor Farms, one of the largest leafy greens growers in the country, said it’s taking the temperatures of employees before they start their shifts. The company said it also redesigned how its lettuce harvest crews work so laborers can maintain a distance instead of working in close proximity like they normally would.

In Florida, protections vary considerably operation to operation. At behemoths like Lipman Produce, for example, one of the country’s largest growers of tomatoes, field workers have been spaced out and had their breaks staggered to avoid congregating. There are now more buses transporting workers so they can maintain social distancing as they’re shuttled between harvest locations. The company has even started providing food in some cases so workers can avoid the grocery store.

But not all growers have gone to such lengths, and farmworker advocates have been vocal in calling for enforceable standards and far more resources.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, one of the best-organized farm worker groups in the country, for example, has repeatedly asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to set up a field hospital in Immokalee since that community does not have one.

State officials have so far not complied, arguing that hospitals in nearby cities are currently able to handle cases in the area and that other preventative measures have been taken. The state did eventually respond to the group’s request for more testing in the area. Last week, the Florida Department of Health and the Florida National Guard opened up a testing site in Immokalee. People began lining up two hours before the site opened, according to local press reports. Results are not yet available.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is asking state officials to provide any positive workers with space for isolation, health care and contact tracing to stem the spread in the community.

Farmworker advocates said they will continue to urge policymakers to pay much more attention to front line field workers. They argue that these individuals should be seen as just as essential as nurses or delivery workers, who have been much more broadly recognized for their contributions during the pandemic.

“That’s one thing that many people don’t realize: Our well-being is tied together,” said Chavez, a farmworker leader with CIW. “If we don’t have food, then there is no way in which anything else can function.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Helena Bottemiller Evich is a senior food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining POLITICO, Helena spent four years reporting on food politics and policy at Food Safety News, where she covered Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About the Author: Liz Crampton is an agriculture and food policy reporter for POLITICO Pro. Her coverage focuses on conservation, pesticides and agribusiness. Before joining POLITICO, Liz covered antitrust enforcement for Bloomberg BNA, reporting on mergers and investigations by the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission. She launched a weekly blog, Fair Play, that explored hot topics on the beat.


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Climate change is taking a severe toll on Florida farmworkers, new study shows

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Climate change is taking a heavy toll on farmworkers in Florida, where new research indicates excessive heat stress is increasingly becoming a public health problem with severe human rights and economic implications for the state.

A new report released Tuesday by the non-profit organization Public Citizen, along with the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) and a researcher at Emory University, corroborates what advocates have argued for years: that climate change is impacting farmworkers in Florida.

An analysis of temperature data for all of the state’s 67 counties between May 1 and September 30, 2018, found that workers across Florida were exposed to dangerous levels of heat — temperatures above 82.4°F for moderate work and 78.8°F and 77°F for heavy and very heavy work respectively. Long-term exposure to high temperatures can spark fatigue and nausea, along with heat stroke, dehydration, and over a prolonged period, organ failure.

This temperature assessment was then combined with a study from Emory which had 250 Florida workers wear special equipment while working in order to study their reactions to heat. Blood and urine samples were also collected as part of the study, which ultimately found that four out of five workers were exceeding 100.4°F in body temperature on at least one day during the study, increasing their susceptibility to heat illness.

Entitled “Unworkable,” the final report serves as a dire warning in a state where heat-related hospitalizations are already among the highest in the country. Outdoor workers across a number of sectors, including farming and construction, are already disproportionately vulnerable to high temperatures and shifting climate, something they say global warming will only worsen.

“The price we pay for our food exacts a price too high for the [people] who harvest it,” said Jeannie Economos, a pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator with FWAF.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire assessment that found that the world only has around 12 years left before crossing over a dangerous global warming threshold. The panel indicated such a move could be catastrophic. Meanwhile, climate scientists have long worried that warming trends are disproportionately harming vulnerable communities, including laborers like farmworkers.

On a call with reporters on Tuesday, Economos and other advocates and experts spoke about the increasing risks climate change is posing to Florida’s farmworkers. 

Advocates hope the report on Florida farmworkers released this week will open up new conversations about the impacts of climate change. In addition to imperiling human rights, experts stressed on Tuesday that warming weather is also becoming a public health crisis.

“[It is] important that we recognize that climate change is affecting our health now,” said Dr. Cheryl Holder, the interim president of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action.

Doctors in states like Florida are increasingly seeing a spike in workers suffering from heat-related illnesses, sometimes when it’s too late to prevent life-altering problems. Typically low-income, and oftentimes undocumented, farmworkers have been known to put off seeking treatment for their symptoms. This can lead to kidney failure following prolonged periods of heat exposure and dehydration, at which point they typically need dialysis.

“If someone ends up on dialysis in this country regardless of your income status, you will be covered, and that’s quite a lot of dollars that we will be paying [in Florida],” said Holder, nodding to the economic implications, while also emphasizing the groups most likely to suffer amid warming temperatures.

“The most vulnerable [to climate change] are children, elderly, [and] poor people,” she said.

Farmworkers themselves are aware of what is happening, Economos said. “You talk to farmworkers and they know it’s getting hotter; they feel it, they’re worried,” she explained.

This week’s report follows a July plea from 130 organizations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take action and provide protections for farm and construction workers.

At that time, David Arkush, managing director for Public Citizen’s climate program, told ThinkProgress that efforts to protect outdoor workers have long been a point of concern for advocates, but that increasingly dire climate warnings have injected such efforts with a new sense of urgency.

“Looking at the string of heat records, looking at the projections for the future… we think that we need to protect workers as temperatures rise,” said Arkush. “Even in the best case scenario, even if we manage to halt all greenhouse gases tomorrow, the problem of heat stress is only getting worse. But also we think that the problem of heat stress is a great way to raise public awareness in the United States about climate change.”

No laws, in Florida or nationally, currently protect farmworkers from heat stress. Advocates have called on OSHA to offer work breaks in the shade coupled with hydration opportunities.

But even those asks have their downsides. At the time of the July plea to OSHA, advocates told ThinkProgress they had concerns that workers would need more than just breaks and water to prevent heat exposure impacts. Many earn their income by piece — according to how much they pick, collect, or harvest — as opposed to hourly, meaning that any breaks (including to use the bathroom after drinking water) directly hit their income.

Issues like labor and immigration have long dominated the community, with many farmworkers engaging in activism over the years in an effort to protect themselves. Now they are organizing around climate change, but many have found the endeavor frustrating.

In August, ThinkProgress reported from Florida on the disillusionment farmworkers feel with lawmakers in the state, many of whom, they say, are slow to act on climate change. Global warming has emerged as a leading issue in the state’s midterm election cycle, which has been dominated by environmental issues even as a number of conservative candidates — including gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis — have attempted to downplay climate change while emphasizing their green bonafides.

That approach is becoming increasingly unsustainable in low-lying Florida, as sea-level rise and hurricanes become ever-more pressing issues. On Tuesday, advocates reiterated that action to help farmworkers is needed, urgently, along with an effort to mitigate the crisis they are facing.

“This is an issue, we need to look at all aspects of this,” said Economos. “But most importantly we need to protect people…[and] to recognize climate change.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 31, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. Crunden is a reporter at ThinkProgress focused on environmental and world issues, as well as immigration and social justice in the U.S. South and Appalachia.


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