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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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Facing rising temperatures and pollution, farmworkers are being left behind by Florida lawmakers

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APOPKA, FLORIDA — An election is happening on Tuesday, but Florida’s farmworkers seem largely underwhelmed.

“I don’t think they care, to tell the truth, I really don’t think they care,” says Linda Lee as she sits in front of her small house near the sprawling Lake Apopka, just northwest of Orlando.

A former farmworker and vocal activist, the 66-year-old grandmother is hardly an apathetic presence. What happens in the state’s capital, Tallahassee — and in the nation’s further north in Washington D.C. — impacts Lee’s family and life. But years of silence from lawmakers have taught farmworkers in this area that if they want things to change, they’ll have to be the ones to drive the conversation.

For decades, farmworkers in the Sunshine State have waged war — against pollution and pesticides, against hardline immigration laws, against low wages. Now, amid warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns, they are increasingly turning their attention to climate change. And they plan to address the issue with or without the willing cooperation of lawmakers.

Orlando, the metropolis neighboring Apopka, is home to the sprawling tourist attraction Disney World. Where Orlando offers glitter and glam for millions of visitors every year, the area surrounding Lake Apopka is a study in contrasts. The area is traditionally home to farming country, with an emphasis on the citrus so often associated with Florida.

That claim to fame has a tragic coda. Pesticides associated with agriculture have contributed to making Lake Apopka one of the state’s leading cautionary tales. Pollution in the lake is overwhelming. Once a fisherman’s paradise, the area is now infamous for the deformities alligators and other animals have developed thanks to exposure to insecticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

What has happened to Lake Apopka’s wildlife is well-known, but the trauma haunting the area’s residents has largely been glossed over.

Exposure to pesticides has plagued Apopka’s farmworkers for generations, something people like Linda Lee know well. Lee lost both a daughter and a granddaughter to the inflammatory disease lupus, something she believes is likely the result of their proximity to pesticides in the area.

Their deaths have haunted her, but she remains committed to fighting for her community and for herself. These days, that means broadening the conversations farmworkers have about issues like pesticides, or the hardline anti-immigration policies that directly impact undocumented workers.

“We can’t stop God, for one thing,” Lee says, referring to climate change. “But I think that people, especially the people sitting up in Washington, they need to do more.”

Farmworkers have long been among the most vulnerable people in the United States, largely cut out of labor protections and provided few rights under the law. Most are Black and Latinx, many are immigrants, and virtually all are low-income. Their vulnerable status has often seen them left out of conversations surrounding issues like climate change.

That’s something people like Jeannie Economos want to change. Economos works with the Farmworker Association of Florida, or FWAF, an organization that has fought to protect the state’s farmworkers and advocate for them.

Much of her work with FWAF has been focused on “health and safety” concerns relating to pesticides, Economos says, but that’s changing.

“For the past few years,” she continues, “with the changing climate and hotter temperatures, we’ve been more concerned about [the] impact of heat stress.”

In July, FWAF joined a coalition of 130 organizations calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require employers to protect workers from the heat. Mandatory rest breaks, access to shade, and frequent hydration are among the demands included in a petition sent to the agency.

According to the petition’s analysis, heat has killed more than 780 workers across the country between 1992 and 2016, and seriously injured nearly 70,000. With climate change, heat stress is likely to get worse and put more people at risk.

Economos says joining the OSHA petition was a “no-brainer” for FWAF, but she emphasized that for local activists, the effort is only one part of a larger fight.

“We’re really concerned about the effects of both climate change and heat, in many ways, in Florida,” she says. “We’re concerned about the acute and immediate impacts of heat, the long-term impact of heat-exposure and chronic dehydration, [that it could] shorten a person’s work years and possible their life.”

But the sun isn’t the only problem. Climate change is also warming waters off of Florida’s coast, something that scientists say is exacerbating the intensity of hurricanes. And when those hurricanes hit, they destroy property along with agriculture, a dual blow for farmworkers.

“Hurricane Irma did a lot of damage to the crops in Florida,” Economos says, pointing to the major storm that hit the state last fall. “A lot [of areas] had damage, a lot of rental homes were impacted. And farmworkers, living in trailers, even if [the trailers] were damaged, they had to pay rent. The crop was also damaged. They had no work and they had to pay rent.”

Talking about climate change doesn’t mean advocates are abandoning their focus on other issues. But global warming is becoming a major focus of groups like FWAF. And they’re not alone — in the midst of a heated election year, climate issues have taken center-stage in Florida, with sea-level rise and a toxic algae bloom crisis emerging as major themes, along with long-standing points of contention like offshore drilling.

Whatever way the wind blows on Tuesday during Florida’s primary elections, Apopka area residents like Lee say they are ready to hold lawmakers accountable to the farmworkers they have long ignored.

“When they get in office, they close and lock their doors. You call them on the telephone, [their assistants say] they’re in Washington, they’re in Tallahassee, they’re never where you need them to be until it’s time to vote,” says Lee.

She smirks. “And it’s coming time to vote.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 27, 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. Texpat. She/her, they/them, or no pronouns. Get in touch: [email protected]


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Environmental groups sue EPA for failing to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure

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The delay also prevents the agency from setting an age requirement prohibiting young farmworkers from applying such pesticides.

The lawsuit argues that the Trump administration’s decision to postpone the effective date for implementation of the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule could lead to adverse harmful health issues for farmworkers and other people. That revised CPA rule–originally published on January 4 with an implementation date of March 6–would have, in part, imposed strict standards that require pesticide applicators to be at least 18 years old, be able to read and write, and establish an annual applicator safety training. Currently, there is no minimum age limit for the roughly one million certified applicators nationwide.

The lawsuit also states that the EPA failed to provide the public “adequate notice” to comment on rules to delay the effective date of implementation; failed to consider the adverse effects the delay would cause to farmworkers and their families regularly exposed to restricted use pesticides; and failed to consult with other government agencies to review environmental health consequences.

The CPA training would provide in-language lessons for people on the potential dangers of pesticide exposure, how to use equipment properly, how to prevent environmental contamination like runoff and drift, and how to report pesticide safety violations to enforcement agencies. The rule would also require training for aerial spray applications, so applicators would lessen the impact of the off-target movement of pesticides on plants, animals, and bystanders. A 2008 longitudinal government study found anywhere between 37 percent and 68 percent of acute pesticide-related illnesses are caused by pesticide drift into local communities.

Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed a decision to ban the restricted-use insecticide chlorpyrifos primarily used to systemically kill pests on agricultural crops. At the time, Pruitt’s agency rejected calls to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, claiming “the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved.”

Pruitt’s agency also put industry economic interests ahead of farmworker health safety, arguing that the continued use of chlorpyrifos would provide “regulatory certainty” for thousands of farms reliant on the pesticide and that more research was needed. His decision superseded the scientific recommendation made by the Obama administration supporting a gradual ban of chlorpyrifos. Past scientific research found a correlation between the pesticide and human health problems for farmworkers and children.

A 2012 Columbia University study found links between chlorpyrifos exposure and brain development and cognition issues in children and fetuses, even at exposure levels below the EPA threshold for toxicity. The EPA also found adverse risks among threatened and endangered species due to the pesticide.

The latest lawsuit comes days after seven states and several health and labor organizations directly challenged Pruitt’s decision, arguing that the EPA violated the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which requires the protection of infants and children from harm by pesticides in food, water, and exposure to indoor pesticides.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the advocacy groups Farmworker Association of Florida, United Farm Workers, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and Pesticide Action Network North America.

Health and labor organizations, represented by the advocacy groups EarthJustice and Farmworker Justice, have strongly pressured the EPA to act on implementing the rule.

“EPA’s mission is to protect all Americans from significant risks to human health and yet it’s delaying life-saving information and training for the workers who handle the most toxic pesticides in the country,” Eve C. Gartner, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement. “This delay jeopardizes everyone’s health and safety.”

In December 2016, the EPA said the rule could prevent upwards of 1,000 acute illnesses every year. Farmworkers–especially the two million immigrant farmworker labor force?–?are at the greatest risk of health problems because they’re most directly exposed to insecticides. Applicators mix and apply pesticides and can be exposed because of spills, splashes, defective, missing, or inadequate protective equipment, direct spray, or drift, according to Farmworker Justice. Farmworker families are also at risk because farmworkers bring home pesticides in the form of residue on their hair, skin, and clothing, or when pesticides drift into homes and schools near fields.

Immigrant farmworkers in particular are the least likely to receive health treatments or to file complaints because of fear of retaliation by employers. In one case, a woman whose fingernails turned black and skin peeled off her hands and face after pesticide exposure in Florida went to the doctor and didn’t file a complaint because she feared retaliation on her and her undocumented husband, the Palm Beach Post reported in 2003. In a 10-year period, less than eight percent of 4,609 violations of pesticide regulations in Florida resulted in fines, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And in May, several sick farmworkers in California left the scene when chlorpyrifos drifted into their field because they were likely afraid to confront medical members who could turn them into federal immigration authorities.

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress on June 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Esther Yu Hsi Lee is an immigration reporter at ThinkProgress interested in migration and refugees. Contact her at [email protected]


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Overtime for farmworkers passes California legislature, heads to governor’s desk

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LauraClawson

The California legislature has passed a bill that would give farmworkers the same overtime protections as other workers. Now the question is whether Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not taken a position on the proposal, will sign the expansion from the state’s current law, which requires employers to pay time-and-a-half after farmworkers put in 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week. Other workers get, and farmworkers stand to get, overtime pay after eight hours in a day or 40 in a week.

 
Getting this bill passed required serious legislative maneuvering by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez:

The Assembly rejected the proposal in June, when eight Democrats opposed it and another six refused to vote. In what Gonzalez has described as an unprecedented move to revive the bill, she worked around the Legislature’s rules and reinserted the proposal in another bill, angering Republicans who objected to the breach in procedure.

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Gonzalez waged a social media campaign to pressure her Democratic colleagues to back AB1066; agreed to compromises to win votes, including giving small farms an extra three years to pay more overtime; and led a squad of Democratic allies in a 24-hour fast paying homage to the weeks long fast that legendary farmworker activist Cesar Chavez staged when the “Salad Bowl” strike of 1970 initially failed.

 

 

Federal law excludes agricultural workers from overtime protections, so California is already ahead—but these workers deserve the same protections and rights as everyone else.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on August 24, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.


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Supreme Court’s E-Verify Decision Devastating for Employers, Immigrant Workers

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kari-lydersenImmigrants rights advocates and employers, including farmers, are lashing out at the Supreme Court’s May 26 decision upholding Arizona’s right to demand employers use the controversial e-Verify system, which is meant to confirm whether someone is in the country legally.

The decision also allowed Arizona to continue the so-called “business death penalty,” which entails denying a business license to employers found guilty more than once of violating a 2007 law against hiring undocumented workers.

The e-Verify system has been widely criticized for errors, including flagging legal and native-born residents as undocumented. That’s among the reasons Illinois sought to ban its use by private employers. A federal court shot down those efforts, but the Illinois legislature did pass a state law trying to safeguard against the misuse of the system.

All employers with federal contracts are required to use E-Verify, and Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith is among those pushing to make it mandatory nationally.

Immigrants rights groups are allied with employers – even those that they allege exploit undocumented immigrants – in stridently opposing mandatory e-Verify use. The Supreme Court decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Commerce opposing Arizona’s law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups also sued unsuccessfully over the mandate that E-Verify be used by federal contractors. Florida has proposed a bill similar to Arizona’s regarding E-Verify. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposes it.

Agricultural employers and immigrants rights groups point out that the nation’s guest worker program and overall immigration system are so badly broken that agricultural growers will simply not be able to find the needed employees especially during harvest times if they really are barred from hiring undocumented workers.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the group America’s Voice Education Fund, said in a press release:

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling is a dagger in the heart of Arizona agriculture.  If this type of law spreads nationwide, we will essentially deport the entire agriculture industry—including jobs held by Americans—and be forced to import more of our nation’s food supply. Passing a mandatory E-Verify law without comprehensive immigration reform will kill American jobs and farms, burden small businesses, reduce tax revenue, and drive undocumented workers further underground.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made similar points in an op-ed:

As Secretary of Agriculture I have met farmers and ranchers all over the country who worry that our immigration system is broken. They are unable to find the necessary number of farmworkers and sometimes struggle to verify their work authorization papers – all while wondering if they’ll have enough help for their next harvest.

And while some American citizens step up and take these jobs, the truth is that even when farmers make their best efforts to recruit a domestic work force, few citizens express interest, and even fewer show up to spend long hours laboring in the hot sun.

In a twist on the misguided idea that immigrants “steal” American jobs, Vilsack described immigrant farm workers essentially protecting U.S. jobs through their crucial role on U.S. farms:

If American agriculture lost access to adequate farm labor, it could cost the industry as much as $9 billion each year. Already, some American producers are opening up operations in Mexico. So we must take action to prevent the further outsourcing of farm-related jobs.

Meanwhile, the Bay Citizen nonprofit news outlet described how lucrative wineries in Napa Valley, Calif., have found it in their own self-interest to treat undocumented workers fairly, rather than paying them as little as possible or sometimes not at all as is often the case in agriculture and other industries that hire large numbers of undocumented workers.

Emmy-winning producer Scott James reported:

Without migrant labor, most of it from Mexico, the wine producers in Napa would be hard pressed to fill a carafe, much less the valley’s nine million annual cases. Experts estimate that 8,000 to 12,000 illegal migrants reside (often seasonally) in Napa, although the number is impossible to confirm.

Ten years ago, they could be found living in the woods in makeshift camps, sleeping on fetid mattresses and drinking from dirty streams. Today they receive subsidized housing, or can reside in three tidy dormitory complexes near St. Helena and Yountville where up to 180 workers pay $12 a day for room and board.

This Blog Originally appeared in These Working Times on May 30, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]


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On the Border and in the Fields, Dying from the Heat

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kari-lydersenOn Wednesday July 14, California legislators were debating whether the state’s five-year-old heat safety regulations are strong enough to protect the  650,000 farm workers who harvest the bulk of the nation’s fruit and vegetables in temperatures that regularly climb over 100 degrees.

As the legislators ruminated from the safety of their air-conditioned chambers, 54-year-old Rodolfo Ceballos Carrillo was loading boxes of tables grapes onto trucks at Sunview Vineyards in Kern County, Calif., in 97-degree heat. At 4:30 that afternoon, Carrillo collapsed and died. Another California farm worker also died the same day. They are among four farm workers and a construction worker who have perished in apparently heat-related deaths since June. Another worker had died at the same vineyard doing the same job as Carrillo in 2008.

Many see this as the latest proof that the heat-safety law California passed in 2005 has not saved largely immigrant farm workers and construction workers from painful deaths and health problems caused by toiling often without shade, breaks or water in extreme heat.  Each year since the law was passed, a handful of workers have died – at least 11 between 2005 and 2009 according to a lawsuit filed last year by the United Farm Workers (UFW).

The state occupational health and safety agency (Cal/OSHA) is currently investigating Carrilla’s death, the June 11 death of a plum picker in Tulare County, the June 29 death of a 33-year-old farm employee in Indio and the death of a 57-year-old farm mechanic in Firebaugh, along with the death of a construction worker in San Bernardino. The agency has said it did 1,340 investigations so far this year and has found 316 heat-related violations.

The state heat safety law, considered the first and most stringent in the nation, mandates employers provide adequate rest, water and shade when temperatures top 85 degrees. They must provide enough shade for a quarter of the workers to sit comfortably at one time; and enough cool clean water for all workers.

But critics say there are not near enough enforcers and fines are not hefty enough to make sure employers comply. There are fewer than 200 occupational health and safety enforcers in California for 17 million state workers, including the 650,000 farm workers spread out over thousands of farms.

And under the law, the onus is still on the workers to ask for breaks and water, an unlikely situation when their documentation and employment status makes them feel vulnerable to retaliation; and when they are often paid piece-meal depending on how much they harvest. Workers quoted on the UFW’s website note these situations:

I would work all day without taking a break or going for water because I was afraid of getting fired.

–Erika Contreras,farm labor contractor worker

They give us the water they use to irrigate the fields.
–Pedro Zapien,vegetable worker

We have to pitch in money to have clean drinking water.
–Juan Martinez Vasquez, pea worker

The foreman drinks the water we bring ourselves.
–Francisco Villasaña,cotton worker

When someone wants to drink water, the boss gets mad.
–Imelda Valdivia,grape worker

One foreman carries a gun on his side to scare the workers.
— Alejandro Gil,cotton worker

Being without water is dangerous. We are not camels that can be working without water.
— Jairo Salin Salosairo Luquez, grape worker

In 2008, the state found that more than a third of the employers it did investigate were violating the heat safety law. Last year, the state logged 137 heat-related violations out of 3,501 inspections.

The United Farm Workers website states:

Cal/OSHA has so few inspectors that it simply cannot protect workers in an industry this large, routinely imposes paltry fines even for serious violations and deaths, fails to collect fines it does impose, and allows enforcement actions to be tied up in appeals processes that often delay penalties for years.

Representatives of the group California Rural Legal Assistance are visiting farms in the state’s San Joaquin Central Valley this summer – more than 20 so far – to monitor compliance with the heat safety law and educate employers and workers about the law.They say employers have received them with hostility.

The union and other critics say employers should be forced to provide specific amounts of rest and water in response to certain temperature thresholds, rather than placing the burden on workers to demand their rights.

After the lawsuit was filed last summer, state occupational health spokesman Dean Fryer told media that California had seen improvements and dealt with heat more responsibly than other states.

Cal/OSHA has done an effective job of preventing heat illnesses and fatalities. In fact there has been a downward overall trend of fatalities since the regulation became effective in 2005. Even the CDC, in a 2008 report, showed California fairing better then other states. Their study revealed that North Carolina had the highest heat related deaths among crop workers with a rate of 2.36 per 100,000 workers. This was followed by Florida’s rate of .74 and California’s rate of .49.

In 2008, NPR reported on the heart-breaking death of a 17-year-old Mexican worker:

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm east of Stockton on May 14 (2008), when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. The nearest water cooler was a 10-minute walk away, and workers say the strict foreman didn’t allow them a long enough break to stop and get a drink.

Vasquez collapsed from heat exhaustion. Her fiancé, Florentino Bautista, cradled her in his arms. “When she fell, she looked bad,” Bautista says. “She didn’t regain consciousness. She just fell down and didn’t react. I told her to be strong so we could see each other again.”

Bautista, 19, had saved up money to buy a gold ring for Maria Isabel, his childhood sweetheart from their indigenous village in Oaxaca, Mexico.

(Last Wednesday, Steve Franklin blogged for In These Times about the grueling and dangerous daily life of a farm worker.)

As workers face torturous conditions and even death in the fields because of this summer’s intense heat, those crossing the border to get such jobs are also succumbing in near-record numbers.

This month, officials in Pima County, Ariz. have dealt with one to four bodies per day of immigrants who perished crossing the border. As of July 16 the Pima County  medical examiner’s office counted 40 bodies this month. The July record from 2005 was 68. So far this year, the medical examiner has logged 134 bodies. That’s compared to 93 by this time last year, and 140 in 2007, the year with the highest number of total deaths.

The economic crisis and escalating costs charged by coyotes in recent years have meant fewer people trying to cross the border, according to various studies. Hence the record-level border deaths likely mean the trek is deadlier than ever thanks to sweltering temperatures and the increasing border security that has driven people into ever harsher and more remote parts of the Arizona desert.

There have in fact been so many deaths of late that a refrigerated truck was rolled out to help handle the bodies overflowing from the Medical Examiner’s office.

In his book “The Devil’s Highway,” author Luis Alberto Urrea describes in excruciating clinical detail what actually happens when one dies of heat. The book is a gut-wrenching journalistic literary account of the deaths of 14 migrants in the Arizona desert over Memorial Day weekend, 2001.

Walkers see demons, see God, see dead relatives and crystal cities. They vomit blood. The only clear thought in your mind now is: I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty…

Based on interviews with survivors, Urrea recreated the death of one specific man:

He went on all fours, and sometimes he went on his knees like a religious penitent. The world of sin and grace spun in flaming disks around his head. He fell. He rose. He lay. He crawled. He tried to rise.

It is indescribably cruel and senseless enough that record numbers of migrants each day are currently dying this way, crossing the desert just to come here to work. And the level of injustice rises even more – if that is possible – when one considers many who have survived that trek are still risking death by heat day in and day out as employers wring – literally – every last drop of profit from their work.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times Blog.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.


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Labor Secretary Reverses Bush’s Attack on Farmworker Labor Laws

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Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will suspend the midnight Bush Administration changes to weaken labor protections in the nation’s agricultural guestworker program. The changes to the H-2A guestworker program took effect January 17, 2009, and have had a dramatic impact on wages and working conditions for agricultural workers under the program. In a notice to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, the Labor Department announces it will reinstate the former regulations in 30 days.

“This is a great relief for our nation’s farmworkers.” said Arturo S. Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers (UFW). “The Bush Administration’s rules lowered wages and worker protections and made it easier to bypass legal U.S. workers in favor of guestworkers. We are overjoyed that the Secretary has overturned these cruel and illegal changes.”

The Labor Department decided to issue the suspension after a lawsuit was filed by farmworker unions, including the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC), Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) challenging the legality of the changes. The lawsuit is still pending but worker groups praised the DOL’s decision. FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez called the announcement, “an important victory against the Bush Administration’s efforts to exclude farm workers from voicing their concerns over the harsh policies of a bygone era.”

The groups emphasized, however, that for all H-2A applications filed during the period when the Bush-Chao regulations have been in effect, farmworker employment will continue to be governed by the terms and conditions of the Bush regulations, including the lower wage rates imposed by the Bush rules.

Farmworker Justice remains concerned about the wages and working conditions of those workers hired under the Bush-Chao changes. There also remains a pressing need to address the farm labor supply issue in a more comprehensive manner. One-sided changes to the H-2A program do not solve our nation’s agricultural labor supply issues. We need Congress to pass the AgJOBS bill.

AgJOBS, the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, recently reintroduced in both houses of Congress would stabilize the farm labor force by allowing undocumented farmworkers who meet certain requirements to come forward and pay fines to earn a temporary legal status and gain documentation. It would also revise the H-2A program in balanced ways that have been agreed to by both industry and labor. The AgJOBS proposal has broad bipartisan support.

About the Author: Bruce Goldstein joined Farmworker Justice as a staff attorney in 1988, then served as Co-Executive Director starting in September 1995, and was named Executive Director in July 2005. At Farmworker Justice, Bruce has focused on litigation and advocacy on immigration issues and labor law, with a special emphasis on the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. Bruce has also sought to address the problem of “farm labor contractors” and other labor intermediaries used by farming operations, often in an attempt to avoid responsibility for complying with labor laws.

This originally appeared in Harvesting Justice on May 28, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.


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