Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

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

Share this post

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).


Share this post

Being an “Essential Worker” Won’t Save You From Deportation

Share this post

Legions of undocumented immigrants in the United States carry letters signed by their employers stating that President Donald Trump’s administration considers them essential workers amid the pandemic. While these letters exempt them from being arrested by local agents for violating stay-at-home orders, these workers could still be detained and deported by federal authorities.

José (a pseudonym to protect his identity as an undocumented worker), a landscaper in Connecticut, has had such a letter since the beginning of the stay-at-home executive orders in March. His job, though, could hardly be considered essential.

“We are sent in to maintain malls, apartment buildings, corporations and government offices,” says José, who has worked for Middletown, Connecticut-based Bravo Landscaping, for over a decade. “We first pick up all the dead leaves, then mark the edges of the green areas and cut the grass.”

Although he’s been deemed “essential,” José is not entitled to protective gear, compensation, federal financial aid or safeguards from immigration agents. For several weeks, José actually worked without protective equipment.

“Two workers already contracted Covid-19, and their whole teams were sent home to quarantine with just 60 percent of their wages,” says José. “As for the sick co-workers, I don’t know if the company is paying for their treatment.”

Connecticut has qualified landscaping as an essential industry since March. Under this cover, companies such as Bravo Landscaping can determine how to manage their undocumented workforce through a deadly pandemic.

“The Covid crisis is really highlighting the contradictions that have always existed in the United States,” says Tania Unzueta, political director of Mijente, a grassroots organization advocating for social justice. “Whether immigrants or U.S.-born, essential workers are not given a livable wage, health insurance or a social network of support.”

Undocumented essential workers were not even considered in the $2.5 trillion relief package approved by Congress and, except in California, have not received financial aid from state or local governments. Additionally, they are being detained and deported.

Though the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has suspended large-scale raids since mid-April, it still arrests immigrants that pose “a criminal or public safety threat”—a vague and arbitrarily enforced mandate.

In the midst of the pandemic, the Trump administration has focused its anti-immigrant zeal in removing from the United States thousands of immigrants already in detention centers and in reducing the number of work permits issued to foreigners.

With a Supreme Court ruling impending, the debate over massive ICE raids and deportations, however, will be back in the spotlight.

This ruling, which might put hundreds of thousands of people at risk, will assess whether the Trump administration’s decision to terminate DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is constitutional or if it flouted federal government regulations.

“Good” or “bad” immigrant?

Initiated by a 2014 executive order of President Barack Obama, DACA grants two-year renewable work permits and deportations deferrals to 690,000 migrants that arrived in the United States as minors before 2007. Trump’s administration argued in 2017 that the program is unconstitutional and should be terminated.

The lower courts concluded, nonetheless, that the administration’s decision to end the program was “arbitrary and capricious.” Having heard oral arguments last November, the Supreme Court has yet to issue an opinion, expected before June 20.

Whichever way the Supreme Court rules—whether it terminates DACA immediately, phases it out or sides with the lower courts—immigrants advocates expect that Trump will try to exploit the issue to boost his chances for reelection in November.

“Republicans have used the same playbook since 2016—to criminalize immigrants and blame them for anybody else’s misfortunes. And to do anything and everything in their power to fear monger and scare everybody,” says Pili Tobar, deputy director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group for immigration reform. “The upcoming election won’t be any different.”

President Trump has proposed in the past to keep DACA in exchange for accelerating deportations and drastically reducing immigration. In practical terms, he offered Democrats to save some immigrants from deportation while removing the vast majority of them. “Republicans are always going to try to pit immigrants against each other,” says Tobar.

Trump’s previous strategy certainly suggests that once the Supreme Court rules, he will try again to pit DACA recipients, U.S. citizens save for their papers, against hard-working immigrants like José, essential workers too but lacking any legal or political recognition.

“For people, it’s easier to argue for the undocumented young person or the kids locked in cages, but I think it’s important to talk about how to roll back the system,” says Unzueta. “When children are detained at the border and placed in detention centers, at the same time, their parents are being criminalized, charged with felonies and put in federal prison.”

The United States needs to figure out how to bring immigrants into the citizenry, says Tobar, rather than demonize, exploit and dispose of them during a crisis. “All of the 11 million undocumented people in this country are essential workers, contributing, one way or another, to their countries and communities.”

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

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


Share this post

Union Teachers Are Donating Their Stimulus Checks to the Undocumented

Share this post

Brooke Anderson | Author | Common Dreams

Olivia Udovic and her husband, Edgar Sánchez—both teachers in Oakland—are among millions of Americans receiving federal stimulus checks. The money didn’t stay in their bank account for long, however; the pair is part of a nationwide movement of teachers paying their checks forward to undocumented families in their schools. 

Udovic teaches kindergarten at Manzanita SEED Elementary, a dual-language school serving many immigrant households. Sixty-five percent of students there receive free or reduced-cost lunch. When schools closed March 27 in response to Covid-19, Udovic and her coworkers called parents for wellness check-ins. “Families were losing jobs, couldn’t pay rent and were left without food—especially undocumented folks who couldn’t access unemployment benefits,” Udovic says. 

The $2.2 trillion federal Covid-19 stimulus package provides $1,200 to taxpayers bringing home less than $75,000 a year (plus $500 per child) and expands unemployment benefits. But undocumented workers are excluded from both provisions, despite collectively paying billions in taxes. California created its own $125 million coronavirus disaster relief fund to provide $500 in cash to some 250,000 undocumented immigrants in the state—a little less than 15% of the undocumented workforce. For many, that won’t fill the gap.

So Udovic and other members of her union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), organized teachers to pledge their stimulus checks to Centro Legal de la Raza’s Oakland Undocumented Relief (OUR) Fund. The fund provides $500 checks or pre-paid debit cards to each family—an important consideration for many undocumented people who do not have bank accounts. According to Udovic, as of April 20, 33 teachers have pledged more than $16,000. 

Henry Sales is a leader in Oakland’s Mam community, many of whom arrived from Guatemala without papers. “Many Mam people have come to the U.S. to work as day laborers, or they are selling fruit on the street,” Sales says. “They tell me, ‘If I can’t work, how will I care for my family, pay electricity, rent, food?’”

Oakland teachers are not alone. Frank Lara teaches fifth grade at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School, a dual-language Spanish immersion school in San Francisco. While Lara transitioned to online classes, he was also talking to his undocumented neighbors in the Mission District. The heavily Latino neighborhood is home to many essential workers and has been hard-hit by the virus.

“It became apparent that undocumented folks who are holding the entire U.S. economy together would be sidelined,” Lara says. “Thanks to the strength of the union, we’ve maintained full-time jobs and benefits. Because we’re in that privileged position, people wanted to give. We said, ‘Let’s do it collectively.’”

Lara’s union, the United Educators of San Francisco, organized to give to UndocuFund SF—with 340 teachers pledging more than $115,000 so far.

Teachers in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have also organized funds. 

Anna Lane, a history teacher at Thomas Kelly College Preparatory in Chicago, has been working through the Chicago Teachers Union to survey parents, distribute resource lists and organize coworkers to donate to the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s Community Response Fund to support undocumented families. 

“We’re not rolling in the dough,” Lane says. “But I get to stay home while my students’ parents work dangerous jobs or have been laid off. If I have that privilege, how do I help? Giving my check is not a sacrifice, it’s a necessity. We’re supposed to take care of each other.” 

Back in Oakland, Udovic credits her union’s support in part to its increased emphasis on rank-and-file leaders. OEA’s historic weeklong 2019 strike trained hundreds of teachers to become union activists. “Many people doing the work today didn’t know how to participate before the strike,” Udovic says.

“The community coalition and relationships with parents that we built during the strike helped us be in a position during the Covid pandemic to rapidly address the needs of our families,” says OEA President Keith Brown.

For many unions, this moment is not just about providing immediate mutual aid to students’ families, but backing broader community demands. 

“Just like in the strike, we do this for the families,” Lane says. “I’m proud of my union for promoting equity across Chicago by signing onto the Right to Recovery for all Chicagoans.” The Right to Recovery is a “common good” platform, put forward by dozens of labor and community organizations with many local and state elected officials, calling for paid time off, free Covid-19 testing and a moratorium on evictions, mortgage payments and utility shutoffs. 

In Oakland, Udovic says, “The OEA is voting to be in solidarity with the rent strikes,” referring to the movement of tenants withholding rent and calling for its cancellation, given they cannot earn income while sheltering in place. 

Lara emphasizes that the political climate necessitates unions help their communities as a whole. “We should see this as the trajectory of the union,” he says. “We’re one with the communities we serve. Without the support of those communities, we can’t win broader, radical reforms in public education.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brooke Anderson is an Oakland, California-based organizer and photojournalist. She has spent 20 years building movements for social, economic, racial and ecological justice. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.


Share this post

Trump administration attacks unions for fast-growing occupation, this week in the war on workers

Share this post

A new part of the Trump administration’s ongoing quest to weaken worker power goes into effect this Friday, in the form of a new regulation banning automatic union dues deduction for home health workers paid directly by Medicaid. That means that the workers, many of whom have only recently become union members—and have gotten significant raises as a result—would have to individually pay their union dues.

That means a new hassle in the lives of workers who are still paid low wages and in many cases work long hours at multiple jobs. And it means major administrative hassles for the unions that represent them.

Adarra Benjamin, an Illinois home health worker, told ThinkProgress what this attack on her union membership means to her, saying, “We are the union—the workers in general are the union—and understanding that if we don’t come together, we don’t have a voice. If we don’t have a voice, no one understands where the hard work and the dedication is coming from… no one understands what it takes to take care of yourself and other people.”

Home health work is one of the fastest-growing occupations in recent years. Workers are overwhelmingly women and people of color; immigrants are also a significant part of this workforce.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Share this post

After letter from former undocumented employees, Trump feigns ignorance

Share this post

Amid the ongoing immigration crisis in the U.S., President Donald Trump claimed this week that he “didn’t know” that his own properties had hired numerous undocumented migrants as long-time employees.

Asked specifically about undocumented employees at Trump’s numerous golf clubs, Trump pleaded ignorance to The New York Times on Friday.

“I don’t know because I don’t run it,” Trump said when asked about the immigration status of workers at his golf resorts. “But I would say this: Probably every club in the United States has that because it seems to be — from what I understand — a way that people did business.”

Trump’s claim comes amid revelations about a humanitarian crisis within America’s sprawling detentions centers. It also comes shortly after the Trump Organization announced it had fired nearly two dozen undocumented employees from golf courses in both New York and New Jersey. (The Trump Organization also announced it would now be using E-Verify, a governmental system providing information on employees’ legal status.)

Despite Trump’s claims, many of the fired employees, who included maids and groundskeepers, claimed the Trump Organization knew for years about their legal status, but only fired them within the past several months.

One former employee, an undocumented migrant from Guatemala, told CBS News that her bosses at the Trump National Gold Club in New Jersey “knew she was not authorized to live in the U.S. but hired her anyway.”

Now, some of those fired are requesting a sit-down meeting with Trump himself — a meeting the White House apparently has little interest in entertaining.

In a two-page letter addressed directly to Trump, some 21 former employees — all of whom are undocumented — called on the president to meet with them directly to discuss their situation.

We are writing to respectfully request a meeting with you. We are modest people who represent the dreams of the 11 million undocumented men, women and children who live and work in this country. We love America and want to talk to you about helping to give us a chance to become legal.

We know you and your family; we worked very hard to make your clubs a success and to keep your members and visitors happy. You know many of us and will recall how hard we worked for you, your family and your golf clubs. We all took great pride in our hard work and years of service to make your clubs successful.

You know we are hard workers and that we are not criminals or seeking a free ride in America. We all pay our taxes, love our faith and our family, and simply want to find a place for ourselves to make America even better.

But the White House is in no rush to welcome the former employees to a meeting with the president. The signatories received a letter from the White House on Wednesday, noting that they were “reviewing” the letter.

The letter, and Trump’s denials, come amid escalating showdowns between the federal government and undocumented migrants trying to remain in the U.S.

As ThinkProgress reported earlier this week, some undocumented migrants have begun receiving letters ordering the migrants to pay fines for staying in the country. Those letters parallel Trump’s recent threats to work around a Supreme Court ruling and directly impose questions about citizenship on the upcoming 2020 census — and as conditions at detention centers continue to deteriorate.

As ThinkProgress’s Joshua Eaton wrote on Friday:

[C]onditions on the nation’s southwest border boiled over this week, after the Associated Press revealed squalid conditions at a shelter for migrant children near El Paso, Texas; a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that Customs and Border Protection is holding immigrants in cells that are nearly double their capacity, and that children at some CBP facilities lack access to showers and laundry; and ProPublica revealed a secret Facebook group for Border Patrol agents that included sexist memes about members of Congress and jokes about migrant children dying in CBP custody.

Meanwhile, the threat of deportation hangs over the former Trump employees’ heads.

“We believe you have a heart and will do the right thing to find a home for us here in America,” they wrote in their letter, “so that we can step out of the shadows and not deport us and our friends and family.”

 

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on July 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Michel is an investigative reporter at ThinkProgress. He is a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan, and received his master’s degree from Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, POLITICO Magazine, and The Atlantic, among others. Reach him at [email protected]


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.