• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

The Climate Crisis Is Coming for Undocumented Farmworkers First

Share this post

Maurizio Guerrero -

Facing deadly heat waves and few protections, undocumented agricultural workers are being pushed to their limit.

In July 2020, Claudia Durán felt compelled to complete her shift harvesting blueberries in the fields of Allegan County, Mich., before driving to the local hospital’s emergency room to be treated for dehydration, where she arrived dizzy, with an acute headache and chest pain. That same month, at least three of her coworkers also ended their shifts in emergency rooms to be treated for dehydration, she says. Durán and her coworkers get paid by the hour, 50 cents for every pound of fruit they pick, and they cannot afford to miss work time and lose income. That is why Durán, who is undocumented, rations her water intake throughout the day?—?to avoid going too often to the restroom, which is far removed from the harvesting fields.

“I have asked for medicines for the headache, and he [the supervisor] says, ?‘No, nothing is happening, nothing is wrong,’ and does not give you medicine,” said Durán, who in 2004 emigrated from poverty and violence in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. For fear of retaliation, she declined to provide her employer’s name. ?“Until the workday is over, if you feel very unwell, then you go to the emergency room,” said Durán, who is 35 years old and has four children to support. 

During the last several years, Durán says she has been treated at the emergency room around twice a summer for dehydration, with July 2020 marking her last visit. Toiling under difficult heat conditions, she and her coworkers have been forced to gamble with their health: Chronic dehydration can cause kidney damage.

The effects of the climate crisis on the more than 1 million agricultural workers in the United States, already severe, have been worsened by profit-driven employers. The increasingly severe heat waves ravaging the country damage some crops, so to protect the market value of their produce, the agricultural industry is accelerating the harvesting season?—?and in many instances forcing longer shifts on workers. 

With no access to shade and for wages often below the poverty level line, agricultural laborers are being pressured to harvest at a higher pace than in previous years, according to workers and advocates who spoke to In These Times. This work is increasingly done in temperatures that soar above 100 degrees and, with growing frequency, in the midst of wildfire smoke. 

Undocumented immigrants, often too intimidated to denounce mistreatment for fear of losing their jobs or being placed in deportation proceedings, are generally the most seriously abused and exploited. Between 50% and 75% of all farmworkers in the United States are undocumented. Meanwhile, 99% of farmworkers do not belong to a union. Without the support of organized labor or federal regulations that protect agricultural workers from heat and smoke, undocumented laborers are left to the mercy of employers in the midst of the climate crisis. 

At the peak of the heat season, when the fruit is ripening, Durán’s employer implements longer shifts, she said. This season, she says, ?“we were already asked to work more than 12 hours a day.” She starts working at seven o’clock in the morning. ?“They want us working until eight at night, and Sundays too,” she added in a phone interview in Spanish at nine o’clock at night, just after she arrived from work. In the background, one of her small children could be heard asking questions in English and Spanish, eager for attention. 

“All those hours, you are under the sun because you don’t even have a shade to eat your lunch,” Durán explained. 

Dangerous heat

This kind of abuse can be fatal. On June 26, 38-year-old Sebastian Francisco Perez, a Guatemalan, died while working on a tree farm in St. Paul, Ore., at the height of the hottest June in U.S. recorded history. Scorching temperatures are bringing new dangers to a job that was already dangerous. According to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, from 1992 to 2006, 68 crop workers died from heat stroke, representing a rate nearly 20 times greater than for other U.S. civilian workers. Most of the deaths were of adults aged 20 to 54 years, a population not typically at high risk for heat illnesses. Those tallies, advocates agree, are gross underestimates: They exclude workers on small farms, and heat deaths wrongly recorded as heart attacks or strokes unrelated to the workplace. 

The impact of extreme heat on farmworkers’ health has also been downplayed, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Apart from kidney problem, heat stress has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes and increased risk for traumatic injuries for agricultural laborers, who mostly work without commonplace benefits like sick leave, paid vacation or health insurance. At least 33% of farmworkers’ families are not even paid a wage above the poverty line —the annual income for farmworkers’ families usually does not exceed $24,500, according to data from 2015?–?2016. This stark economic reality undoubtedly increases pressure on farmworkers to endure exploitive and dangerous heat conditions.

Whatever the current impact of the increased temperature on agricultural workers, the costs are expected to rise sharply in the coming years. According to a 2020 study led by the Stanford University professor Michelle Tigchelaar, the number of unsafe days in crop-growing U.S. counties will jump from 21 per season to 39 per season by 2055, and without mitigation would triple by the end of the century. 

While heat waves continue to break records across the country, resulting in dozens of deaths throughout the Pacific Northwest this year alone, many agricultural workers remain unprotected by regulations and reluctant to denounce abuse for fear of being deported. And unions face significant barriers to organizing this workforce. This past June, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a California law, in place for more than four decades, that allowed union organizers to enter farms to speak to workers during nonworking hours for a set number of days each year. By a 6?–?3 vote along ideological lines, the court ruled that the law amounted to an illegal taking of private property, setting a chilling precedent against union organizers.

“[Agricultural workers] are human buffers protecting the middle class and white-collar America from the effects of climate change,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns of United Farm Workers, one of the largest unions for farmworkers in the country. Those most affected, she said, are the poorest and most vulnerable?—?undocumented immigrants who are often coming from Indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala. 

A 2018 study conducted by researchers at the CDC found that non?U.S. citizens had three times the risk of dying from heat related-illness compared to citizens, and that the risk was higher among those younger and of Latino ethnicity?—?the vast majority of the U.S. agricultural workforce. 

Protecting companies, not workers

Congress has been slow to act to protect farmworkers. Last March, progressive members of the House and the Senate introduced versions of the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021, named for a worker who died in California in 2004. The day of his death, after harvesting grapes for 10 hours straight at 105 degrees, Valdivia fainted, and instead of calling an ambulance, his employer asked the worker’s son to drive his father home. 

The bills in Congress require employers to institute paid breaks for their workers in shaded areas and make water available. They also stipulate emergency response procedures and heat-stress training in a language that workers understand. It is not clear, though, when the bills will be scheduled for a vote. 

At the beginning of the year, California had laws similar to the Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. Oregon approved earlier this summer its own emergency protections, while Washington updated its own rules. Minneapolis mandates employers to provide training for its workers to avoid heat stress. But overall, advocates say, more protections are needed on a nationwide level.

The agricultural industry has largely responded to the heat waves by protecting its business, not workers. Advocates have detected nocturnal harvests of cherries and blueberries in Oregon and Washington?—?done with headlamps and imposed by employers to minimize the damage to the fruits caused by the intense heat.

“Just in the past four days alone, I have talked to farmworkers in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Arizona who are working either very early or nocturnal harvests this summer as a result of the heat,” said Strater. Nocturnal harvests increase the number of children working in the fields because there is no child care available when shifts start at two o’clock in the morning, she said. ?“So we are seeing more 9, 10 and 11-year-olds working in these really dangerous workplaces.”

The increasingly hot summers also mean agricultural workers toil while breathing the smoke from the progressively intense wildfires spreading throughout the U.S. West Coast. Only California has protective regulations for smoke in place.

Despite the massive wildfires of the season?—?Bootleg, one of the largest in Oregon’s history, had razed more than 400,000 acres by early August?—?the Oregonian agricultural industry is resisting common-sense protection for workers against the dangerous particles caused by the ’ smoke, said Ira Cuello Martínez, climate policy associate of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste or PCUN, the largest Latino union in Oregon. 

Advocates are pushing for employers in Oregon to provide farmworkers with respirators once the Air Quality Index (AQI) hits 151 —a level considered ?“unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the state’s agricultural industry has voiced resistance to the required usage of respirators at levels below California’s, which mandates employers to provide respirators after the index reaches 500, even though at 301 the air quality is already ?“hazardous” by federal standards. At levels beyond 300, Cuello Martínez added, ?“I don’t think anyone should be outside.” 

However, even in an environment that could potentially cause long-term health problems to workers, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have the authority to suspend outside work. 

Under these circumstances, agricultural laborers, especially those who are undocumented, say they will continue to be pushed by the industry to ensure the country’s residents have food on their tables amid the climate crisis. 

“The supervisor does not regard workers as anything of importance,” Durán said. ?“He already told us that we have to work more hours, and every day.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.


Share this post

For Farmworkers, the Fight for the 8-Hour Day Isn’t Over

Share this post

Climate Change Could Make Borrowing Costlier for States and Cities |  Florida Phoenix

Federal labor laws exclude farmworkers from overtime pay and other protections. After years of advocacy by farm labor groups, lawmakers in Oregon, Washington and Colorado are working to change that.

Oregon state Rep. Ricki Ruiz grew up the son of two farmworkers, and he remembers his family’s struggles vividly.

“We almost faced eviction five times because we didn’t have enough money for rent,” said Ruiz, a first-term Democrat. “We didn’t go to the grocery store; we went to the food bank. We didn’t have extra clothes.”

Ruiz hopes to change that situation for farmworkers in Oregon. He sponsored a bill that will mandate that farmworkers be paid overtime for any work beyond 40 hours a week.

“If this legislation was passed when I was a kid, we would have had less stress in our family and my parents wouldn’t have had to work 80 hours a week,” he said. “This will be life-changing for farmworkers. They will be able to make a living wage and support their families.”

The effort in Oregon follows bills passed earlier this year in Washington and Colorado to grant overtime pay to farmworkers. Lawmakers in Maine are considering a similar measure.

Currently, federal and most state laws exempt farmworkers from the overtime protections guaranteed to most other workers. Labor advocates say that precedent was set by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which was written to exclude Black field workers in order to win the support of Southern Democrats. Today, 83% of the nation’s farmworkers are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.

“The exclusion of farmworkers was rooted in racism and made possible by the feeling that it wasn’t necessary to protect African Americans,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy and support group. “It’s hard to believe that the exclusions of farmworkers from overtime pay and labor rights would continue if the majority of farmworkers were Caucasian.”

Nearly half of all U.S. farmworkers lack legal status, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just more than a quarter of farmworkers are U.S.-born, according to the agency’s numbers. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research think tank based in Washington, D.C., estimates about 10% are foreign workers in the United States on H2A temporary visas. The average farm wage was $13.99 an hour as of 2019, roughly 60% of the average non-farm wage. “The bias in agriculture is that labor needs to be as close to slavery as you can get it.”

Some lawmakers interviewed by Stateline said the overtime bills they sponsored would apply to workers on H2A visas, while others said theirs would not. The disparate rules in federal and state laws show the need for federal action, farmworker activists say. Some lawmakers also have proposed whistleblower protections because undocumented workers are unlikely to report wage theft if they fear retaliation.

Edgar Franks, a labor leader who picks raspberries and blueberries in Washington state, said overtime protections would not only boost wages, but also would keep families together.

“A lot of us grew up with our parents at work all day and our older family members taking care of us,” said Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworker union.

Last year brought renewed attention to racial justice and the frontline workers who face health risks in order to provide essential services. In several states, that spotlight led to the recognition of the plight of farmworkers, who advocates say are among the most vulnerable groups in the country. Lawmakers’ push to end inequities in overtime law has drawn support from President Joe Biden. But they’re up against the politically powerful agriculture industry, which asserts that new wage requirements would devastate farmers.

“Incremental change for farmworkers, who are the most devalued human lives in our country, has always been an uphill battle,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns with United Farm Workers, the labor union founded by Cesar Chavez and other organizers. “But no industry should feel entitled to use up a human body at a rate it’s not meant to endure.”

Agriculture industry groups say that farmers operate on thin margins, and they compete against other states and countries that grow the same products with less labor costs. They also note that farm work is seasonal and requires immense amounts of work during harvest and planting times, which they believe is grounds for the longstanding farm work overtime exemption.

“Overtime requirements, especially a blanket, standardized mandate when there is nothing standard about farm work, would make it increasingly difficult for farmers to remain competitive, leading to small farms going out of business,” wrote Allison Crittenden, congressional relations director at the American Farm Bureau Federation, in a statement provided after a Stateline request for an interview.

Washington’s Law

Earlier this year, Washington state lawmakers passed a bill that will grant farmworkers time-and-a-half overtime pay, phasing in a 40-hour threshold by 2024. The new law was a response to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2020 that required dairy workers to be paid overtime. 

“The deep-seated bias in agriculture is that labor needs to be as close to slavery as you can get it,” said Rosalinda Guillen, an activist with Community to Community Development, a Washington-based organization that focuses on food sovereignty and immigrant rights issues. “The court recognized the racist structure of the agriculture industry.”

Agribusiness groups expected the court to rule similarly for other farmworkers, and they feared farmers would be required to pay workers retroactively for overtime worked in years past. The result was a bill that established overtime pay while protecting farmers from retroactive claims. It was a long-awaited win for farmworkers and progressive activists, supported—albeit begrudgingly—by the agriculture industry and its Republican allies. “No Industry Should Feel Entitled to Use Up a Human Body.”

“Knowing that the court was very likely to impose this on us, we were open to a discussion on this being legislatively applied, as long as it was not done overnight,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

Washington state Sen. Curtis King, the Republican who sponsored the overtime bill, said he did so to protect farm owners from retroactive payments, though he disagreed that the previous state law, passed in 1959, was evidence of systemic racism.

Despite sponsoring the bill, King still fears the overtime requirement could make it difficult for Washington farmers to compete with producers from other states or overseas.

“We can sit here all day long and say the going wage ought to be such and such for farmworkers,” he said. “You go try and pay it and stay in business and see what happens.”

Movement Elsewhere

At present, only six states—California, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Minnesota and now Washington—offer any overtime coverage for farmworkers. Some of those states offer overtime only after 60 hours; California will phase in a 40-hour threshold by 2022.

Even though Washington’s law was forced by a court decision, farmworker advocates say it has renewed momentum for efforts in other states. Earlier this week, Colorado lawmakers passed the Farmworker Bill of Rights, which will give minimum wage and overtime rights to the state’s farmworkers. The measure also will allow workers to join labor unions, mandate rest and eating breaks, and offer whistleblower protections to workers who report unsafe conditions. 

“The rights this bill will restore to these workers are rights that are enjoyed by almost every other worker in the state,” said Colorado state Sen. Jessie Danielson, the Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has indicated he will sign the bill.

In Oregon, Ruiz’s bill is still in committee, but he’s hopeful it will advance this session, aligning the state’s policy with neighboring West Coast states.

“There’s a majority of people of color working in the fields, and they’re the ones being excluded from these resources,” Ruiz said. “I believe folks are going to appreciate that this region is honoring farmworkers. It will attract more workers and keep current workers.”

Ag industry groups disagree. They say agribusinesses won’t be able to afford the extra wages, and the law will cause them to limit hours, split shifts and increase mechanization—forcing farmworkers to take on multiple jobs just to make the same money as before.

“We heard from hundreds of farmers saying they would not be able to afford the bill as it was proposed, and ultimately it would result in a tremendous amount of job loss and wage reduction,” said Samantha Bayer, policy counsel with the Oregon Farm Bureau, which opposes the bill. “It’s a false promise that this would result in more wages.”

Farm groups across the country have made similar predictions about overtime proposals in different states. Labor advocates view them as a threat to punish farmworkers.

“‘The food system will be destroyed, the agriculture industry will be destroyed’—they say that about every single benefit that is given to farmworkers,” said Guillen, the Washington activist. “They have essentially said that if they have to pay farmworkers overtime, they’ll cut their hours and pay them less. That is insidious racially biased behavior.”

Maine state Rep. Thom Harnett, a Democrat who has sponsored his own farmworker overtime bill, acknowledged that farming is a challenging industry.

“There’s a great deal of empathy for that industry, and I share that,” he said. “I just don’t share putting it on the backs of the workers to be the ones who suffer the most. Because of these exceptions, we have farmworkers who have been stuck in poverty for generation after generation.”

Farming groups say that overtime doesn’t make sense in an industry that requires immense amounts of work during seasonal periods such as planting and harvest time. To account for this, Hawaii’s law, for example, has a seasonality clause, which raises overtime thresholds during certain periods of the year. Farmers in Washington sought unsuccessfully to include a similar provision in their state’s bill.

“In agriculture, there are seasonal activities where you can safely work more for short bursts of activity,” said DeVaney, the fruit tree farming advocate. “There are periods of the year where we have longer hours worked, and the work is by nature physically demanding.”

Harnett noted that many itinerant farmworkers don’t get a reprieve from those cycles. Some laborers travel among states to find work in different regional growing seasons, often living in employer-provided housing.

“We hear that farming is a unique business, because there’s this intense period of planting and harvest,” he said. “For the farmworker, their life is that intense period over and over again.”

Harnett’s bill has passed through a House committee but has not yet received a vote before the full House.

National Efforts

Activists were encouraged last month when Biden issued a statement praising Washington’s farmworker overtime bill.

“For too long—and owing in large part to unconscionable race-based exclusions put in place generations ago—farmworkers have been denied some of the most fundamental rights that workers in almost every other sector have long enjoyed,” Biden said.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who has been a leading voice on the issue, reintroduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act last month, which would end federal overtime and minimum wage exemptions for farmworkers, although it would not apply to those on H2A visas. The bill is included in the Biden administration’s immigration plan.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 26, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Pew, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state. He’s won awards for investigative reporting and feature writing from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association.


Share this post

Texas and Florida, Defying CDC Guidance, Aren’t Prioritizing Vaccination of Farmworkers

Share this post

Despite Centers for Disease Control recommendations, a few states with large farmworker populations have not prioritized Covid-19 vaccinations for farmworkers. 

Because farmworkers risk Covid-19 exposure in the course of their jobs, the CDC proposed that they should be near the front of the vaccination line. But Texas and Florida, which have large farmworker populations, have not included farmworkers in their initial rollouts, according to state documents.

Farmworker advocates said the people who pick and process the fruits and vegetables consumers rely on should become inoculated from the virus. During the pandemic, farmworkers have been forced to choose between protecting their lives and keeping their jobs.

“We believe that farmworkers should be a high priority for vaccine distribution because of their essential work and because of the high risk of exposure in the agricultural workplace,” said Alexis Guild, Director of Health Policy and Programs at Farmworker Justice.

In Texas, people who are old enough and have a history of illness are the priority, and that could include agricultural workers, said Douglas Loveday, Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman.

“Right now, agricultural workers 65 and older and those with underlying chronic illnesses that can lead to several illness or death if infected by Covid-19 can be vaccinated,” he said. ?“Discussions on future priority groups have begun, but nothing has yet been decided.”

Across the U.S., most farmworkers are not over 65. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of farmworkers is 39, with over half being younger than 44.

This past summer, Marco Antonio Galvan Gomez, a 49-year old agricultural worker, died from Covid-19 a few weeks after arriving in Texas.

Similarly, only people 65 years old and older, long-term care facility residents and health care personnel are authorized to receive vaccines in Florida, even though farmworkers in the state have been hit hard by Covid-19. For instance, the Immokalee community in southern Florida, known as the capital of tomato production in the U.S., had dozens of deaths over the summer.

Florida’s health department did not return requests for comment.

During the pandemic, farmworkers have been forced to choose between protecting their lives and keeping their jobs. At least 22 farmworkers have died from Covid-19, according to data from the National Center for Farmworker Health. 

As essential workers, farmworkers ?“were required to continue to work throughout the pandemic, but they often have been excluded from protections at the national and state level,” said Kara Moberg, attorney at Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan.

More than half lack health insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2016 National Agricultural Workers Survey. Many employers don’t provide it.

Many workers also live in employer-provided accommodations?—?often in cramped housing with limited options for social distancing. Among those who don’t live in these facilities, it’s also common to live in crowded conditions.

“For workers who do not work or who do not live in employer-provided housing, they still tend to live in crowded housing conditions because of their low wages,” said Alexis Guild of Farmworker Justice. ?“So it’s very hard for them to socially isolate, socially distance.”

An October study by researchers from the University of California San Diego found that farmworkers, especially those who do not speak English and live in poverty, ?“may be at heightened risk for Covid-19 mortality in non-urban counties.”

All states’ distribution plans for vaccines follow a phased approach, but that differs from state to state.

The phases are decided based on vaccine availability. People in groups 1a, 1b and 1c (or equivalent) will receive the vaccine when the supply is limited. As vaccine availability increases, people in the next phases will be able to receive vaccinations, according to the CDC.

The problem with the CDC guidelines is that, similar to safety protections for workers, there is no federal standard for vaccine prioritization, said Jared Hayes, policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group. This is especially problematic for a workforce that frequently moves across state lines, he said.

“One challenge, especially with regard to farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, is ensuring that they have access to the vaccine,” he said. ?“We’ve seen how badly the vaccine rollout (has been). Imagine how complicated it would be to vaccinate a workforce that is undocumented and migratory.” 

Problems with access, even if states prioritize farmworkers

Most states have followed CDC recommendations on farmworkers, but advocates worry it will be challenging to get the vaccine to them.

North Carolina, plans to vaccinate farmworkers and other frontline essential workers in the state’s Group 3 (equivalent to the CDC’s 1c phase), following healthcare workers and people 65-years old or older, which belong to Groups 1 and 2 respectively, according to the state’s vaccination plan.

As of Feb. 16, only Groups 1 and 2 were eligible to receive vaccines.

“The way that things are rolling out in North Carolina and just the timing of everything, we haven’t really gotten there yet,” said Justin Flores, vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which represents tens of thousands of agricultural workers in the South and Midwest.

In the Midwest, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, which ?“represents hundreds of food and agricultural workers across the state,” complained that these workers are ?“currently not scheduled to receive vaccines until May,” according to an online statement.

Even though agricultural workers are classified as part of phase 1b in the state?—?which meant they were scheduled to receive vaccines as early as mid-January?—?they are not expected to receive vaccination until more than three months after the phase begins, according to Michigan’s prioritization guidance.

Mistrust of authorities, immigration status may lead to few vaccinations

Another problem that advocates see is that a combination of mistrust, fear and misinformation might lead farmworkers to avoid looking for vaccinations in the first place.

“The issue of distribution is really complicated and there’s a lot of fear in many communities,” said Guild, of Farmworker Justice. ?“We’ve heard from our partners on the ground, we’ve heard of mistrust and fears around vaccines.” 

According to some advocates, the role of community organizations in educating and providing critical information will be crucial in the next few months.

“Relying on expecting farmworkers to go to the CVS or a medical health clinic won’t be enough,” Hayes, of the Environmental Working Group, said. ?“We’re going to need to lean on the non-profit organizations that have always served farmworkers to ensure that they actually have access to the vaccine.”

Another reason why agricultural workers are in a vulnerable position with regard to vaccine access is that many of them lack legal immigration status, advocates said.

Roughly half of all farmworkers lack legal immigration status, according to the USDA.

Despite this, some advocates are hopeful that immigration status won’t affect farmworkers’ access to vaccination.

“We certainly hope and it seems to be that immigration status will not be a factor when it comes to the vaccine. We also hope to see the vaccine being free of charge, regardless of immigration status, or regardless of insurance status,” Guild said.

In a press release, the Department of Homeland Security encouraged undocumented workers to get vaccinated, stating that ?“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not conduct enforcement operations at or near vaccine distribution sites or clinics.”

“It is a moral and public health imperative to ensure that all individuals residing in the United States have access to the vaccine. DHS encourages all individuals regardless of immigration status, to receive the Covid-19 vaccine once eligible under local distribution guidelines,” the department said.

North Carolina is not checking immigration status during vaccinations, but some residents told the News & Observer they were still scared to get the vaccine.

In Nebraska, despite the federal government’s emphasis on reaching undocumented workers, Governor Pete Ricketts said in January that only documented workers will receive the vaccine.

Neither the governor’s office nor Nebraska’s health department responded to a request for comment.

Editor’s Note: The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. Visit us online at inves?ti?gatemid?west?.org

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Frank Hernandez is a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso, majoring in philosophy and multimedia journalism. Previously, he reported for Bor?derzine?.com, an online news magazine covering life on the U.S.-Mexico border.


Share this post

Toiling in the Marijuana Fields

Share this post

Working People is excited to announce that, along with our ongoing partnership with In These Times magazine, we are now partnered with The Real News Network in Baltimore!

In this episode, we sit down with Justin Whittaker for the first part of an ongoing series of interviews where we’ll be talking to workers on all sides of the marijuana industry?—?in states where that work is legal and in states where it’s not. Justin is originally from the Midwest, but now he lives all the way up near Fairbanks, Alaska, where he works at an organic weed-growing operation. Alaska was the second state in the U.S. to decriminalize cannabis decades ago; in 2014, it became the third state to legalize recreational use. Justin has seen different sides of the industry, in different states, both before and after legalization. We talk about his life and work, and we talk about the ways legalization has changed things in the marijuana industry for buyers, business owners, and workers.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


Share this post

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

Share this post

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.


Share this post

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

Share this post

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.


Share this post

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

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

Share this post

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).


Share this post

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

Share this post

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.


Share this post

The Other Victims of California’s Fires: Workers Inhaling Toxic Fumes

Share this post

With the death toll now standing at 42 and with some 7,200 structures destroyed, officials are now calling the wildfire in Paradise, CA (dubbed the “Camp Fire”) the deadliest and most destructive in California’s recent history. Two other massive fires—dubbed the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire are simultaneously scorching Southern California.

As frontline firefighters—including many prison laborers—continue to battle the blaze while healthcare providers work around the clock treating fire victims, millions of other workers far away from the inferno are feeling a secondary impact: toxic smoke.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, over 160 miles away from the Camp Fire, air quality dramatically declined almost immediately after the fires broke out. Over the past week, AirNow, a government website reporting real-time air quality data has shown the Bay Area hovering between 150-200 on the federal Air Quality Index (AQI), surpassing 200 (or “very unhealthy” levels) in parts of the Bay. The higher the AQI value, the more polluted the skies are and the more concern there is for public health.

This week, the Bay Area also saw the second highest amount of fine particulate matter in the air ever recorded. This substance is not only made up of smoke from charred forests, but could contain everything that gets incinerated when residences go up in flames: cars, fuel, batteries, light bulbs, cleaning products, plastics, upholstery and more.

Public health officials have been advising residents of affected areas to stay indoors to avoid the unhealthy air that can lead to headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and worse.

However, for many workers who work outdoors for a living, that’s easier said than done.

While many white collar workers don protective masks to commute to office jobs where recirculated air conditioning provides some measure of protection from the smoky skies, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, day laborers, landscapers, construction workers, public works employees and others have no choice but to work through the harmful haze—at great detriment to their health.

Many of these workers hail from neighborhoods and worksites already facing increased levels of toxins. Compounding the situation, these are also often the very same workers who are least protected by worker health and safety regulations.

“It’s been horrible,” says Kywanna Reed, who has been working 10-hour days outside this week as a traffic controller. “I wake up with headaches. I go to sleep with headaches. I have a headache right now, and a bag of headache medicine in the truck. My whole respiratory system is messed up. My coworker had a nosebleed and went home sick.”

Reed said her employer, American Construction & Supply Inc., did not provide masks to employees.

“Employers should pass out masks and you could choose to wear them or not,” says Reed, “But right now, they’re not doing anything.”

Other workers, however, say their employers are providing masks while verbally encouraging workers to protect themselves.

Cesar Fragoso, who works as a landscaper for Planting Justice, said the non-profit nursery in East Oakland passed out masks to employees.

“I work outside every day, weeding and transplanting plants. I can feel the smoke in my nose. My eyes started itching. I’ve been coughing. The masks help, but it’s tragic that we have to go through this in order for people to acknowledge what we are doing to the environment,” says Fragoso.

A 2017 news release from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) advises that “Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees).”

Those measures include “using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas,” “limiting the time that employees work outdoors” and “providing workers with respiratory protective equipment.”

However, as worker advocates note, holding employers accountable for taking such measures can be a challenge.

“Even though people we know from Cal/OSHA have made a tremendous effort, their presence in the field is so limited that it is really hard for them to do any kind of enforcement or implementation,” says Dinorah Barton-Antonio of the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.

Other workers say they wouldn’t use a mask even it was provided, citing the already highly dangerous nature of their industries. Sixty-three-year-old carpenter Ruel Bernard smelled the smoke and started sneezing this week as he hung siding at a residential construction site, but chose not to wear a mask.

“Us older generation of construction workers, our bodies have been toxic waste dumps from the get-go. I started working in New York in 1971, breaking down plastic walls, climbing around in attics filled with insulation and dust. Every day I hurt myself at work, so at some point you’re just like ‘Fuck it,’” explains Bernard. “I know that’s a dinosaur, macho attitude. But that attitude helps us survive in this industry.”

The idea that the smoke from the wildfires is just one ingredient in an already toxic soup of working conditions resonates in farmworker communities.

Lucas Zucker is the Policy Director at Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works with immigrant farmworkers in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. During last summer’s wildfires, CAUSE distributed N95 masks to workers in the field.

“Farm work is already dangerous on the day-to-day. This area has some of the highest use of toxic pesticides,” notes Zucker. “But then with the wildfires, the ag industry pushes to harvest their crop quickly to prevent damage to crops like strawberries and avocados. So we actually see an increase in production, with obvious implications for human health. Whereas a white collar worker might be able to take time off and have that paid, for farmworkers who get paid piece rate it’s hard for them to take that time off if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck.”

While much of the conversation in the Bay Area about protection from the smoke has focused on masks, some workers point to having power on the job—whether that be in the form of a union contract or worker ownership—as one of the largest factors in ensuring worker health and safety.

“We have a union here. It helps us get through things like this because I feel like we have some camaraderie and I can take steps to take care of myself without worrying that I’ll lose my job,” says Daniel DeBolt, who works as a deckhand on the ferry boats that shuttle tourists and commuters from Oakland to San Francisco and who has been experiencing headaches and fatigue all week.

Worker power on the job was also key for Dante Ortiz from Root Volume, a worker-owned landscaping cooperative.

“In 20 years of building gardens in wildfire-prone areas like Colorado and California, I’d never had a day where we had to pull out because of air quality, but that happened last Friday. We were doing heavy excavation, trenching for retaining walls. It’s hard work. You’re breathing heavily, which is the worst thing you could be doing,” says Ortiz. “So we all decided it was time to get out of there. Being in a worker cooperative gave us the agency to make that decision for ourselves.”

However, other workers like day laborers don’t have stable employment or consistent employers.

According to Gabriela Galicia, the Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, CA, “Workers stand on the corner for up to eight hours a day waiting for work. Many corners are already near toxic fumes, and now workers are out in the smoke too.”

Galicia notes that many workers are already thinking about heading north in search of work rebuilding fire-devastated communities, which carries its own risks to workers’ rights and their health. Worker exploitation and wage theft has marred reconstruction in post-disaster recovery efforts across the country.

“We’ve seen too many natural disasters where day laborers have been taken advantage of,” says Galicia. “They are human beings. They’re helping to rebuild. Treat them with dignity.”

As human-driven climate change intensifies and more of California becomes engulfed in flames, workers wonder whether toiling in toxic air is becoming “the new normal”—or if there can be a just transition to a new way of relating to land and labor.

CAUSE’s Lucas Zucker explains, “Ultimately, we need state or federal disaster aid that can fill in the gaps for workers exposed to disaster or toxic conditions so that they don’t have to make that horrible choice between putting food on their family’s table or being exposed to toxic conditions.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 13, 2018. 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

Subscribe For Updates

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, sign up to receive our email newsletter:

* indicates required

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.