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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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.


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California laws protect undocumented workers from abuse by the boss

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Undocumented immigrant workers are some of the most vulnerable in the U.S., with employers all too often targeting them for abuse, paying them less than the law requires, and basically using ICE to put down worker organizing efforts. But California, which has the highest proportion of undocumented immigrant workers of any state, is leading the way in protecting them and penalizing abusive employers, the Economic Policy Institute’s Daniel Costa reports.

Seven laws enacted since 2013 send a message to employers: the law still applies. You don’t get to break labor laws just because your workers are undocumented.

  • California’s AB 263 (2013) prohibits employers from using threats related to immigration status to retaliate against employees who have exercised their labor rights. For example, if an employee complains to an employer about wages owed to her, and if the employer retaliates with threats related to the worker’s immigration status as an excuse to discharge or not pay the worker, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) can investigate and fine the employer, or the worker can bring a civil lawsuit against the employer. Employers guilty of retaliation based on immigration status may be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 and the employer’s business license may be temporarily suspended.

Several other laws expand or clarify AB 263, including penalties for filing or threatening to file false reports and say that an “employer’s business license may be revoked (not just suspended temporarily) if the employer is found to have retaliated against an employee based on immigration status. In addition, a lawyer who participates in retaliatory activities on behalf of an employer may be suspended or disbarred.” Making threats about someone’s immigration status can lead to criminal extortion charges. Also:

  • California’s AB 450 (2017) can provide due process for workers in the face of an I-9 worksite audit and discourage employers from using the I-9 audit process to retaliate against employees. Under AB 450, employers are prohibited from providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with access to nonpublic areas of the workplace and employment records when ICE has not obtained a warrant or subpoena, and AB 450 requires employers to notify workers when ICE plans to conduct an audit and inform workers about the details of the audit. Employers can be fined $2,000 to $5,000 for the first violation, and $5,000 to $10,000 for each additional violation. In addition, employers are prohibited from requiring their existing employees to reverify their work authorization at a time or manner not required by federal immigration law, and may face penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation.
  • California’s SB 54 (2017), also known as the California Values Act, includes a provision that has the potential to make courts and government buildings more accessible to unauthorized workers (by decreasing the risk of detention by ICE agents while pursuing claims for workplace violations by employers). In light of increasing immigration enforcement activities at courthouses and state government buildings by ICE, unauthorized immigrant workers will face significant difficulties accessing the judicial system and due process. SB 54 provides for the upcoming publication (by October 2018) of model policies for ensuring that public facilities “remain safe and accessible to all California residents, regardless of immigration status.” These model policies have the potential to provide unauthorized immigrant workers with greater certainty that ICE agents will not be present in California courtrooms, thus creating a safer environment for immigrants to access the legal system and obtain due process.

But the fact that these laws were necessary goes to show how much exploitation, retaliation and abuse undocumented immigrants face on the job—and California is just one state. In too many places, these laws don’t exist to protect the workers who need them.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.


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