COVID-19 and Farmworkers: Crowded Conditions, Lack of Protective Equipment a Deadly Combination

We've all read about the outbreaks of coronavirus in meatpacking plants across the country, but other workers in our food system have also been impacted by the spread of the virus due to lack of protective equipment, crowded working conditions and exposure to toxic chemicals that make them more susceptible to the virus. The Hillsdale Farmers' Market's assistant manager Azul Tellez Wright wrote about these issues in its newsletter.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many of the inequalities
that people of color face in the U.S.

Nationwide, people of color (POC) are more likely to fall ill with COVID-19, an upsetting truth that is reflected here in Multnomah County. A study conducted by the Multnomah County Health Department in April showed that 40 percent of coronavirus cases in Multnomah County were POC even though they only comprise a third of the population. POC are more likely to hold essential worker positions, such as the thousands of agricultural workers whose jobs have not stopped as the pandemic has descended.

Farmworkers are subjected to crowded conditions, a lack of protective gear and poor housing.

The weight of Oregon’s $50 billion dollar agriculture industry is mostly carried by the thousands of seasonal and often undocumented workers who are hired each season. Agricultural working conditions can put farmworkers at a higher risk for infectious diseases like COVID-19. The nature of the work (i.e. harvesting, canning) makes keeping a six foot distance a challenge.

On top of that, many employers aren’t putting sanitation and distance requirements in place and aren’t providing their employees with personal protective equipment. Many migrant workers live in close quarters, making quarantining impossible. Federal guidelines for farmworker labor camps allow four people in a 10 feet-by-20 feet space, which is roughly the size of a garden shed. [A petition from the nonprofit Oregon Law Center is proposing stricter regulations to protect farmworkers, including changes to transportation, work and living areas to allow workers more space and ensure proper hygiene, according to the Oregonian.]

Despite paying taxes and being considered essential workers, immigrants cannot access the public benefits that many Americans have come to rely on the past few months. Immigrant and undocumented workers were also excluded from the stimulus checks that came as a reprieve for most Americans in March. In the event that they do get sick, many farmworkers are also not eligible for state or employer healthcare.

Farmworkers' families are also more susceptible to the virus.

Clearly, the inequities that farmworkers face are made far worse by COVID-19. There are a number of local organizations that are listening to Oregon’s farmworkers and working with local and state agencies to provide protections against the COVID-19 outbreak. Causa is an immigrant rights organization that works to improve the lives of Latino immigrants and their families through advocacy, coalition building, leadership development, and civic engagement. Consider donating to Causa’s Worker Relief Fund which collects money to go directly to farmworkers families who were excluded from the federal stimulus package.

Woodburn-based PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or Northwest Farmworkers and Treeplanters United) is the largest Latino union in Oregon. They are raising money for their farmworkers emergency fund to support former and current undocumented workers affected by COVID, which includes farmworkers. The Oregon Latino Health Coalition is another organization that has been working with local and state public health agencies to increase protections for farmworkers. [Another organization working to improve conditions for farmworkers is Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworker justice organization currently striking against dangerous working conditions and lack of protective equipment at fruit companies in Washington State.]

Action Items: Help Local Farmers and Farmworkers…Without Leaving the Couch

I don't know about you, but this quarantine/sheltering in place/social distancing thing is getting old. I'm not at the tear-my-hair-out, run-out-the-front-door-naked stage—for this my neighbors are eternally grateful—but I'm starting to feel like there are things that need attending to besides my Facebook timeline.

Plus if I don't get busy soon, I'll have to address that list of household projects that I always said I'd get around to "when I had the time." Ahem. Below are three issues that need you to take action right now, all without leaving the comfort of your bunker.

Support Local Farms

As it stands now, farms are not eligible to receive assistance under the Small Business Administration (SBA) Economic Impact Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, including emergency grants, authorized in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by Congress.

Please send an email today to your Representative in Congress urging them to sign on to a letter to make sure farms are included. Below is a sample email you can copy and paste into an e-mail. List of Representatives here.

Dear Rep. [insert name],

I am writing to urge you to sign on—if you haven't already—to the letter to support making SBA's emergency economic injury grant program available to farms. It is imperative that farmers be able to access SBA disaster assistance as these programs can help fill the void that many farm businesses are currently feeling due to COVID-19.

Sincerely,

[your name and address]


Support Farmworkers

Daily  living and working was already dangerous and precarious for hundreds of  thousands of farmworkers and immigrants before the onset of COVID-19.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has terrorized farmworker communities and powerful growers have suppressed workers' efforts to organize. This pandemic has found a perfect environment to  increase immigrant communities' risk of fatality if they contract the virus. The agricultural industry has long refused to implement health and safety protections for farmworkers or worker housing, while state and federal agencies looked the other way. Today, agribusiness is  functionally exempt from COVID-19 protocols nationwide.

Take Action: Contact your governor and demand immediate protection for farmworkers. Tell them to:

  • Enact Emergency Orders with funding for staffing to ensure all COVID-19  protocols, including appropriate social distancing guidelines, are being  followed in the fields and packing/processing, with enforcement and  consequences for noncompliance, such as fines. Provide personal  protective clothing and equipment to farmworkers at no cost to them. Pay  farmworkers sick leave if they become ill. Establish an incentive for recruitment of needed farmworkers, including raising wages  to work in agriculture.
  • Ensure  there will be no retaliation against workers asking for better  protections, or for becoming ill. Ensure the COVID-19 protocols are not  used as retaliation in hiring practices.
  • Require transparent recruitment and hiring information and housing protections for all farmworkers related to COVID-19. In addition to informing workers about the terms and conditions of employment when workers are being hired, all persons who are recruiting for agricultural employment must provide detailed information about the risks of COVID-19, including how employers will protect their  safety while transporting and housing them, and in the workplace.
  • All  farmworker housing, tools, and equipment must be fully sanitized before  farmworker families move in and use the equipment. There must be proof of that sanitation. There must be designated sanitized quarantine living  facilities with access to medical personnel, and COVID-19 plans approved by the state Department of Health and local health jurisdictions.

E-mail Gov. Brown of Oregon. E-mail Gov. Inslee of Washington.

Take Action: Email state agencies and demand a stop to processing and approving H2A visa applications immediately for farms in the state.

The  H2-A guestworker visa program has a long history of exploitation and abuse. By design, the program makes it almost impossible to regulate the  protocols needed to prevent COVID-19 contagion. Farmworkers are forced to work in close proximity and share close living and eating quarters, as well as being transported on a daily  basis in vans and buses in large groups. The current protocols are not enforceable and have huge gaps, giving individual corporate farms  loopholes. This sets up scenarios with potentially deadly consequences  for farmworkers and rural communities that are already under served in  healthcare, transportation, and infrastructure.

There  is no plan for protocols to prepare for the influx of additional H2-A workers once the  season begins. Furthermore, there has been  no protection for those H2-A workers that are already here—not during their long-distance travel, nor now while they are living in crowded  housing and working in close contact in the fields. 

In Oregon: E-mail Oregon Foreign Labor Certification Coordinator Dora HerreraIn Washington: E-mail Employment Security Department Executive Operations Dir. Nick Streuli.


Information on farmers and CARES act from Farmers Market Fund. Information on H2_A program and photo of farmworkers on bottom left from Community to Community.