Since the first COVID-19 cases were identified at Primex Farms LLC in Wasco in late June, the number of cases have continued to rise.
The United Farm Workers has identified 91 employees, 36 family members and 23 children for a total of 150 infected, according to Armando Elenes, the Secretary Treasurer for the UFW.
“The major issues continue to be getting workers paid for their time while in quarantine or recovering due to COVID19,” said Elenes. “Many workers remain very fearful of returning to work.”
To help protect farmworkers during the pandemic, the UFW has been appealing to congress to take action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the agricultural community.
“The peak summer harvest is starting and our worst fears are happening as farm workers are getting COVID-19,” says a press release by the UFW.
There have been numerous reports of outbreaks among farmworkers across the nation. Nearly 200 workers at a Tennessee farm contracted COVID-19, and in New Jersey, more than 50 workers had the virus. There was also an outbreak in Oregon at a fruit farm, where dozens of workers were infected.
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Frontline At-Risk Manual (FARM) Laborers Protection Act late last month. The legislation establishes critical protection, including 10 days of paid leave and hazard pay for agricultural workers.
“Every worker, regardless of the color of their skin, the zip code they live in, or their line of work deserves the same fundamental protections in the workplace. Yet millions of America’s farmworkers, whose work has long been integral to feeding Americans across the country, are without those safeguards—protections that are only made more important by the coronavirus pandemic,” said Merkley. “These workers feed our families. Now, it’s our job to make sure they have the protections they need to stay safe.”
The FARM Laborers Protection Act would not only provide 10 days of paid sick leave to agricultural workers, it would also provide pandemic premium pay at an additional $13 per hour for these workers in recognition of the personal risk of maintaining the nation’s food supply during the pandemic.
It would also help maintain payrolls and limit layoffs and furloughs in the critical industry and would call for the employers to implement recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control regarding sanitation and social distancing in work sites, employer-provided housing, and transportation.
In addition, the legislation would provide grants to agricultural producers to help them provide premium pay to their employees and purchase handwashing stations, portable restrooms, and Personal Protective Equipment, according to a press release.
This bill would build off of the Families First Coronavirus Act, which expanded paid sick leave to millions of workers. However, this act exempts farmers with fewer than 50 employees from providing paid sick leave. This exemption has left millions of farmworkers unprotected —96.6 percent of farmworkers work in farms with fewer than 50 employees, according to Merkley’s office.
This means many farmworkers are forced to choose between following public health guidance or keeping their jobs.
Leydy Rangel, a staffer for the UFW foundation, said it’s crucial for the senate to pass this bill because it would fill in the gap by making paid sick leave available to all farm and agricultural workers.
“We need to protect the frontline workers in the agricultural and food industry and provide those 96.6 percent of farm workers with paid sick leave,” said Rangel. “The shelves stocked with beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables did not magically appear there. It took a lot of hard, back-breaking labor, and those workers do not have the same privilege to enjoy those same meals that others are enjoying while sheltering at home.”
Agricultural workers across the board are being affected. More than 10 thousand meat packing workers have been infected with COVID-19, according to Rangel.
Many other FARM Laborers Protection Act supporters like Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have stressed the importance of the work of the essential workers.
“It is past time that we provide them and their families with the necessary protection, safety and support to keep our food system viable,” said Leahy. “While the Trump Administration is all too willing to deem farmworkers ‘essential,’ it has refused to provide farmers and farmworkers with clear, mandatory workplace safety guidelines and the support to implement them. This bill is a critical step toward protecting farmers, farmworkers, and the food they produce for all Americans.”
The UFW is encouraging community residents who support the FARM Laborers Protection Act to reach out to their senators and ask them to support the bill.
“Our government has declared them essential workers and in return needs to protect them,” the UFW said in a news release. “Email your Senators today.”