Protecting Farmworkers Is Paramount for our Food Supplies

Workers picking strawberries in Fort Valley, Georgia

Lance Cheung/USDA

While food chain workers have always been essential in myriad ways, historically their health and safety has not been prioritized. The COVID crisis exacerbates this underlying inequity. As COVID-19 cases and deaths skyrocket in previously unaffected rural areas, people laboring to get food from farm to fridge deserve basic workplace protections and equitable access to healthcare in the event that they get sick. The CARES Act—Congress’s third stimulus package in response to the coronavirus pandemic—lays some important foundations on which agencies and Congress can build to ensure that happens, but much more needs to be done in the next stimulus package being negotiated now to adequately protect workers and therefore our food supply, meet everyone’s basic needs, and keep food on the table by preventing major supply disruptions in the future.

Farmworkers Need Access to Protective Equipment

Farmworkers are on the frontlines of the COVID19 crisis, and put themselves and their families at risk every day to ensure that we all have food on our tables. Yet their working conditions inherently put them in harm’s way every day, whether from chemical exposure coming from pesticide use or from the lack of opportunity for physical distancing in the fields. Given this reality, we call on Congress to appropriate funding—as has been done for other sectors—in the next COVID response package that will enable the Administration to provide an adequate supply of personal protective equipment for all of the nation’s farmworkers. This critical intervention will enable them to protect themselves, their families and their communities.

OSHA Needs to Set Infectious Disease Standards

All people deserve to be safe from infectious disease at work. The CARES Act authorized the Secretary of Labor to increase staffing levels at OSHA and enforce existing occupational standards. That’s a good step, but more is needed. OSHA already has the authority to issue an “emergency temporary standard” to protect workers for six months from hazards, including infectious diseases. In fact, OSHA started to work on some of these standards but the Trump Administration put the kibosh on these efforts early on in this term. Congress should direct OSHA to escalate that effort and ensure that all workers will be protected in all workplaces, including from COVID-19. Congress must also ensure that the agency has enough inspectors and big enough penalties to enforce required protections. In this time of crisis, it is critical that a standard like this have real teeth behind it, and that bad actors are held accountable. Congress should also grant workers and their advocates the right to enforce the standards themselves when OSHA itself does not.

Infectious disease standards are particularly important for farmworkers and other food chain workers. Farmworker housing is often crowded, and groups live together in a single room, increasing health risks. Slaughterhouse workers have already started to get sick with the virus, and close quarters at those dangerous jobs could similarly facilitate the spread of the virus. Protecting the health of food chain workers is paramount if we are to protect the health of any and all eaters in the country and keep food on grocery store shelves.

Farmworker Communities Need More Healthcare Access

In too many communities, farmworkers lack access to basic healthcare let alone the sophisticated care needed to beat a severe case of COVID19. The CARES Act provided $180 million for rural health, an important step to fill the gap left by the extreme decline in rural hospital access in recent years. But for the people working in fields and on slaughterhouse lines in crowded and often dangerous conditions, this funding will not ensure access to care, in the event the virus continues to spread through those workplaces and communities.

In order to protect food system workers, the federal agencies receiving rural health funds should direct the money to ensure that farmworkers have access to services in the event they get sick in this pandemic. However, Congress should go further to protect agricultural workers and ensure continuity of our food system by using the next COVID relief package to appropriate funds specifically to create field medical clinics in areas that have a large population of agricultural workers. Establishing field medical care has the potential to save many lives, reduce the pressure on healthcare systems in agricultural areas, and prevent a major disruption to the nation’s food supply.

About the Authors

Lena Brook

Director, Food Campaigns, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Valerie Baron

Senior Attorney and Director, Animal Agriculture, Health and Food Division, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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