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Industry silence a week after UFW ‘open letter’ called ‘meaningful steps to protect farm workers’ health and safety’

Early last week (March 17) the United Farm Workers issued an “open letter” to agricultural employers and organizations, calling on them to take meaningful steps to protect farm workers’ health and safety from perilous threats posed by the coronavirus covid-19. The union called upon growers and their representatives to work with the UFW because “we all must do more during this period of genuine crisis” to protect farm workers, rural communities and the domestic food supply, according to the letter signed by union President Teresa Romero and Secretary-Treasurer Armando Elenes.

Those explicit, concrete steps offering real relief from covid-19 have been met with silence by the industry. They include extending sick leave to 40 hours or more; eliminating 90-day wait periods for new workers to be eligible for sick pay; eliminating required doctors’ notes when workers claim sick days; cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces multiple times daily; and arranging for daycare assistance and flexibility since schools are closed. How has the industry responded to the UFW’s open letter? Here is a sampling:

• Typical of industry reactions was a host of Monterey County agricultural groups that announced they created an “advisory” for worker protection as a “model template” to enhance protections that already exist against covid-19. Their only clear message to farm workers: They should keep working. Grower supporters still praised them for embracing added worker safeguards.

• One Ventura County grower said his farm is practicing social distancing, but added, “if workers don’t follow those rules at home, we don’t have any control over that.” That offers little comfort when multiple farm worker families must commonly live packed into small, substandard apartments.

• Some employers have issued letters or post cards workers can show authorities affirming they are “essential” employees and urging the workers to continue working. But those gestures do not serve as substitutes for meaningful steps to stem the pandemic by protecting farm workers with basic actions set out by the UFW.

Other vital measures the industry should back cited by the UFW include covering farm workers under state or federal relief or stimulus benefits since at least half of U.S. farm workers are undocumented; mandatory, formal workplace plans to enforce social distancing, protect workers and minimize infection; easy access to medical services plus screening, testing and treatment for the great majority of non-union farm workers who have no health care; and assuring employer-provided housing has adequate hygiene and can sustain social distancing practices.

Nearly all local, state and federal shelter-in-place orders exempt farm workers as essential employees. The overwhelming response farm workers express to this news, including on the UFW’s popular social media platforms, is anger: “Now they think we’re essential.” All other workers listed as essential—such as in the health professions, grocery stores and food distribution system, to name a few—are covered under this nation’s labor and social protective laws and rules such as minimum wages, overtime pay and the right to organize into unions.

Meanwhile, the responses from union contract growers are encouraging: Immediately sharing and training workers on best workplace practices, including special crew meetings; having indoor mushroom pickers adjust picking styles from side-by-side to working across from each other; most unionized workers can draw upon health care, paid sick leave and vacations, and personal days off—with some companies offering to pay workers if they become ill and others offering to cover health care for older workers if they are laid off.

To express appreciation for their essential services, thousands of Safeway supermarket workers are getting an extra $2 an hour, a form of hazard pay since they must expose themselves to infection. The UFW asks why essential farm workers don’t deserve the same?

The nation is being severely tested and it is adopting strict safety requirements as never before, the UFW observes. Farm workers who are designated as essential employees deserve the fundamental protections the union has outlined so they can keep feeding America.