Farmworkers in Uniquely Vulnerable Position
April 15, 2020
The Institute has been involved in efforts nationally to support farmers and local food systems through the Coronavirus funds. But as this letter (below) to the editor of the New York Times points out, farmworkers are in a uniquely vulnerable position, while being crucial to the nation’s health and nutrition through COVID (and always). MFAI supports efforts to support fair treatment for farm workers.
The New York Times – Opinion
By Alma Patty Tzalain
Ms. Tzalain is a member of the grass-roots organization Alianza Agrícola.
April 15, 2020
I am one of the thousands of farmworkers across the country making sure there is still food to put on your tables. Since I came to New York from Guatemala 11 years ago, I have cleaned cabbage in a packing shed, milked cows on dairy farms, trimmed apple trees in orchards and wrapped and pruned tomatoes in a greenhouse.
If I get sick with Covid-19, I’m afraid of what it will mean for my children, my compañeros and my community. But unlike many other workers in the United States, my workplace has not shut down. Farmworkers are considered essential, and yet we are left out of government support.
A few weeks ago I started to have a headache and fever. The symptoms got worse, with a sore throat and coughing. I called a health clinic, concerned that I had the coronavirus. The doctor told me that I should stay home for a week, and since there is no cure, there was no reason to come in for a checkup. But I was able to get tested for the virus.
I didn’t know what to do. I was so worried: One week at home without a paycheck? I support three daughters in Guatemala and a young son here, and I’m on my own. If I told management, what would happen? How would I feed my children or pay my rent?
I called my supervisor to relay what the doctor told me. She agreed that I should go home. But she didn’t say anything about sick pay or assure me I would still have a job when I felt better. For many farmworkers like me, being sick has always meant choosing between going to work sick and staying home with no pay, which could mean getting fired.
My employer’s policy is to withhold our pay if we stay home sick. If employees take too many days off, we lose points, which leads to deductions from a small yearly bonus. So we have continued to work even if we are sick or injured.
But since I am a leader of Alianza Agrícola, a grass-roots organization that is an advocate for immigrant farmworkers in Western New York, I knew my rights. New York had passed legislation before I got sick that requires employers with more than 10 employees to provide paid sick leave to workers who must stay home because of coronavirus concerns.
I might not have known about my rights before joining the organization. I’ve gone through so many hard times in this country and the group has given me the strength to fight to improve the lives of people in my community.
So I received the paid leave I was entitled to, the first time in 11 years as a farmworker I was paid while ill. But after my test result came back negative, my employer stopped paying me, even though I was still feeling sick.
Agriculture is a multibillion-dollar industry in New York, and the state is the country’s top producer of yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream and the second-biggest apple producer. Immigrant workers are the backbone of our state’s farming industry. Many are undocumented or work with temporary guest worker visas.
We have always lived and worked isolated from the rest of society, invisible to most. This leaves our community even more vulnerable now.
And while I don’t live in employer-provided housing, which can be tight quarters, many farmworkers do, making it nearly impossible to fully quarantine for sickness. Employers are sharing very little information about how to protect ourselves. It’s unclear what the plan is to keep us safe, but I’d bet our bosses are mostly focused on their bottom line, not our health. I have heard of farms that practically prevent workers from leaving because they are concerned that if we get sick, the work won’t get done.
Many farmworkers don’t have health insurance and aren’t sure how to afford medical care or support families if we can’t work. If we get sick, what will happen to us? Will we be fired because we’re no longer useful to the farm and are now a threat to the business?
Recently, a fellow Guatemalan dairy worker in the region died from the coronavirus — our worst fear. And despite the pandemic, detention and deportation of undocumented workers is still a threat.
Meanwhile, the federal government is leaving my community behind. The federal recovery bill excludes people without a Social Security number from receiving a $1,200 check, even if they pay taxes. And undocumented workers can’t apply for unemployment insurance.
It’s hard to be in a country that isn’t ours, and in this crisis, it is even harder. We put food on everyone’s table, but we struggle to feed ourselves and our families.
Amid of all this, we hear that the Trump administration wants to lower farmworkers’ pay to help our employers. I wonder if these people in charge have ever worked a 12-hour shift in the burning heat inside a greenhouse. Or been exposed to deadly chemicals or worked with dangerous machines. I wonder if they have ever had a job that consists of repetitive manual labor, but had no access to health care. And all of this for wages that barely cover our bills.
All workers, regardless of immigration status, deserve emergency income and health care. The next recovery package must include us. New York should set up emergency funds for all workers excluded from federal benefits and provide unemployment benefits to undocumented people and guest workers.
For those of us still on the job, we need enforceable health and safety protections and hazard pay — not lower wages — to compensate us for the risks we are taking to protect our country’s food supply. Workers across the food chain are standing up for these protections.
But I am still worried. I’m back at work and more co-workers are going home sick. I still don’t know what precautions my employer is taking to prevent the virus’s spread among the workers. We need protections now and for the long-term. The world we create during and after this crisis has to be one where we are no longer invisible, and where we will be safe and healthy and can hug our children tight.
Alma Patty Tzalain is a farmworker and a leader of the grass-roots organization Alianza Agrícola.