We are all in this together: Farmworkers are helping us get through this crisis. Let’s thank and support them, too

National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW), March 25th-31st, celebrates the many contributions made by farmworkers to our communities and our very livelihoods.  This year NFAW arises at a time as the world watches in fear as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe.

Empty grocery store shelves left behind by worried shoppers preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic have put into focus our reliance on an often-overlooked group of essential workers: farmworkers. Farmworkers form the backbone of our food supply chain, being responsible for planting, tending, harvesting and packing our fruits and vegetables; additionally, they are critical in the production of dairy and meat. Farmworkers, with the help of others in the food supply chain, help keep grocery stores stocked in the good times, and they will help re-supply the shelves while the country fights this pandemic. Yet despite their importance to the country’s food security, farmworkers are highly vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 emergency. It is important that we recognize the sacrifices they make and unite in supporting better work and health conditions for agricultural workers.

The average farmworker makes less than $20,000 per year, and the average income for a farmworker family is below $25,000, according to the 2016 National Agricultural Worker’s Survey. Since many states do not give them the right to paid sick leave, every day of missed work means greater financial hardship for them and their families. This lack of paid sick leave means that workers may feel the need to go to work even when they are ill, which may put them and others at risk. Housing, transportation and working conditions are another concern. Some farmworkers, particularly immigrants without families, live in group housing. The crowded conditions and poor sanitary facilities many of them experience create perfect environments for viral infections to spread. Many farmworkers also rely on shared transportation to and from work, which puts them in close quarters with others. Furthermore, a scarcity of handwashing facilities in the fields also increases the risk for the spread of disease. As if this weren’t challenging enough, language barriers and lack of action by employers could leave farmworkers without the information they need to know how to protect themselves.

Due to their living and working conditions, the toll of COVID-19 on farmworker communities could be significant. Only 47 percent of farmworkers have health insurance. Although the federal government has promised to make COVID-19 testing free of charge, treatment costs may still result in large medical bills. Living in rural areas reduces farmworkers’ access to care even further, since many have to travel long distances to rural hospitals and clinics that were already strapped for resources even before the pandemic. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule created a chilling effect that makes many immigrants – who make up the majority of the agricultural workforce-- wary of using public health services. Many of the approximately one million farmworkers who lack legal work authorization are also likely to avoid seeking care if they get sick. Despite assurances by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that they will not arrest and deport undocumented immigrants for seeking care, the agency’s aggressive immigration enforcement stance has created a climate of fear among those without legal work status.

Farmworker Justice, in collaboration with other farmworker-serving organizations, assembled a joint statement and set of policy priorities on farmworker communities and COVID-19. Those policy priorities include addressing the risks created by lack of proper sanitation in the fields and in farmworker housing; the economic hardships resulting from lack of unemployment insurance and paid sick leave; and lack of access to proper medical care.  That statement can be found here.

Today, more than ever, we should thank and support our farmworkers. It is no exaggeration to say we are all in this together. Please join Farmworker Justice this week in honoring the important contributions of farmworkers throughout the United States. More information on this celebratory week can be found on the Student Action with Farmworkers website.