Views of Two Members of Congress on Farmworkers and the Pandemic

By Patricia Morales, Farmworker Justice Intern

Farmworker Justice conducted interviews for a series of 17 programs called “The State of Farmworkers in the COVID-19 Era.”  The interviews were conducted by Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice.  They are posted on FJ’s Facebook page and YouTube Channel.  Two of the interviewees were members of Congress, Rep. Raul Ruiz, MD and Rep. Judy Chu.  Their backgrounds and comments are summarized in this article for the Farmworker Justice blog.

      Rep. Raul Ruiz, MD

            Representative Raul Ruiz represents District 36 in California in the U.S. Congress, which includes Coachella Valley. Rep. Ruiz is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and three Subcommittees, on Health, the Environment, and the Oversight and Investigation subcommittees. Rep. Ruiz is also the Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Health Task Force. Rep. Ruiz has a passion for helping his community in Coachella Valley, where he grew up with farmworker parents, as well as a passion for public health, which was why he obtained a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, as well as a Masters of Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health.

 

            Rep. Ruiz’s thorough background in public health gives him an important take on COVID-19, and his district, which has a 1-billion-dollar per year agriculture business[1]; it also gives Rep. Ruiz an important task of protecting farmworkers from COVID-19. In order to give the full picture, Rep. Ruiz explains how past injustices to farmworkers exacerbate their vulnerability to COVID-19. Farmworkers have one of the hardest jobs in any industry, and have one of the highest rates of occupational fatalities and injuries, however, it is among the lowest paid jobs in the country. In addition, farmworkers live in medically and educationally underserved communities. Rep. Ruiz points out this failed farmworker system by stating that, “The ones who are picking the fruits and vegetables are unable to afford them to maintain their health.”

Because farmworkers are given low wages, they are unable to maintain a healthy diet and are extremely vulnerable to diabetes and other health problems. Because of these shortcomings, COVID-19 has the potential to make these pre-existing health problems even worse. Farmworkers who already have health issues because of their inability to afford healthy food and receive adequate health care, will be at higher risk of severe illness if they catch the disease. Also, because of the close nature of labor that farmworkers perform, there is higher risk of rapid transmission.

Rep. Ruiz points out two additional reasons why farmworkers are extremely vulnerable:  first, there is a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitization measures. Farmworkers often are not given masks, ample space, handwashing breaks, or running water in the fields. Second, farmworkers are essential workers, therefore, they have to continue to work during the epidemic. Also, because many farmworkers have to live in cramped spaces where multiple families live together, it is impossible for farmworkers to isolate from their families. Because of how vulnerable farmworkers are to contracting COVID-19, Rep. Ruiz gives his advice on what to do to help protect farmworkers.

            Rep. Ruiz is concerned about a lack of information being given to farmworkers. There has been limited outreach in Spanish or contact tracing in poor communities. On top of being left in the dark about COVID-19, the Trump Administration has failed to adopt occupational safety requirements to protect workers from the pandemic, which leads to higher risk of farmworkers getting infected. These failures contributed to an outbreak at a date packing factory in Coachella Valley. Rep. Ruiz explains how there is a lack of oversight to check if farmworkers are treated properly at work, which has increased the possibility of outbreaks on farms, packing factories, and livestock facilities. Without proper oversight, farmworkers will continue to work without facemasks, hand washing stations, or social distancing practices.

Rep. Ruiz states that the most important thing that can be done to keep farmworkers safe is to conduct tests where farmworkers are at. Farmworkers’ schedules often prevent them from going to testing facilities, and many farmworker families have limited access to transportation to go get tested. So, in order to guarantee the safety of farmworkers, mass testing in farmworkers’ communities needs to be done. Rep. Ruiz ends his interview by emphasizing that we “must appreciate farmworkers like we do other essential workers.” Without mass testing on farmworkers, there will be more outbreaks and lives lost.

 

            Rep. Judy Chu

            Congresswoman Judy Chu represents District 27 in California and serves on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and its Subcommittee on Health. This membership gives Rep. Chu oversight on crucial safety programs. She also serves on the House Small Business Committee, which has oversight of the Small Business Administration, and is the Chair of the Subcommittee on Investigations, Oversight and Regulations. Rep. Chu has experience in occupational safety and health protections regarding farmworkers. In 2005 Rep. Chu sponsored legislation in the California State Assembly to prevent heat stress-related illnesses and deaths in the fields by requiring drinking water, shade, and rest periods for outside workers, especially during high temperatures. Because of Rep. Chu’s efforts, California was the first state to protect outdoor workers.  In Congress, Rep. Chu has introduced legislation to require these protections against heat stress across the country.  Her proposal is also incorporated into the bipartisan agricultural worker immigration bill that passed the House in December, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, HR5038.

 

           Rep. Chu has a passion for protecting immigrants, including immigrant farmworkers, partly because of America’s history of exploiting Chinese workers in the 19th century. She describes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which unjustly prevented immigration from China, and deprived Chinese workers in the U.S. of citizenship and other protections. Injustices against immigrants and farmworkers are still happening today and must be reconciled in order to create a safe work environment in the COVID-19 era.

            One of the injustices that Rep. Judy Chu explains is how farmworkers who ensure that we have food on the table, are excluded from the COVID relief stimulus plan. Immigrants and farmworkers need to be given the same protections that all essential workers are given if we want to recover from COVID-19. Rep. Chu supports several initiatives that can help guarantee protections for farmworkers. The COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act would require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard for all workplaces to implement infectious disease plans, to guarantee that workers are kept safe. This would require PPE, separation, and constant testing in workplaces.  Rep. Chu supports the Essential Workers Bill of Rights which is a framework for legislation to ensure that every worker has access to PPE, paid sick leave, family medical leave, protections for collective bargaining agreements, livable wage, health care security, and workers at the table when developing workplace safety protocols. In addition, Rep. Chu also supports the Paycheck Guarantee Act, that would cover 100% of wages for works earning salaries, to ensure that employers keep employees paid and out of the unemployment lines.

            Rep. Judy Chu also talked about the shortfalls of the Federal Administration’s management of the COIVD outbreak.  The administration failed to establish extensive testing and contact tracing; distribution of ventilators and PPE; and to use the Defense Production Act to mandate more production of PPE and ventilators.

            In order to create a safe reopening of the nation’s economy, Rep. Judy Chu gives three priorities that must be addressed in Congress. First, there needs to be a focus on health and safety, by having mass testing and contact tracing, as well as resources for hospitals and health care systems. Second, states and local governments must have access to money that they need due to the loss of revenue. Third, immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, need to be included in the next relief bill. Because undocumented immigrants were excluded from the last relief bill, millions were left without the stimulus check, and citizens and lawful permanent resident immigrants in mixed- status families were also excluded from the relief rebate. That is why Rep. Chu supports the Coronavirus Immigrant Family Protection Act, which would guarantee relief support to anyone who files taxes. This act would also halt the Public Charge Rule, which prevented immigrants who participated in federal assistance programs in gaining residency. Under the proposed bill, any benefits from coronavirus relief programs would not affect future residence status for immigrants. The new bill would also include certain Medicaid services, which currently are not available to undocumented people or legal residents who have been in the country for less than 5 years. Rep. Chu explains that this bill is important because we need everyone to have access to health care during this crisis and because everyone, “Deserves to get relief.”

            Rep. Chu ends her interview by discussing the importance of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, HR5038, which passed the House in December on a bipartisan basis because it would allow many undocumented farmworkers and their family members to earn legal immigration status.  Rep. Chu explains that everyone benefits if farmworkers are healthy and safe and free from exploitation. Congress needs to know what is at stake if farmworkers are not healthy and cannot work. Also, the inclusion of the Heat Stress protections in the FWMA will help set a baseline for future heat protection efforts. If 260 House members can overcome the conflicts regarding immigration policy to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on a bipartisan basis, then Congress should pass immigration reform and provide immigrant farmworkers and their families with protections in the next relief package to address the pandemic.


[1] Gross Value of Agriculture Production 2017-2018 https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/AgComm/2018/2018cropyearcactb00.pdf