Farmworkers in the U.S.

Farmworker Justice Update: 06/04/2020

High COVID Risk Among Farmworkers

Farmworkers face a threat of high numbers of COVID-19 infections among their community. On one Tennessee farm all two hundred workers tested positive, and throughout the country farmworker communities are seeing high numbers of infections due to, among other reasons, an inability to isolate from one another at work or in employer provided housing. Little is being done to prevent infections. Social distancing guidelines are not being implemented by many employers, and the safety precautions being taken are often inadequate...

New Study Shows Heat Stress Protections Prevent Kidney Injury Among Farmworkers—and Save Lives

The lack of a federal standard to protect agricultural workers from heat stress endangers the health and lives of farmworkers across the U.S. Heat stress is a frequent risk to farmworkers, who often spend long periods doing physically-demanding work in high temperatures and humidity. Beyond the risk of hyperthermia –or heat stroke—agricultural workers laboring in these conditions also face the possibility of developing a disabling and potentially fatal form of chronic kidney disease (CKD).  An increasing number of scientific studies point to heat stress and dehydration as the potential causes of CKD among farmworkers. An international group of researchers conducting a study of sugar cane workers in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua –an area with high CKD rates—recently found that providing basic protections to these farmworkers, such as access to drinking water, and rest breaks in shaded areas, drastically reduced rates of incident kidney injury (IKI). IKI, a measure of kidney injury over a span of time –the November-April harvest period, in this study—is an indicator of CKD risk. Burned cane cutters, who had the highest workload among the farmworkers studied and were at highest risk of heat stress, had a 74% decrease in rates of IKI, from 27% of workers to 7%.

Views of Two Members of Congress on Farmworkers and the Pandemic

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.

Farmworker Justice Update: 05/04/2020

COVID Crisis Continues to Impact Farmworkers 

Farmworker communities remain in crisis as COVID-19 continues to spread in the United States and around the world. As essential workers, farmworkers continue to labor in conditions – at work, during transportation and in housing -- that expose them to the risk of COVID-19. Farmworkers around the country report that many workplaces do not comply with CDC recommendations regarding social distancing, hand washing and protective equipment. Farmworker Justice is collaborating with farmworker-serving organizations and many other organizations across the United States to help farmworker families confront the very serious challenges caused by COVID-19. We are gathering information and devising strategies to help farmworkers and their organizations advance solutions for the health and well-being of farmworkers, their children and their communities. We are also supporting legislative efforts to protect farmworkers and other essential workers during this crisis, including, but not limited to, a COVID worker bill of rights championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (CA). Farmworker Justice’s  statement on the COVID-19 crisis...

 

National Farmworker Awareness Week and Women’s History Month: Forgetting Where You Came From is Denying Who You Are

By David Damian Figueroa

When I was a young boy, my mother repeated dichos, Mexican folk sayings, and American quotes as part of everyday life. My mother had been a child farmworker and only reached the sixth grade. What she may have been lacking in a formal education, she made up for with powerful words of wisdom. Dichos were her way of teaching me to become a better person...

National Farmworker Awareness Week Blog: Immigration

Immigration is a critically important issue for farmworkers. Approximately half of the farmworkers in this country, and possibly more, are undocumented. The lack of immigration status affects many aspects of farmworkers’ lives, including their ability to speak up against abusive employers, access healthcare, and fully participate in their communities.

As made clear by the current coronavirus pandemic, diseases do not discriminate based on borders or immigration status. Unfortunately, many of the U.S. government's public benefits programs do. This may make it difficult for workers to access the critical care or nutrition they need for themselves or their families. Undocumented immigrants may also be ineligible for important safety net protections such as unemployment insurance, meaning the loss of a work opportunity can be especially crippling economically. For this and other reasons, individuals are often reticent to speak up regarding safety, wage or other violations at their workplace, for fear of retaliation.

National Farmworker Awareness Week Blog: Celebrating 10 years of the Affordable Care Act

This week, as we celebrate National Farmworker Awareness Week, we also take a moment to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010. Over the last 10 years, farmworkers and their family members gained access to comprehensive health insurance and health care thanks to the ACA.

National Farmworker Awareness Week Blog: Heat Stress is an Increasing Risk for Farmworkers

The last few years have been the hottest on record, and scientists predict that temperatures will continue to climb. These high temperatures put farmworkers at increased risk for heat related illnesses, including heat stress and heat stroke. Heat related illnesses occurs when the body is subjected to and/or produces more heat than it can dissipate due to ambient environmental factors or to physical activity, and can be exacerbated by existing medical conditions or other individual factors. The resulting increase in core body temperature can lead to dehydration, fatigue, and if permitted to continue, to neurological impairment, multi‐organ failure, and eventually death. Additionally, heat stress impairs an individual’s judgment, so he or she may have trouble recognizing or communicating heat illness symptoms before it is too late.

Farmworker Justice Update: 3/27/2020

 

Farmworkers Face Threat From COVID-19

This past month has brought an explosion of uncertainty to farmworker communities with the emergence of COVID-19 in the United States and around the world.  The COVID-19 crisis highlights the inadequacies and the inextricable links between our healthcare system and our immigration system, leaving many farmworkers in particularly vulnerable positions. Food and agriculture has been labeled an essential sector, meaning that many farmworkers will likely continue to work as this crisis unfolds. In many cases, farmworkers do not  have health insurance or sick leave. Some states have reopened their ACA enrollment period, and the Trump administration is receiving pressure from Congress to open a special enrollment period on healthcare.gov, where eligible uninsured individuals could sign up for health insurance coverage amid this public health threat. In addition to these difficulties, farmworkers often are fearful of immigration enforcement at places like hospitals where they may need to get life-saving treatment if facing a severe case of the COVID-19. ICE has pledged not to enforce immigration laws against those seeking medical care, but many undocumented individuals are still fearful of accessing these needed services.

Farmworker Justice is collaborating with farmworker-serving organizations and many other organizations across the United States to help farmworker families confront the very serious challenges caused by COVID-19.  We are gathering information and devising strategies to help farmworkers and their organizations advance solutions for the health and well-being of farmworkers, their children and their communities. Farmworker Justice’s complete statement on the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on farmworkers can be found here. In addition to the challenges described above, H-2A visa workers face additional uncertainty related to COVID-19. Confusion abounded last week as the immediate future of the H-2A foreign guestworker program became unclear when the Trump administration announced that U.S. consulates would no longer process visas, and later, that the southern border would be shut except to vital industries. Eventually, the Administration clarified that agricultural workers would fall under the vital industries category, and that returning agricultural employers are eligible for this exemption. Similarly, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has entered into an MOU with the Department of Labor looking at transferring workers that are already in the country to other employers.

Farmworker Justice and farmworker advocates on the ground will continue to monitor the situation to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on the H-2A visa process. Also, we will urge the Administration to require stronger worker protections from agricultural employers. Farmworkers should be treated as the essential workers they are, and their health and safety should be a prime consideration, not just an afterthought.

  Cuccinelli Not Properly Installed as Head of USCIS

On March 1, a federal judge ruled that Ken Cuccinelli was unlawfully appointed to head the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The court ruled that the Trump administration violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act when it appointed Cuccinelli. Under the law, the “first assistant” will take over if the Senate confirmed director steps down. However, Cuccinelli did not work for USCIS prior to taking the helm. Instead, the acting head of DHS at the time, Kevin McAleenan, appointed Cuccinelli. As a result of this ruling, at least two of the asylum policies rolled out by Cuccinelli, who is a hardliner on immigration issues, may be overturned. The Trump Administration is expected to appeal the decision.

Labor Contractor Violated Visa Requirements at North Carolina Based Farm

On March 5, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced that a labor contractor, SBHLP Inc., had been found in violation of H-2A guestworker visa requirements. Among the violations, the labor contractor did not feed the workers three meals per day, made them pay their own visa expenses, and did not pay for the workers’ travel expenses as required by law. The workers were working on five North Carolina based farms. The labor contracting company must pay $224,249 in wages to 194 employees, and a $239,430 civil penalty to DOL. They are also debarred from the H-2A visa program for 3 years.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules that Workers be Paid for Time Putting on Gear

On March 19, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that workers cannot negotiate away pay for time spent putting on and taking off protective gear. The lawsuit began in 2010 when around 230 current and former employees sued for back wages for the time spent dealing with protective gear. The lower court ruled in the employees’ favor, and the case went directly to the state’s Supreme Court. The farm defended their actions by stating that the workers had given up the right to compensation for time spent dressing during collective bargaining, and that the de minimis doctrine applies in the case. That doctrine permits employers to disregard otherwise compensable work that takes only a few seconds or minutes beyond scheduled working hours. The court ruled that these arguments were not valid and that employees cannot negotiate away the time spent on protective gear under state law. Additionally, the compensation added up to several hundred dollars per year, which undermined the de minimis argument. The case is not finished. The Wisconsin Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court to review claims that were not addressed in the first ruling, including that the ruling would unjustly enrich the employees.

 

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

Maryland Passes Chlorpyrifos Ban

On March 18, the Maryland legislature passed a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos in the state.  Farmworker Justice supports this ban and testified in the Maryland legislature in favor of the bill. The ban goes into effect on January 1, 2021 and sunsets in 2024, and it allows for some limited excepted uses. Advocates say that it is a step in the right direction. Maryland is the fourth state to ban the pesticide, but only the second one to do it through legislative action. (After the bill was introduced, the Maryland Department of Agriculture announced that it would take steps to prevent chlorpyrifos use. However, the proposed steps were much weaker than those suggested in the bill.) The bill currently awaits Governor Larry Hogan’s signature.

ACA Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary

On March 23, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) celebrated its 10th anniversary. The ACA’s passage was a monumental achievement; it increased access to comprehensive health care for low-income individuals, including farmworkers. Among the ACA’s achievements are: Medicaid expansion, the establishment of health insurance marketplaces and subsidies to lower the cost of health insurance, and additional funds to community health centers providing farmworkers with benefits to which they would not otherwise have access. While the law has been attacked from several angles, it continues to provide access to healthcare for many Americans every year.FJ will continue to promote policies that increase access to health insurance and health care for farmworkers and their families. More information about the ACA and farmworkers can be found on our website.

 

Farmworker Awareness Week

National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) is a week of action for organizations, community members and students to raise awareness about farmworker issues in communities throughout the United States. This year heralds the 21st annual celebration and events highlighting the many contributions of farmworkers as well as the challenges they face. This year, NFAW will run from March 25th-31st. This important effort is coordinated by Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF). Farmworker Justice has participated in the planning committee for a number of years and will be posting a series of blogs and Facebook posts throughout the week. The complete list of themes and more information about the week can be found here.

National Farmworkers Awareness Week Blog: Dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos banned in Maryland

Last week, Maryland became the fourth state in the U.S. to ban chlorpyrifos, thanks to the tireless efforts of a broad coalition of farmworker, environmental and public health advocates. The ban will take effect on January 1, 2021 and will sunset in 2024. It also provides some limited waivers for certain crops. In spite of these limitations, the bill is still a significant victory for the health of Maryland’s farmworkers and general population. Farmworker Justice’s Senior Staff Attorney Iris Figueroa testified in favor of the chlorpyrifos ban before the Maryland General Assembly last month.

Chlorpyrifos is a highly neurotoxic insecticide developed from World War II-era nerve gas. In addition to the developmental dangers it poses to babies, exposure can cause dizziness, vomiting, convulsions, numbness in the limbs, loss of intellectual functioning and death. Toxic pesticides like chlorpyrifos are just one of the many ways in which farmworkers and their families are routinely exposed to high levels of pesticides in the fields where they work and the communities where they live.  Farmworkers’ persistent exposure to pesticides results in thousands of reported pesticide poisonings, illnesses and injuries each year.  Even the children of farmworkers cannot avoid exposure due to the proximity of their homes, schools and playgrounds to the fields where pesticides are applied.

In 2000, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in residential settings because of emerging evidence that it posed unacceptable risks to young children.  But the agency allowed continued use of the pesticide in agriculture, a double standard that has exposed an entire generation of farmworkers and their families through airborne drift, water contamination, and even the residues on workers’ clothes.  In 2017, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the recommendations of the EPA’s own scientists and refused to ban further agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos, even though the agency’s own risk assessment found that there are no safe levels of the pesticide in food or water, that unsafe exposures to farmworkers continue on average 18 days after applications, and that workers who mix and apply chlorpyrifos are exposed to unsafe levels even when using protective gear.   

In response to the EPA’s decision to ignore its own science, Earthjustice, Farmworker Justice and various other organizations filed a lawsuit seeking a federal chlorpyrifos ban.

While EPA continues to delay action to ban chlorpyrifos, lawmakers at the federal and state level are also taking action. At the federal level, last year Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the “Protect Children, Farmers and Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act of 2019”and  Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) introduced similar legislation, the “Ban Toxic Pesticides Act of 2019.” These bills would ban all food uses of chlorpyrifos.

 Several states have also banned use of the pesticide at the state level, including Hawaii, New York and California. Maryland has now become the fourth state to join this list, and only the second state to do so via legislation, providing decisive protections in the face of federal inaction. Similar efforts to ban chlorpyrifos are currently underway in other states, including Oregon, Washington and Connecticut. Farmworker Justice applauds these state and federal efforts to take swift action where EPA has failed to uphold its mission to protect human health and the environment.

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