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Frontline workers during this pandemic, who put their lives on the line daily, are rightly called heroes, but a better term might be victims. Cheering and clapping every day for health care and other “essential” workers does, I am sure, give them a much-needed and well-deserved morale boost. This pandemic has changed things; pre-Covid-19, working under stressful conditions, for low wages, often unseen and underappreciated was, for many, just the way it was.
Clearly, health care workers and support staff are at the top of everyone’s essential workers’ list, as they put their lives on the line daily to provide care, comfort, and hope while tens of thousands are dying. We all count on them, while hoping that the virus does not bring us under their care.
Food chain workers are also deemed essential, and, just as in the health care industry, many essential workers, especially farmworkers, are immigrants—75 percent, in fact, according to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey. Undervalued and underpaid and doing difficult and dangerous work, they have always been essential to our food supply, but the pandemic has made that designation official.
Few Americans have ever been inside a food processing plant and witnessed the pace of the work, the physical stress, and the close physical proximity the workers must labor under. It is impossible to socially distance, so this pandemic has added a new threat to their work, and it could soon severely impact our food supply. When Covid-19 necessitated processing plant closures, Smithfield chose to blame the immigrant workers rather than the poor working conditions, low pay, and Smithfield’s failure to ensure a safe working environment.
I know the work ethic of immigrant workers, I’ve seen it in processing plants, in the fields of Immoakalee Florida, and on my own farm. Always, they were hardworking, competent, and just trying to make a decent home for themselves in this country that often does not welcome them and, in many cases, created conditions that forced them to leave their home countries.
The fragility of our consolidated food system is clearly visible during this pandemic: Store shelves are at times empty, while farmers are forced to dump milk and plow under vegetable crops. We saw the lion’s share of last year’s Market Facilitation Program payments go to the largest farms, not small farmers or farmworkers. Now we see a similar situation playing out with Covid-19 payments: Farmworkers who have immigrated to the United States (who pay state, local, and federal taxes) will not, unless they have a Social Security number, qualify for federal stimulus checks or unemployment insurance.
Farmworkers must continue to work every day as the pandemic changes our world. They have always worked for low wages while being exposed to agricultural chemicals and forced to live in substandard housing with poor access to health care. Now they are at even greater risk. An effective response to this public health emergency must include everyone, especially those who put themselves in harm’s way to feed us.
Farmworkers must be provided with adequate personal protective equipment and the ability to practice social distancing while they work. Housing and transportation for workers must be improved to eliminate the cramped conditions under which workers are forced to live—conditions akin to living in a petri dish.
Paid sick leave and direct payments to farmworkers must be included in any future stimulus package, and congressional oversight must ensure that payments go to small farmers, ranchers, fishers, and farmworkers rather than targeting commodity growers and agribusiness corporations like the previous Covid-19 stimulus packages.
Readily available virus testing must be provided and, since farmworkers seldom live in communities that provide them access to health care, steps must be taken to set up field hospitals, as was done in cities across the country, before the virus spreads to vulnerable farmworker communities—because if they go down, our food supply goes down with them.
Rather than proposing to cut farmworker wages and put a hold on immigration, perhaps the president should consider the immigrants who feed us, care for us, and help to build our society. Perhaps he might also read a bit from his “favorite book” and take it to heart? “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love them as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33).