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This should come as no surprise to us: our health, our very being, depends on food. And yet here we are in the midst of a global health pandemic facing food shortages and wondering what we can do to keep the food supply chain going. Suddenly, traditionally undervalued workers in the restaurant and grocery store industry have been called “essential” and are being forced to make impossible decisions between taking care of their own and their families’ health and showing up to work to keep the supply chain flowing so that they can put food on the table themselves.
There’s another typically forgotten piece of the equation, though. One that lives in the shadows. One that nobody wants to talk about. That piece is where the food is coming from to make it to the restaurants and grocery stores.
The answer is farmworkers, largely made up of immigrant workers both undocumented and those here on temporary agricultural work visas (H-2A). Every year, thousands of migrant workers come to Virginia to work on our farms picking tomatoes, apples, crabs, soybeans, watermelons and other produce; others are settled here and work in poultry, dairy and swine plants. Our food comes from their literal sweat and tears. In a culture becoming more invested in farm-to-table dining, we still somehow forget how the food makes it from the farm to the table.
This is, lamentably, nothing new. Farmworkers always have been left in, or even pushed into, the shadows. Indeed, farmworkers are explicitly exempted from some of workers’ most valuable protections, most typically with blatant historical racist agendas. Despite consistently working well in excess of 40 backbreaking hours a week, farmworkers are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime protections. Farmworkers are also not covered by protections for workplace organizing and unions under the National Labor Relations Act. Farmworkers, shockingly, are not covered at all by the Virginia Minimum Wage Act, a problem advocates pushed to have fixed in this year’s General Assembly session but that ultimately failed, leaving farmworkers languishing behind the rest of Virginia’s employees. Additionally, many of the protections for workplace safety in Virginia are not applicable to farmworkers.
Although we have a long way to go in the war to rectify the treatment and perception of farmworkers, our current world of COVID-19 demands some of the battles be fought immediately. In the coming weeks, farmworkers will begin to pour into Virginia to begin harvesting this year’s crops. Others are continuing their work at meat plants and dairy farms in close quarters with limited oversight from the plants or the government. The Virginia government and growers/meatpacking plants must find ways to keep these workers safe.
Most Virginians are doing what they can to remain socially distant. Those who can telework are. Those who cannot most likely qualify for some form of unemployment insurance. They have received, in most instances, their stimulus checks. Farmworkers, however, cannot telework, and there is disagreement as to whether H-2A or H-2B (non-agricultural seasonal guest workers) workers qualify for pandemic unemployment assistance (undocumented workers do not). Undocumented workers and even documented workers with undocumented spouses do not qualify for stimulus checks, despite paying taxes; it appears right now that H-2A and H-2B workers may similarly not qualify.
Further, when migrant farmworkers arrive in the US to work on our farms, they live most typically in packed dormitory-style barracks with multiple bunk beds per room, and they share kitchen and bathroom facilities with dozens of workers. They are taken to stores and the worksites in cramped buses. Access to medical care is often limited. Meat plant and dairy workers work indoors in tight proximity.
Nevertheless, farmworkers and meatpacking workers depend on this income, and we in turn depend on their labor. And thus, we must do something to protect them. This begins with the Virginia government and agricultural employers taking steps to provide needed healthcare, personal protective equipment, unemployment insurance, ways to access resources and communicate problems and socially-distant housing; prohibit retaliatory terminations and evictions; conduct more inspections; and develop preventative action plans. These steps would be a start towards protecting vulnerable workers performing these essential tasks.
You, too, can send a message to government officials and growers to not leave farmworkers in the shadows to suffer again; a list of action items can be found on Legal Aid Justice Center’s website at: www.justice4all.org/protectingfarmworkers.
Applause and statements of thanks for essential workers are heartwarming, but let’s put our actions where our mouths are and truly support those who desperately need our help to stay safe and healthy.
Rachel C. McFarland is an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville working in their Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers and the Economic Justice Program.