Stories / Impact

What Does Being Essential Mean for Agricultural Labor

Supporting farmworkers during COVID-19

Morgan Carter

September 30, 2020


Photo: Ken Goodman Photography

For the past few months, we've been hosting webinars as part of our Industry Support learning series. Topics have covered all facets of the current crisis, from operating safely to navigating furloughs to the importance of voting. Last month we partnered with Civil Eats to discuss farmworkers and the challenges they face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the fear of food shortages loomed across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of farmworkers rose to the top of the conversation. Newly minted as essential workers, millions of farmworkers remained on the job to provide their services—services that are often underappreciated in the food supply chain.

“We’ve known all our lives that we have been essential, but we have never been treated as essentials,” said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.

Gerardo Reyes Chávez of Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a James Beard Leadership Award–winning worker-based human rights organization, believes that farmworkers are owed much more than the title.

“We hear that we are, or the jobs that we do, at least, are considered essential. But at the end of the day, we are treated as if we are disposable because we are not offered any kind of support. We are expected to go out and feed the nation while receiving wages that are stagnant and having to risk our lives. And that needs to change. We deserve to be treated as essential,” said Chávez.

Farmworkers have long been subjected to unfair working conditions, which have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. The overcrowded working conditions in packing houses and processing plants led to hot spots of outbreaks in agricultural areas, including Yakima Valley, Washington, Willamette Valley, Oregon; and Central Valley, California. Labor camps where workers are bussed in or live in nearby employee sanctioned housing are isolated from adequate testing and medical services. As for testing, many undocumented farmworkers have avoided getting tested at clinics or hospitals because of potential ties to law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And if workers do get sick, many do not have healthcare or sick days to fall back on.

Fighting for better working conditions can also lead to negative consequences. Subjected to crowded working conditions, farmworker and founder of De Campesino A Campesino Carmen Ospebo demanded social distancing protocols for her workplace and her fellow coworkers. Though she was moved to a separate facility with fewer people, Ospebo feared her outspokenness would brand her as problematic.

“Once you start demanding your rights, you become fearful of making a mistake, because then they have a reason to fire you,” she said.

Attorney Andrea Schmitt of Columbia Legal Services—whose nonprofit law firm advances laws for social, economic, and racial equity for people living in poverty—has represented farmworkers because historically they “have a history of being left out of protections in the workplace” including lack of overtime, minimum wage, and workers compensation. During COVID-19, Schmitt has represented farmworker unions to fight for housing, safe workplace environments, and transportation services to better protect them from the disease.

While waiting on their respective local governments for next steps, many community leaders took matters into their own hands. Chávez worked with The Fair Food Program (also a part of The Coalition of Immokalee Workers) to implement industrial handwashing stations in locations where people gather for work, distribute hand sanitizer, and coordinate the delivery of food to the community. While food banks provided a needed source of refuge, many farmworkers were unable to access them due to their early working hours and lack of transportation. To alleviate this, Ospesbo and her network of volunteers have provided 300 families with groceries, clothing, and toiletries, thanks to donations.  

Watch the full webinar here.

Check out what's on-deck for our webinar series and find past recordings here. Our team would like to know what topics you would like us to cover.

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