Nancy Silva, a 43-year-old woman who picks clementines in California, carries a letter from her employer saying that the Department of Homeland Security considers her “critical to the food supply chain.” A 25-year-old father of two young daughters in Mankato carries the same kind of letter. His work: cleaning food manufacturing plants. Like many other essential workers, they are immigrants.
“Across the United States, workers doing essential jobs continue reporting to them, keeping grocery shelves stocked and stores sanitized, laboring at construction sites, preparing and delivering packages to our doors, collecting trash and keeping communities clean, and harvesting and processing the food that keeps our supply chains running and our refrigerators stocked. Approximately six million essential workers are immigrants. Yet these workers, who are so integral to our collective health and survival during this unprecedented COVID-19 public health crisis, have been left without meaningful protections for their own health and safety on the job….
“Undocumented workers and their families are particularly vulnerable because they are unable to access safety-net programs that provide essential health care coverage and nutrition assistance. …
“From a health and safety perspective, undocumented workers face high rates of exposure to occupational hazards, but they do not receive higher pay to compensate for that risk relative to other workers. Moreover, their legal precariousness makes undocumented workers hesitant either to file claims when their rights as workers are violated or to demand protections.”
Nancy Silva, the farmworker in California, and the young father in Mankato are undocumented. Despite their essential work, they run the daily risk of being arrested and deported. The “critical to the food supply chain” letters they carry offer no protection against deportation.
Deportation is not the only risk they run. Their work places them at high risk from COVID-19.
“Meatpacking plants have become hotspots for COVID-19, requiring many of them to shut down. The environment in these plants makes following social distancing guidelines impossible. Workers stand cramped in the slaughterhouse’s sweltering heat and experience frigid temperatures in the plant’s freezer. This poses a danger to all workers.”
More than 6,500 meatpackers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19, and 20 have died. In Minnesota, COVID-19 “hot spots” in Nobles and Stearns counties are tied to meatpacking plants.
Migrant farm workers like Nancy Silva also run a higher risk of COVID-19:
“‘We’re getting reports about not enough wash bins, having to bring your own toilet paper, about not having masks,’ said Diana Torres, executive director at the United Farm Workers Foundation….
“Additionally, many of those workers return home to environments where social distancing measures suggested by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention are difficult, if not impossible, to adhere to. A study conducted by Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for healthier living and working conditions, estimates that one-third of farmworkers live in houses and apartments where multiple families share the same household.”
If they become ill, the essential farmworkers have little recourse.
“The pandemic carries particular risks for agricultural workers. Most do not receive sick pay if they fall ill, and they lack health insurance. The $2 trillion pandemic aid package that passed Congress last week does not offer any assistance to undocumented immigrants.”
Besides health risks, essential workers in agriculture and food processing industries have low annual incomes because of seasonal work, and recent proposals by the Trump administration would lower those incomes even further.
Journalist and former farmworker Alfredo Corchado, knows the hard work and the risks that go with farm work:
“The other day, armed with a face mask, I was rushing through the aisles of an organic supermarket, sizing up the produce, squeezing the oranges and tomatoes, when a memory hit me.
“Me — age 6 — stooping to pick these same fruits and vegetables in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I spent the spring weekends and scorching summers of my childhood in those fields, under the watchful eye of my parents. Once I was a teenager, I worked alongside them, my brothers and cousins, too, essential links in a supply chain that kept America fed, but always a step away from derision, detention and deportation.”
Corchado says we need to offer all essential workers more than a letter:
“In the past, the United States has rewarded immigrant soldiers who fought our wars with a path to citizenship. Today, the fields — along with the meatpacking plants, the delivery trucks and the grocery store shelves — are our front lines, and border security can’t be disconnected from food security.
“It’s time to offer all essential workers a path to legalization.”
He’s right. We need to offer not only the protection that legalization brings, but also protection for health, both in sanitation and social distancing while working and in medical care for people who do become sick. Beyond protection, essential workers, whether in hospitals or meatpacking plants or farm fields, also deserve paychecks that compensate fairly for the hard work that they do.