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Democrats propose protections for farm workers

Khanna: We must address agricultural laborers’ high risk for COVID-19

Domestic farm workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, would be covered by a bill of rights for essential workers that advocates and a group of House Democrats want included in any future economic relief bill that moves through Congress.

Rep. Ro Khanna said farm workers are contributing to agriculture, which the Homeland Security Department has designated as a critical industry. Like others required to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural laborers’ risk for exposure to the virus that causes the disease should be addressed, the California Democrat said.

Khanna said he thinks the issue of basic worker safety during a pandemic is so pressing that supporters can overcome concerns and objections from lawmakers, particularly Republicans, to aiding undocumented farm workers.

“I believe workers’ rights is actually an easier lift. I don’t think it’s a hard lift to say workers need to have protective equipment. It’s in every American citizen’s self-interest to make sure we have safe conditions in these places,” he said. “It was a harder political lift to say that the stimulus should include those who are undocumented. … House Democrats pushed for that because they are paying taxes, and they have families and apartments and rent payments.”

The 10-point rights framework calls for hazard pay, child care, personal protective equipment, health care access and prohibitions on employers changing or dissolving collective bargaining agreements. Employers who receive federal relief funds should use the money to keep workers on the payroll as well as put workers on boards of directors and stay neutral in union organizing drives, it says, and they would face civil or criminal penalties for violations.

Khanna said he does not expect all of the policies outlined in the bill of rights to be included in a relief bill.

During a conference call Thursday, Khanna said the framework is the product of his work with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that has the support of eight Democratic senators and 47 Democratic House members. The lawmakers sent a letter Monday on the rights bill to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

“We really want to see these protections in our next stimulus response,” Khanna said. Congress has thus far enacted four laws to limit the economic damage caused by COVID-19 as businesses close down. The Labor Department said Thursday that more than 30 million people have filed unemployment claims in the past six weeks.

Khanna was joined on the call by Alexis Guild, health policy director for Farmworker Justice, and Scott Faber, government affairs vice president for the Environmental Working Group. Guild and Faber said farm workers are at high risk for COVID-19 infection, although they said it is difficult to get accurate numbers for those who have tested positive or become ill.

Guild said agricultural workers have limited access to hand-washing stations in the field, may lack masks or other protective equipment, and live in crowded housing conditions.

“The majority of farm workers are undocumented immigrants, and they are especially vulnerable to exploitation and are ineligible for public benefits such as Medicaid and SNAP,” Guild said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

“Farm workers should be able to work without fear about what will happen if they become ill. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the essential role of farm workers in our nation’s economy and the hazard they confront every day for our food security,” Guild said.

Faber said cases of COVID-19 are high among other workers in the food supply chain such as those in grocery stores or those in meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants. His organization is tracking cases in 100 counties it has identified as having large farm worker populations.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order telling the Agriculture secretary to keep beef, pork and poultry plants open under the Defense Production Act as long as they meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Health and Safety Administration guidance. Trump said the plants are crucial to maintaining the nation’s meat supply. His order came after several plants closed as hundreds of workers became ill or tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Faber said the bill of rights should “serve as a road map for Congress as legislators develop the next COVID-19 bill. We must make sure employers are not granted immunity when their failure to protect workers results in harm.”  

The National Council of Agricultural Employers will be among the groups keeping an eye on the Democratic proposal.

Michael Marsh, the organization’s president and CEO, said the council has not taken a position on the proposal but believes his members are making changes to their operations to meet the voluntary guidelines issued by the CDC to control the spread of the virus.

Marsh noted that the framework has no Republican supporters, which he said will make it “tough to include in any package.”  

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