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Farm Labor: The Forgotten “Essential Workers”

The COVID pandemic has raised public awareness of the essential role that undocumented workers play in the U.S. agricultural industry. (JackF/Adobe Stock)
The COVID pandemic has raised public awareness of the essential role that undocumented workers play in the U.S. agricultural industry. (JackF/Adobe Stock)
May 13, 2020

NEW YORK -- Undocumented New York farm workers may be risking their lives and livelihoods during the COVID pandemic, but they get few federal or state protections.

On April 8, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala became the first New York farm worker known to die from COVID-19. Emma Kreyche, director of advocacy, outreach and education for the Worker Justice Center of New York, said that although farm laborers are recognized as essential workers, because they are undocumented they have little job security, often live in group settings in rural areas with limited access to health care -- and when they do get sick, they are fearful of seeking medical care.

"The COVID pandemic is really underscoring and highlighting the various systems failures that have played upon this community for many, many years," she said.

While the agricultural industry is getting billions of dollars in federal grants and loans under the stimulus bills, she said, no rules have been created to protect the health of farm workers.

In January, New York's Farm Laborers' Fair Labor Practices Act went into effect, extending some basic labor rights to farm workers in the state. However, Kreyche noted, the law contains few, if any, protections for farm workers' health or safety.

"We still don't have any clear directives from the state about how employers should be handling issues around isolating workers, ensuring there is a setup for quarantine to be maintained," she said.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, she said, farm work already was among the most hazardous occupations.

Efforts are under way to include undocumented workers in the next federal stimulus package. Kreyche said she believes there's little hope that will happen, but added that the state can take steps to help ensure that vulnerable farm workers receive some of the protections given to others, "having enforceable health and safety regulations pertaining to agricultural operations and farm labor camps where workers are housed."

She said it's also imperative that state lawmakers create a source of support for those who cannot apply for or qualify for unemployment insurance.

More information is online at wjcny.org.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY