Farmworkers Lack Adequate Legal and Public Health Protections During Pandemic

Farmworkers strike in Washington demanding safer conditions during COVID-19. Image: Civil Eats

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

As Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett reported last week, coronavirus is “exploding” in populations of farmworkers across America. In their report, they noted that on a single farm in Tennessee, all 200 workers tested positive for the disease while in Immokalee, Florida, results indicated that over 1,000 migrant workers are infected. Many undocumented workerscannot get tested out of fear of losing their jobs. These anecdotes lay bare the stark inequities and power disparities of our present-day agricultural system. 

Why This Matters: The paltry measures being taken to protect farmworkers are not enough. We need increased protection for workers, including “paid sick leave, unemployment compensation, and affordable housing and healthcare,” to slow the spread COVID-19 and more greatly support some of the most vulnerable members of our society. This action must come from guidance at the federal level, rather than the current situation in which the industry has to “take care of itself.” 

A Failure of Leadership:
Despite the lack of direction on the federal level, many political leaders are wrongly condemning the farmworkers themselves for contracting the disease. Indeed, last month Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claimed that “the No. 1 outbreak we’ve seen is in agricultural communities,” and claiming that the “overwhelmingly Hispanic” farmworkers were the source of the state’s spike in cases. 

Not only is this statement untrue, but, in the words of Florida State Representative Javier Fernández, such responses are “absolutely embarrassing, appalling.” He continued, “We’re living in very dark and sad times” when a political leader places blame not on “his failed leadership but on some of the most vulnerable members of our community here in Florida.” Advocates and activists are now challenging DeSantis’ statement on many levels. 

Power Disparities in Our Food System:
As law professor Beth Lyon told BuzzFeed News, “Covid-19 exacerbates long-standing power disparities between farmworkers, some of whom are undocumented, and their employees.” Because most farmworkers can be fired at will, many are understandably nervous to advocate for their protection. Lyon continued, “If they [guest workers] speak up for health protections like masks or social distancing, they are likely to lose not only their livelihood but also their housing.” 

Despite the immense risks, some workers living year-round in Central Washington have spoken up. In May, over 100 fruit workers in the Yakima Valley went on strike following insufficient safety measures being taken in response to COVID-19. As one worker told Northwest Public Broadcasting, “Of course we want to work. We need the work. That’s why we’re here. But we want good work conditions.” The strike ended after four weeks, as workers at Columbia Reach and the company reached an agreement to “provide personal protective equipment at no charge, comply with all government standards and implement best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19” among other concessions. 


Labor in the Time of COVID: The Center for American Progress wrote an excellent brief about the specific dangers that farmworkers face in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Chief among them are the scant protections for workers to unionize and demand better labor practices. As CAP explained, “The fear of deportation looms large, and undocumented workers do not qualify for unemployment insurance and other social safety nets that they may need if they become sick.”

Improving labor practices includes ensuring that all farmworkers have access to free testing and treatment for COVID-19, regardless of immigration status. 

  • Rural health care access must be expanded, with particular attention to farm communities. 
  • Additionally, employers must provide information about outbreaks as well as proper handwashing and sanitation facilities to workers.
  • And modified working arrangements must be made that allow for social distancing, such as putting fewer workers at conveyor belts at the same time

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