Oregon Tilth: Will the pandemic be the final straw to creating equitable protections and resources for farmworkers?

An Oregon Title report, FARMWORKERS ON THE FRONT LINE, poses the question: “Could COVID-19 be the impetus that finally forces us to update a system that has criminalized some of the nation’s most essential workers for generations?” 
The inequities facing farmworkers are well-documented, flexing even greater disparities during the pandemic. Over the summer, FHDC farmworker residents shared feedback that informed the west-coast Farmworker study, uncovering many of the risks, dangers, and fears farmworkers face at their workplaces, prompting state-wide advocacy efforts for stronger protections, and resources for essential workers.
The West Coast COVID-19 Farmworker study had some key findings in Oregon,  true for many FHDC residents:
1. When protective equipment is available, farmworkers take necessary precautions and follow safety procedures at home and in the workplace to minimize exposure to COVID-19.
2. Farmworkers report periods during the working day when they lack appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and cannot socially distance, despite saying that employers have taken some steps to prevent COVID-19 infection
3. Farmworkers experienced a significant loss of work and income during the COVID-19 pandemic creating broad economic challenge
4. Farmworkers know people infected or have been directly exposed to COVID-19, but few report getting tested. Cost and fear of losing a job are significant barriers to accessing testing and care.
5. Few farmworkers have the means to quarantine or isolate if they or someone in their household is sick.
6. One-half or more of farmworkers surveyed remain unaware of paid sick leave benefits and existing relief funds organized by the federal government and the State of Oregon
7. Farmworkers that speak Indigenous languages (about 40% in Oregon) face additional information and accessibility gaps. Oregon Indigenous farmworkers speak at least 22 different languages from Guatemala and Mexico (such as Triqui, Mixtec, Mam, Kanjobal, among others) and many are not fluent or literate in Spanish.
8. Farmworkers have trouble accessing affordable childcare and supporting their children’s education with the shift to remote classes
9. Farmworkers are feeling increasing stress levels affecting their emotional well-being yet severely lack access to mental health services
10. Farmworkers worry greatly about family members outside the U.S. and the pandemic has resulted in a significant reduction in remittances sent to families in Mexico and Guatemala who depend on them.

Conclusions and Recommendations for Action taken from the study:

The survey committee’s nine policy recommendations have been presented to various committees and legislators. Each recommendation is based on lessons learned from farmworkers navigating the difficulties of COVID-19, forest fires, and displacement.

1. Replenish income and safety net support for farmworkers regardless of documentation status, such as the Oregon Workers Relief Fund, COVID-19 Farmworker Rental Relief Fund, and expand qualifications for Oregon Worker Quarantine Fund.

2. Expand stock of housing opportunities that can serve farmworker families facing housing insecurity and/or needing temporary quarantining shelter with adequate social distancing.

3. Enforce existing anti-retaliation and workplace protections that assure farmworkers can take time off and/or can file employer complaints without fear of retribution, such as supporting stronger Whistleblower protections and abolishing farm labor collective bargaining restrictions.

4. Strengthen Oregon/OSHA occupational safety enforcement and worksite auditing activities, including random inspections.

5. Provide compensation for farmworkers who were forced to take time off work and/or relied on informal networks for caretaking/childcare responsibilities due to Oregon COVID-19 Farmworker Study Preliminary Data Brief—September 21, 2020 the closure of childcare facilities and transition to virtual education since the start of COVID-19.

6. Implement digital literacy programs to improve farmworker families’ access to technology, such as supplying smartphones, tablets, and stipends to offset internet service costs.

7. Mandate employers provide training, when not already required, in languages farmworkers speak and provide targeted plans to improve language accessibility of information, rules, guidance published by government agencies, by funding local organizers and navigators that can reach and inform farmworkers who speak Indigenous languages.

8. Provide frequent and extensive access to COVID-19 testing with convenient access to lab results, vaccinations when available, and access to traditional methods of mental health support administered through trusted community clinics.

9. Ease barriers for exercising legal rights by connecting farmworkers to legal navigators that can provide legal advice on workplace rights, tenant rights, concerns over public charge, and immigrant rights.

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