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Fairness for Undocumented Farm and Food Chain Workers during and after Covid-19

Alejandra Cleves, Intern
Stephanie Armstrong, Intern,
Ed Yowell, Chair,
SFUSA Food and Farm Policy Working Group

April 20, 2020

Covid-19 is drawing new attention to old food and farming fault lines that have existed for decades. While undocumented immigrant farmworkers and food chain workers, primarily persons of color, work long and hard to who put food on our tables, they and their families often suffer hunger and diet-related disease, generally lack health insurance, are excepted from federal overtime pay rules, and are not eligible for federal nutrition and medical assistance.  

Presently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, undocumented immigrant farmworkers and many food chain workers, are considered “essential,” exempting them from sheltering in place and enabling them to work to feed us. Yet, while essential, they are still illegal.  To wit, in February, before the infection curve took off, they were subject to unfair treatment and fear of harassment, detention, family separation, and deportation. 

As reported in The New York Times, this may be affording them a false sense of security since “essential” status does not confer legal status or prevent immigration authorities from detaining and deporting them.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), on March 18th, announced that it would focus its enforcement activities on undocumented immigrants considered public-safety risks and criminals.  But, since illegal border crossings are considered criminal activity the ICE statement, a purely pragmatic recognition of our dependence on undocumented immigrant farmworkers, is a fleeting truce based on a gap between contradicting policies. 

A recent analysis estimated that nearly 50% of the nation’s two million farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. This estimate does not include those undocumented immigrants working in food processing, distribution, and service.  In this time of Covid-19, undocumented workers are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, as they perform jobs that cannot telework, requiring on-the-job physical presence and often providing too little in the way of social distancing.  Forty-three percent of our front-line farm and food workers have no health insurance, let alone benefits such as sick and family leave, leaving them economically vulnerable, in addition to being physically vulnerable, to Covid-19. 

As Covid-19 spreads from populous urban areas to less populous regions, where much of the food Americans eat is produced, increasingly unsafe, elbow-to-elbow working conditions in animal protein (chicken, pork) processing facilities are providing a perfect storm of opportunity for the contagion to spread among workers, and their families. With increasing numbers of food processing workers down with Covid -19, stressed processors temporarily are ceasing operations, anticipated to cause short-term meat shortages for many Americans.

It’s clear that Covid-19 is having a profound and immeasurable effect on us, including the way we produce our food.  It’s less clear what those effects will be – further consolidation of Big Ag and Big Food and the accompanying harm to human and environmental health and the welfare of workers and producers or the strengthening of good, clean, and fair, regional food chains that are good for workers as well as producers, eaters, and the planet.

We know the Administration would opt for further consolidation, as evidenced by appointments to new “Great American Economic Revival Groups” for Agriculture and the Food and Beverage industry. These groups are touted by the Administration to “produce a more independent, self-sufficient, and resilient nation.”  The Ag Group includes Sysco, Tyson, Perdue, Cargill, and Archer-Daniels-Midland and the Food and Beverage Group includes McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Chick-fil-A, Subway, Papa Johns, Wendy’s, Waffle House, and Kraft. Absent are the voices of sustainable agriculture, regional farm and food economies, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and farm and food chain workers.

Clearly, we know we would opt for Good, Clean, and Fair Food for All.  To that end, Anna Mulé, Slow Food USA Executive Director, sent a letter to Congressional Leaders calling on them to support Regional Food Chains, Farmworkers and Food Chain Workers, and Food Security for All, now, during this contagion, and after, through recovery and beyond.  Regarding essential undocumented farmworkers and food chain workers, we have called on Congress, in the next Covid-19 relief legislation, to 

  • Ensure that farmworkers and food chain workers are provided with Covid-19 testing, federally produced Covid-19 safety guidance, and employer supplied Covid-19 personal protection (e.g., washing stations, masks, disposable gloves, safety glasses, sanitizers, physical spacing protocols). 
  • Suspend Administration initiatives to weaken enforcement of EPA, USDA, OSHA, and FDA rules protecting farmworkers and food chain workers.
  • Ensure that previously defined emergency relief benefit eligibility is extended to undocumented essential farm and food chain workers, including
    • sick and family leave, childcare, nutrition and medical assistance, and unemployment benefit 

      and that 

    • farmworkers are eligible for overtime and premium pay and 
    • food chain workers are eligible for hazard pay. 
  • Ensure that essential undocumented farm and food chain workers who have filed federal tax returns are eligible for CARES individual and family stimulus cash payments. 
  • Suspend Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) action against essential undocumented farm and food chain workers, except in instances of criminal activity, other than illegal entry.

Read Anna’s full letter below

April 17, 2020

Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Speaker, US House of Representatives
Honorable Kevin McCarthy, Republican Leader, US House of Representatives
Honorable Mitch McConnell, Majority Leader, US Senate
Honorable Chuck Schumer, Democratic Leader, US Senate

Re: Food and Agriculture in New Covid-19 Relief Legislation

Dear Senators McConnell and Schumer and Representatives Pelosi and McCarthy,

I write on behalf of Slow Food USA, the national non-profit organization dedicated to sustaining a good, clean, and fair food system for all.  On behalf of our 200 community chapters and tens of thousands of supporters across the country, I thank you for your tireless work in the face of this unprecedented crisis and for the quick, bipartisan passage of Covid-19 pandemic relief. 

A new package of Covid-19 relief provides opportunity to address important actions missed in the entirely justified rush to enact CARES.  We now call upon you to consider the future financial health and resiliency of our regional farm and food economies and the importance of our nation’s small and mid-scale, family farmers and ranchers, including those who are beginning and socially disadvantaged, community-based and Tribal fishers, farmworkers, and food chain workers engaged in processing and distribution.  We also call upon you to consider the millions of families who only have limited access to the healthy food they need and the countless workers who newly are facing food insecurity. 

We must move rapidly to support our regional food and farm economies and nutrition assistance for the duration of the Covid-19 onslaught and recovery.

Local and Regional Food.

  • Provide financial assistance priority to those producers most susceptible to economic downturns, particularly including socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and those who have lost local and regional markets, who demonstrate how funds will bolster local and regional food and farm economic security. 
  • Provide capital funding for the development and enhancement of food hubs, to provide regional producer access to regional markets; urban farms, to support urban food production and provide jobs; and renovation of school cafeterias, to facilitate scratch cooking of local and regionally produced, fresh food.
  • Increase USDA Local Agricultural Marketing Program (LAMP) funding available to farmers markets, CSAs, food co-ops, food hubs, and small-scale processors and distributors.
  • Enable Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program funds to be used to buy locally and regionally grown and minimally processed food for emergency school food meals provided while schools are closed.
  • Forgive small and mid-scale, family farmer and rancher federal debt.
  • Enact a moratorium on mergers and acquisitions to prevent profiteering and further consolidation in the food, agriculture, and seafood sectors.
  • Provide Federal Essential Service designation to farmers markets.

Food Chain Essential Person Designation

  • Provide special Federal Essential Person designation, equivalent to that of first responders, to small and mid-scale family farmers and ranchers, community-based and Tribal fishers, farmworkers, and food chain workers engaged in food processing and distribution.
  • Ensure that farmworkers and food chain workers are provided with Covid-19 testing, federally produced Covid-19 safety guidance, and employer supplied Covid-19 personal protection (e.g., washing stations, masks, disposable gloves, safety glasses, sanitizers, physical spacing protocols).
  • Suspend Administration initiatives to weaken enforcement of EPA, USDA, OSHA, and FDA rules protecting farmworkers and food chain workers.
  • Deem farmers, ranchers, and fishers eligible for Small Business Administration (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) under the CARES Act.
  • Provide farmers, ranchers, and fishers with grants to enhance their food safety infrastructures.
  • Ensure that previously defined emergency relief benefit eligibility is extended to undocumented Food Chain Essential Persons
  • all eligible for emergency sick and family leave, childcare, and nutrition and medical assistance and
  • farmworkers and food chain workers eligible for unemployment insurance
  • farmworkers eligible for overtime and premium pay and have the right to organize and
  • food chain workers eligible for hazard pay. 
  • Maintain H-2A 2020 AEWR pay rates.
  • Ensure undocumented farmworkers who have filed federal tax returns are eligible for CARES individual and family stimulus cash payments.
  • Effectively meet farmer and processor need for an adequate, demand-driven, workforce of H-2A farmworkers and H-2B food chain workers to plant and harvest and process and distribute food.
  • Suspend Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) action against undocumented farmworkers and food chain workers, except in instances of criminal activity, other than illegal entry.

Food Insecurity

  • Increase the SNAP benefit by 15 percent and raise the minimum monthly benefit to $30, a hedge against hunger and an immediate boost to local economies and suspend administrative efforts to reduce SNAP eligibility.
  • Accelerate implementation of Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) and expand eligibility to children who would receive food via CACFP and to children of undocumented immigrant residents and clarify that use of P-EBT will not be considered under the Public Charge Rule for immigrants seeking legal resident status.
  • Expand the definition of “homebound” in the Meal to Wheels program to include all seniors.
  • Accelerate targeted implementation of the SNAP (EBT) On-line Purchasing Pilot in states suffering high rates of infection to help protect against high-risk senior and immuno-compromised SNAP user infection.
  • Provide all states with waivers to expedite implementation of emergency, alternative school food distribution plans and fund transportation in rural districts with highly dispersed student populations.
  • Increase purchase by the USDA of fresh food now being dumped by farmers for lack of food service and institutional markets and support distribution via USDA nutrition programs (NSLP, SBP, CACFP, FDPIR, and TEFAP).
  • Support food service enterprises, including independent restaurants, caterers, and street vendors by providing grants, reforming loan forgiveness standards, expanding zero-interest loans, and extending loan periods.

Thank you for your immediate attention in supporting those who produce our food and those suffering food insecurity.

Sincerely,
Anna Mulé
Executive Director