Protect farmworkers to assure food supply, say advocacy groups

Farmworkers are “especially at risk of falling ill from Covid-19” because they often work without protective equipment, are exposed to pesticides, and live in crowded quarters, said the advocacy groups Environmental Working Group and Farmworker Justice on Wednesday. In a report, they urged Congress to order the Labor Department to issue mandatory safety rules against the coronavirus and to provide free Covid-19 tests to workers, regardless of their immigration status.

Although the government has declared food workers to be essential employees, “their focus has continued to be to make sure employers have workers and not to ensure the workers, who are doing this work, are safe and able to be healthy while they are doing it,” said Idris Figueroa, senior staff attorney for Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit group working on behalf of migrant and seasonal workers.

“We’re going to see a massive tragedy,” said Andrew Zimmern, a restaurateur and food journalist, if workers are not given adequate protection. “There’s no bench support of workers clamoring to get into these jobs.”

Melanie Benesh, co-author of an EWG report on farmworker vulnerability, said agricultural workers have greater exposure to pesticides and dust stirred up by equipment and often live in areas with poor-quality drinking water. All of those conditions heighten the chance of illness, she said during a webinar.

Half of farmworkers, a million people or more, are believed to be undocumented.

The EWG report, “Work conditions make farmworkers uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19,” is available here.