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Teresa Romero Remarks: Congressional Hispanic Caucus Session – Protecting Farmworkers From COVID-19

Chairman Ruiz and fellow members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, thank you for convening this timely and urgent conversation about how to protect farmworkers from COVID-19.

The past year has been a time of great challenge and suffering for the more than 2.4 million farm workers across the country.

Historically, the agricultural sector has relied on people of color for our food security. From predominantly African American workers in the South to mostly migrant and seasonal workers from Mexico and Central America. 

About half of U.S. farmworkers are undocumented and they also face language barriers, issues that limit their ability to speak out in the workplace and enforce their rights against a range of abuses and unsafe working conditions.

In California and the Pacific Northwest, farm workers suffered from a perfect storm of deadly perils in 2020.

They were the coronavirus pandemic, extreme heat and choking smoke from wildfires.

Farm workers often must live, commute and toil in overcrowded, substandard and unsanitary conditions. The challenges are disheartening.

—Field workers can’t shelter in place or work from home. Federal, state and local governments classify them as essential workers. They must go to their jobs to feed America.

—Lack of transportation to and from the fields is an even bigger problem which means that farmworkers must commute with others and/or rely on transportation provided by their employers or farm labor contractors.  

—Even if PPEs and social distancing are observed in fields and packinghouses—which UFW surveys show is too often not the case—farm workers frequently find themselves in close quarters.

—They often live in cramped, multi-generational households. If they become infected with the virus or are exposed to others who are sick, where can they go to quarantine?

When COVID first emerged, the UFW urged all unionized employers to ensure proper protections. Most unionized employers did.

The UFW also keeps in regular contact with 50,000-plus farm workers—most of them non-union—through platforms exclusively for agricultural workers. We conduct surveys and receive a stream of comments and reports. They show too many non-union farm employers have not taken proper precautions to protect workers from the virus and provide required PPEs.

All of this is why the coronavirus is disproportionately afflicting agricultural workers and why infections and deaths are growing at alarming rates.

At the national level, estimates suggest that more than 500,000 farmworker and farmers are likely to have contracted COVID-19.

So Government at all levels must do all it can to remedy these inequities. It begins with getting farm workers vaccinated as quickly as possible.

As Chairman Ruiz has pointed out, in California, farmworkers are literally dying to feed us.

For the sake of farmworker health and the Nation’s food security, there is much work to do to protect this population and vaccinate from COVID-19.

A major survey just completed by the UFW Foundation received responses via texts from some 11,000 farm workers. The great majority said they want to get vaccinated.

These results contradict the narrative among many journalists that large numbers of farm workers are reserved or skeptical about being vaccinated.

That view has served as an excuse for some local health officials NOT to prioritize agricultural workers since it is more challenging to reach this rural, immigrant population.

Farmworkers are only hard to reach if you’re not working with the organizations that serve them.

And failure to prioritize farmworkers will only exacerbate health disparities and put our food supply chain at risk.

The UFW & UFW Foundation knows how to get the job done AND we have the work to show for it.

We are the Si Se Puede crowd! This month and next, we are joining with our partners in the farm worker movement as well as Latino groups and local governments to vaccinate thousands of farm workers through community vaccinations clinics.

Including at our historic “Forty Acres” property in Delano—and at some unionized farms.

In closing, I want to remind all of our listener’s that food security is a national security issue.

So I thank Chairman Ruiz, the Hispanic Caucus and members of the Agriculture Committee for ensuring that Congress and the Administration are prioritizing farmworkers in federal policy and COVID-19 funding.