Dear governor: Farmworkers need your help

Advocates lobby for health care, protective measures for vulnerable workers

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An advocacy group sent Gov. Roy Cooper a letter last week highlighting the need to protect a vulnerable segment of the state’s population ­— farmworkers.

A coalition made up of members of the Farmworker Advocacy Network, their partner organizations, and other individuals penned the letter to Cooper in an effort to improve health and safety standards for farm and poultry workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group held an online press conference Tuesday night to address concerns that not enough is being done to protect non-immigrant workers despite them being deemed “essential.”

“We all agree that they are essential to our economy and to our lives, but they are not being provided with essential protections,” Clermont Fraser Ripley with the N.C. Justice Center said. “The work they do is dangerous and it’s low pay. There is already one confirmed case of COVID-19 in the state among farm workers and five poultry plants have confirmed cases so it is beyond time for these steps to be taken.”

Farmworkers often live in rural housing provided by their employers. The group cited circumstances where workers lacked access to proper hygiene, are unable to practice social-distancing and aren’t provided personal protective equipment. The letter to Cooper detailed steps the group feels need to be taken in order to protect the people who work in such an important industry.

“Farmworkers are not just essential workers; they are essential parts of our community,” said Dr. Lior Vered, a policy advocate at Toxic Free NC. “They provide us with nourishment, and they deserve essential rights and protections to ensure they are not put at risk as a result of their work. We urge Gov. Cooper to take action and protect the people that bring food to our tables. The agricultural community is one that is often overlooked and excluded from protections, so making sure their needs are considered in our state’s emergency planning is critical.”

In the letter, the group called on Cooper to provide migrant farmworkers with access to health care services and other resources and ensure migrant agricultural workers are not put at risk in their employer-provided housing. Advocates wanted to ensure agricultural workers are able to protect themselves from exposure while working and workers who get sick are protected from retaliation. The letter also included insurances that H-2A farmworkers are able to enroll in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Spanish interpretation for health information is available, and adequate personal protective equipment for healthcare workers serving the agricultural industry is provided.

“We’ve worked for decades to support all kinds of farmers, regardless of size,” Jerry DeWitt, board president of the Rural Advancement Foundation International said. “Our vision is that everyone who labors in agriculture is to be respected, protected and valued by everyone in society. We all know that farmers, farm workers and laborers all across our state are really some of the hardest working people we know. Our farms and our businesses across North Carolina are really scrambling to adapt to these quickly changing social distancing rules and recommendations, and to the new reality of operating during this pandemic.”

For more information, contact Julia Hawes at julia@ncjustice.org or Ripley at clermont@ncjustice.org.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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