Merkley, Colleagues Introduce Urgently-Needed Legislation to Help Hard-Hit Agricultural Workers Amid Pandemic

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley today is leading the introduction of the Frontline At-Risk Manual (FARM) Laborers Protection Act, groundbreaking legislation that establishes critical protections, including 10 days of paid leave and hazard pay, for America’s agricultural workers. He was joined by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Merkley serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

“Every worker, regardless of the color of their skin, the zip code they live in, or their line of work deserves the same fundamental protections in the workplace. Yet millions of America’s farmworkers, whose work has long been integral to feeding Americans across the country, are without those safeguards—protections that are only made more important by the coronavirus pandemic,” said Merkley. “These workers feed our families. Now, it’s our job to make sure they have the protections they need to stay safe.”

“The essential role of farmworkers in our rural economies and food supply chain has never been more clear, nor have the hazards that they continue to face daily as this crisis continues,” said Leahy. “It is past time that we provide them and their families with the necessary protection, safety and support to keep our food system viable. While the Trump Administration is all too willing to deem farmworkers ‘essential,’ it has refused to provide farmers and farmworkers with clear, mandatory workplace safety guidelines and the support to implement them. This bill is a critical step toward protecting farmers, farmworkers, and the food they produce for all Americans.”

“This legislation will help protect the frontline agricultural workers who labor every day so we can all put food on the kitchen table,” said Blumenthal. “No matter how big or small an agricultural business is, their workers should be protected from the deadly spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Agricultural workers ensure our food security and during this pandemic many are working in high-risk conditions without appropriate equipment, paid sick leave, or safety requirements,” said Warren. “Congress has a responsibility to make sure farm workers, no matter their immigration status, have the protections they need, the rights they are entitled to, and the compensation they deserve.”

PCUN applauds the introduction of the FARM Laborers Protection Act. This is a signal to agricultural workers across the county, that we’re not giving up on them, or on this pandemic. Identifying what the gaps are in the FFCA is key to ensuring crops don’t go unpicked, while acknowledging the deep value that workers have in the wellbeing of our communities. Paid sick leave means workers can take time off to quarantine, which mitigates the effect of workplace outbreaks. Hazard pay – is an acknowledgement to how essential this work force really is. And ensuring wages can be maintained during furloughs means a more resilient economy. In order for the CDC guidelines to be successfully implemented at work sites, we must be set up to succeed with resources for toilets, handwashing stations, and other logistics. We’re grateful to Senator Merkley, and other leaders for stepping up,” said Farmworkers & Latinx Working Families United Executive Director Reyna Lopez Osuna.

“Farmworkers are at the core of our food supply chain but they lack key benefits and safeguards to protect themselves, their families and communities from COVID-19. And in this crisis, the additional costs of childcare, nutrition, transportation, and personal protective equipment (PPE) are exacerbating economic and food insecurity. The FARM Laborers Protection Act recognizes the essential role of farmworkers in the nation’s food security and the urgency to provide them with the pay, benefits and protections that these workers deserve,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, Executive Director of the UFW Foundation.

“Given the perils of the pandemic to worker protection and food security, the UFW negotiated with agricultural establishments under union contract, to improve working conditions and provide pay raises or bonuses amounting to $2 per hour or more as hazard pay.  And at the national level, the essential women and men who are required to work in agriculture need and deserve the protections in the FARM Laborers Protection Act.  We applaud Senator Merkley and the bill’s co-sponsors for their leadership to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in agricultural communities by furthering the health, safety and economic security of the people that feed us,” said Teresa Romero, President of the United Farm Workers union.

Although the Families First Coronavirus Act expanded paid sick leave to millions of workers, a provision exempting employers with fewer than 50 employees from providing the leave to their workers has left millions of farmworkers—96.6% of whom work at farms with fewer than 50 employees—at risk. As a result America’s agricultural workers, who are forced to choose between following public health guidance and keeping their jobs, and have been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The FARM Laborers Protection Act would address that injustice by providing 10 days of paid sick leave to agricultural workers; provide pandemic premium pay at an additional $13 per hour for these workers in recognition of the personal risk of maintaining the nation’s food supply during the pandemic; help maintain payrolls and limit layoffs and furloughs in the critical industry; and implement recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regarding sanitation and social distancing in work sites, employer-provided housing, and transportation.

In addition, the legislation would provide grants to agricultural producers to help them provide premium pay to their employees and purchase handwashing stations, portable restrooms, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The FARM Laborers Protection Act is endorsed by United Farm Workers (UFW), UFW Foundation, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Farmworker Justice, Causa Oregon, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Foundation, Unite Oregon and Unete Center for Farm Worker Advocacy, Environmental Working Group, and Justice for Migrant Women.

A summary of the legislation is available here.