Stay at home orders, social distancing and the COVID-19 quarantine efforts have caused an increase in demand for groceries and produce. Despite the images of the lines outside grocery stores and empty shelves circulating social media and news outlets, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assures there is no shortage of food, in part thanks to the farmworkers who continue to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think now more than ever, people are realizing the true value of farmworkers,” said Norma Flores López, chief programs officer for Justice for Migrant Women (JMW), in a Zoom conversation with Luz Collective. “They’re out there risking their health and their lives to put food on all of our tables.”
Despite continuing to work and facing increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, Flores López shared that many farmworker families “can’t afford to feed their own families or struggle to find food.” She heard there was a line of 500 farmworkers at a food pantry in rural Florida, but 300 of them were turned away without food. She added that farmworkers have been historically left out of basic labor rights, such as overtime.
Listening to the farmworkers’ concerns about the current health crisis, Flores López saw an opportunity to work with other farmworker-serving organizations to meet needs across the country. In the past, JMW’s advocacy for farmworker women has brought attention to issues like workplace sexual violence. Now, a joint statement lists policy recommendations for the U.S. legislature–things like adding handwashing facilities, the ability for workers to practice social distancing during work and improving the crowded housing and transportation conditions. “In addition to that, what we heard loud and clear more than anything else [is that] they just needed financial aid and they needed it fast,” explained Flores López.
While local, state and federal governments formulated plans to provide aid during the shutdown, many farmworkers were excluded. There are an estimated two to three million farmworkers working in the fields across the country, and because more than half of them are undocumented they do not qualify for funds from the federal stimulus package. Additionally, the White House is considering decreasing wages for farmworkers with guest visas.
That’s why JMW started a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund to provide immediate financial relief for farmworkers and their families. They selected 15 farmworker-serving organizations to distribute the support with hopes to announce an additional ten organizations in the future.
To support the fund, Latinx artists, musicians and celebrities are coming together on Cinco de Mayo. The event is free to watch online starting at 5 p.m. PT through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Periscope and Twitch, but there will be a call-to-action for viewers to donate $5 or more towards the relief fund. Actress Eva Longoria will co-host the Altísimo Live! Music and Pop Culture Festival with Enrique Santos, iHeartLatino chairman. Actresses Rosario Dawson, Kate Del Castillo and Diane Guerrero, actor Edward James Olmos and fashion designer Mario De la Torre are a few that are scheduled to appear during the online fundraiser.
Financial concerns aren’t the only challenge facing farmworkers. Being deemed an essential worker doesn’t provide protection from deportation. While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) temporarily shifted its priorities to focus on immigrants who are deemed a “public safety risk,” Flores López said that some farmworkers are still afraid. “For them, like anybody else, they just want to go to work,” said Flores López. “They want to come home safely. They want to protect their families, and they want to feed their families. They won’t be able to feed their families if they don’t get to work. It’s that simple for them.”
Some states are stepping in to provide financial relief to immigrant workers affected by COVID-19, including farmworkers. California governor Gavin Newsom created a $125 million relief fund and will provide food workers, including farmworkers, two weeks of paid sick leave if they need to quarantine.
JMW’s goal for the farmworker relief fund was increased to $3 million after it reached the initial goal of $20,000 in just a week. Flores López says to date they’ve raised close to $250,000.
JMW has also partnered with De La Torre, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation and the National Center for Farmworker Health to provide cloth face masks for farmworkers and PPE (personal protective equipment) masks for the rural health care providers who serve them. Several rural hospitals and health centers are struggling to stay open due to the financial constraints caused by the pandemic. People can sign up to participate in this campaign by either donating materials, homemade or manufactured masks.
“The idea is to provide those health care providers with the PPEs that they need to keep those clinics open,” said Flores López. “So we’ll be working closely with the National Center for Farmworker Health to get those masks out to more than 100 clinics that are out in the rural community. Those clinics will also be able to distribute some of the cloth masks to farmworkers themselves, so they can also stay safe.”
Many of the JMW leadership and advisory board members come from farming backgrounds themselves. Flores López, who worked in the fields during her adolescence, joined JMW just a month ago, but has been involved in advocacy work for over a decade with a focus on farmworker children’s rights and issues related to child labor. She wants to see the farmworker community celebrated and supported as they provide a crucial element of what makes it possible to limit the harm caused by COVID-19–the food that allows many of us to stay at home.
“We’re all going to those grocery stores lined up waiting for the food because that’s something that we need every single day,” said Flores Lopez. “We’re trying to [raise] funds but also to share their stories. To share their needs and to remind people that we can’t forget about them.”