The Maryland General Assembly must protect food and farm workers this legislative session

by Stephen Leas

Some of the major outbreaks of COVID-19 in Maryland have resulted from conditions in poultry and food processing facilities on the Del Mar Peninsula.This pandemic has placed Maryland’s food and farm workers at high risk, exposing working conditions at food processing facilities that make workers and their communities particularly vulnerable to catching and spreading the virus. It also has exposed the glaring lack of protections the state and federal governments afford them. Food and farm workers have died of COVID because of these gaps in worker protection, but this is not only a worker’s rights issue, it is also a racial and migrant justice issue as well.

Most affected food and farm workers are people of color and many are also migrants that do not speak English. Furthermore, climate change is expected to increase the number of pandemics affecting food workers, as well as decrease crop yields, and affect our food supply. Sunrise Movement Baltimore is fighting for a Green New Deal that addresses the climate crisis while empowering workers. We believe that the state legislature must take action this session to protect farm workers — by expanding sick leave to agricultural and seasonal workers in the state. They must also establish enforceable standards in food processing facilities and in migrant housing facilities during this pandemic and future pandemics. Legislators can pass these initiatives into law by supporting Marylanders for Food and Farmworker Protection package.

Some of the conditions that meatpacking workers are unfairly expected to tolerate during this pandemic include standing shoulder to shoulder instead of social distancing and overcrowded break rooms. They can lack proper ventilation and have been expected to purchase their own protective gear. The danger that food workers face in the workplace must be addressed, but the gaps in policy have broader impacts that affect everyone. The lack of enforceable safeguards means outbreaks of transmissible viruses can spread rapidly beyond state lines.

By passing an emergency standard at these facilities to ensure distancing, provide personal protective equipment, and proper ventilation, the virus is less likely to spread. In terms of food security, chicken also disappeared off the shelves for a time as industrial producers failed to cope with absences due to poor conditions, with small farms picking up the slack. The Maryland Food and Farm Worker Protection coalition sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan urging him to take action and sign an executive order to protect these workers, but he refused. The General Assembly can step in where the federal government and Hogan have not. The COVID Emergency Temporary Standards bill (HB124) would address this failure.

Migrant workers are also often at risk in employer-provided housing, similar to barracks. Legislators can address this by passing the Healthy Farmworkers Act (HB577) that holds these facilities to enforceable standards like requiring separate space for workers to quarantine, and for those age 60 and above, and basic ventilation. Migrant workers are the backbone of our food system, and they should feel safe and healthy in their own homes.

Lawmakers should also expand the amount of paid sick leave as well as who qualifies for paid sick leave. The Public Justice Center worked for and won paid sick leave in the past, and now they want to be sure it is expanded to ensure agricultural workers are not excluded. Expanding paid sick leave will mean that instead of workers going in sick to pay the bills, they will stay home and care for their health knowing they will still get paid. Those working in hotspots of viral spread like food processing sites, will be covered.

In the immediate future we must empower the folks that feed us where they are at — in poultry facilities, in the orchards, in the vegetable fields. The first step toward a just food system is and always has been empowering the workers. The general assembly can start now by passing these farmworker protections. For the long term, Sunrise Movement supports a just transition and a Green New Deal that protects and empowers workers. Ecologically, we must have an agricultural Green New Deal that transitions workers from harmful monocropping, excessive meat production, and polluting industrial agriculture toward regenerative agriculture that is smart on climate — but this transition must occur in a just way — to give workers more self determination in a cooperative economy.

Stephen is a co-lead for Sunrise Mtv. Baltimore’s State Policy team. You can follow him on Twitter under @StephenLeas, and on Facebook under “Stephen Jackson Leas.”

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