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Although farmworkers are considered “essential workers,” they have been granted few protections prior to and during the pandemic. As Maryland’s most marginalized workers, farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to exposure to coronavirus because of high rates of respiratory disease due occupational hazards such as the application of pesticides, low rates of health insurance coverage, and substandard living and working conditions. They play a vital role in maintaining our food system, yet lack many of the legal protections that protect most workers, such as sick leave, health insurance, and unemployment insurance that will support their recovery and reduce disease spread. We must protect their health and safety in order to ensure that our communities have continuous access to fruits and vegetables.

Issues of Food Waste

The pandemic has already led to significant reduction in the nation’s economy and food supply chain. Maryland’s poultry processing industry has a vital part in upholding the food supply chain in the United States. Earlier this year, poultry plants across the Delmarva Peninsula suffered coronavirus-related staff shortages and led to the extermination of 2 million chickens that could not be processed for meat, shocking waste system that is not designed to handle a massive influx of dead birds. Similar issues are arising amongst other agricultural sectors; if food and farmworkers contract the virus, this vital labor force will decrease--with a potentially devastating effect on food production.

We Must Act Now!

As more people than ever wait outside of grocery stores and food pantries, our current food system cannot handle more worker shortages. We must provide access to the necessary resources and care that will improve worker safety and minimize the labor effect on food production. This past March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA or Act) which requires certain employers to provide their employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. However, farm workers can be exempt from the requirement because their absence would potentially “jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” Yet as the evidence from the poultry industry shows, exempting agricultural workers from paid sick leave inevitably leads to loss of production and revenue. Sick workers cannot work.

Marylanders for Food and Farm Worker Protection, a newly formed coalition that includes several progressive environmental organizations and farmworker justice groups, urged Governor Hogan to issue an emergency executive order to provide adequate protections for the state’s poultry, seafood, and agricultural workers to combat coronavirus risk. With a second wave of COVID-19 happening now, Maryland legislators must establish new regulations to better protect our essential workers. We support policies that prioritize the safety of food and farm workers, such as implementing an emergency temporary standard (ETS), removing the exemption for paid sick leave that leave out farm workers, and reforming employer provided housing and transportation for the migrant workers that grow and pick our food.