( File photo )

As some Democratic lawmakers push for new legislative protections for farm workers, more than 60 specialty crop organizations sent a letter to Congressional leaders highlighting efforts by growers and other agricultural employers to protect their labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The fresh produce industry is committed to the safety of our workers, whether harvest crews in the field or employees in packing facilities, all while keeping the food supply chain moving,” the May 4 letter said. “We are an essential part of feeding American consumers and the world at a time when our healthy fruits and vegetables are more in need than ever.”

“Recent accusations regarding the employee protections in agriculture are unfounded,” the letter said. “With every stage of the emerging COVID-19 crisis, our industry has worked hard to embrace all public health advice for social distancing, personal and facility hygiene, face coverings and more.”

As more COVID-19 relief legislation is debated, the coalition asked Congress to acknowledge the widespread employee protection protocols already in place and to provide additional support to help agricultural employers meet the needs of employees, according to a news release.

“Farmers and ranchers are striving daily to ensure the welfare of their employees, in order to safeguard our food supply and bolster or nation’s response to COVID-19,” Western Growers president and CEO Dave Puglia said in the release. “We are calling on Congress to extend current relief efforts for agriculture, and to include additional funding for personal protective equipment and other measures to offset the costs of maintaining an essential workforce during the pandemic.”

Worker protections sought

Democratic lawmakers, Farmworker Justice and the Environmental Working Group have said they are pushing for new federal protections for farm and food workers in the next coronavirus stimulus legislation. In April, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., introduced the Essential Workers Bill of Rights to protect frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic. The lawmakers said they want the next coronavirus relief package to include the policies in the Essential Workers Bill of Rights.

The “bill of rights” includes enhanced health and safety protections, more compensation, enhanced health care and other goals.

The focus on worker issues in the specialty crop industry comes on the heels of widespread cases of COVID-19 cases at meat packing plants. COVID-19 cases at meat packing plants have caused several facilities to temporarily cease operations in the last few weeks, despite President Trump’s April 28 executive order under the Defense Production Act to compel meat processing plants to remain open amid the coronavirus pandemic.

At least seven meatpacking plants shut their doors by late April, according to a USA Today report on May 5, and those were preceded by additional closures during April. By Memorial Day, Agweb.com reported that CoBank has projected that meat supplies at retail could be down 30% from normal levels by Memorial Day.

Employee safety is top priority

The leaders of specialty crop associations said the industry has been working hard to take care of its field and packinghouse labor.

“Farmers and ranchers across the country moved quickly to implement new safety protocols early in this crisis,” National Council of Agricultural Employers president and CEO Michael Marsh said in the release. “While America was being placed on lockdown, agricultural employers were already trying to figure out how to best protect their employees and the public.”

“Given the strong food safety culture within the fresh produce industry, adapting and expanding our practices to protect workers happened quickly,” United Fresh Produce Association president and CEO Tom Stenzel said in the release. “The industry leveraged general recommendations offered by the Centers for Disease Control, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and various state public health agencies, tailoring them to the specialty crop industry as needed to put worker safety first.”

Agriculture organizations are developing industry-specific training materials and programs to educate both the employer and the employee on critical guidance related to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19, according to the release.

The Packer's Labor Updates

The Packer's COVID-19 Updates