Agricultural workers would get PPE, hazard pay under Dem plan

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Four state House Democrats on Monday rolled out a bill package that aims to allocate hazard pay, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other protections to at-risk agricultural workers in Michigan.

Their five bills, dubbed the Food Security Protection Plan, extend protections to seasonal and migrant farm workers who continue to plant, cultivate, harvest and package food during Michigan’s ongoing state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

State Reps. Alex Garza (D-Taylor), Cynthia Johnson (D-Detroit), Kevin Coleman (D-Westland) and Brian Elder (D-Bay City) are co-sponsors of the package, which is not yet online. 

“There is a group of frontline essential workers who often get left behind: Our agriculture, farm and migrant workers,” said Garza, who co-chairs Michigan’s Legislative Latino Caucus.

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The work of agricultural and farm workers — many of whom are immigrants — is designated essential by governments. In fields and processing centers, workers try to social distance and hope wearing face coverings can protect them. Some workers report laboring without protective gear.

More than 16,200 meatpacking workers across 23 states have contracted COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That caused production of meat and poultry to dip in both May and April, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Meanwhile, virus cases surged among California farm workers this summer as crops needed to be harvested. Half of the country’s farm worker population is based in the state.

Garza’s first bill requires employers to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to their employees, with the goal to minimize COVID-19 transmission and create a safer work environment. 

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“We have seen what happens when sectors of the economy open without taking necessary precautions to protect our workers,” said Garza. “Meatpacking plants around the country and in our own backyard closed due to the unchecked spread of the virus among workers. Stores had shortages of products because workers in those sectors were not protected and inevitably felt ill.”

Another bill from Garza alters requirements to obtain food assistance. It expands the access seasonal workers have to assistance programs and, during states of emergency, lowers thresholds for program acceptance. 

Additional bills from Johnson, Coleman and Elder allocate to workers paid sick leave, unemployment benefits and hazard pay, respectively.

Johnson’s bill works in tandem with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-111, which created temporary new requirements on housing and working conditions of migrant workers during the pandemic. Johnson said her bill extends paid sick leave to these workers.

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Coleman introduced legislation which treats seasonal and farm workers in the same vein as self-employed or independent contractors who fall under 1099 tax status. His bill aims to increase access to unemployment benefits for that workforce. 

Elder’s contribution to the package makes note of the agricultural workers who maintain food supply chains. His bill considers them “critically essential” front line workers and mandates hazard pay and pay increases to them. 

“We want to see our food production workers treated the same way as any essential worker,” said Elder, minority vice chair of the House Agriculture Committee. “There is nobility in all honest work. And we didn’t need the global pandemic to show us that workers’ health, safety and protection should be our highest priority.”