Farmworker union tone deaf in the face of reality

Apr 17, 2020

In the last 30 days 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the United States, including 1 in 5 people in Washington state.

The United Farm Workers of America and Familias Unidas Por La Justicia AFL-CIO seem to think it is the ideal time to file a lawsuit in Skagit County seeking specific safety guidelines for farmworkers. 

At a time when personal protective equipment (PPE) is in short supply for hospitals and healthcare workers; when personal care products like paper towels and toilet paper are still items in high demand at grocery stores; and when mass layoffs are occurring daily and thousands of other essential workers are assuming risk greater than or equal to farmworkers, a lawsuit like this is nothing but political grandstanding for all the wrong reasons.

The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries issued two separate fact sheets – one for food processing-warehouse employers and another for all other agriculture employers – at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak outlining procedures for keeping workers safe. The fact sheets include guidelines for social distancing, when possible, communicating hand washing methods, and workstation sanitization to minimize virus spread, among other items. 

These fact sheets are the beginning steps toward the development of best practices in uncharted territory. Like all employers working to determine the best ways to keep their employees safe, agriculture is evolving day-by-day.

For unions to claim that farmworkers are somehow at greater risk of infection from COVID-19 while working in close quarters with people they likely know and associate with socially, is the greatest of vanities, particularly in light of the challenges of workers in many other industries who deal with the general public on a daily basis.

The list of essential workers still going about their jobs to the best of their ability in difficult circumstances is long. Store clerks, truckers, bank tellers, health care workers, and many more are reporting to work and doing what they can while wearing improvised PPE if no other options are available to them. Whole groups have popped up online making homemade masks in lieu of purchased PPE during this time of shortage, recognizing that something is better than nothing.

Instead of filing a lawsuit, what farmworkers unions should have done to help both farmworkers and employers, was approach the state and farmers with solutions. Solutions like donations of supplies for homemade masks that could be made by family members who are staying at home during this crisis. Solutions like determining which family members live in close proximity to one another so that work crews could be assigned appropriately to eliminate further concern about infection.

By choosing litigation, unions are choosing to politicize a crisis we all face. Everyone is struggling to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. 

Right now, there are many who don’t even have the option of working. If farmworkers want to earn a living as essential workers, rather than relying on a much smaller amount from unemployment, they should work with their employers to find workable solutions to safety until COVID-19 has been effectively fought by everyone.