Migrant workers are at the front lines: they need protections

The 1.6 million migrant workers in the United States employed through temporary work visa programs are on the front lines of the nation’s COVID-19 response. They are performing essential jobs that make the U.S. function, including producing our food. Yet they have been largely left out of conversations about how best to protect people. 

In the coming days, many migrant workers in the food supply chain will travel to the United States. At the same time, many temporary migrant workers are already here performing essential work–processing seafood, cutting grass, working in the fields. Many of these workers are particularly vulnerable to the virus because of their living and working conditions, and they are working with virtually no protections. We need to do better.  

Last year, the Department of Labor approved over 250,000 H-2A visa positions for agricultural work. Those workers represent approximately 10% of all farmworkers in the United States. While there are some protections in place for workers, those protections are completely inadequate to safeguard the health of workers in the context of a global pandemic.

H-2A workers are mostly from Mexico and generally travel on crowded buses to the United States. They are then housed in extremely close quarters in employer-provided housing.  Housing is often barracks style, with bunk beds or other types of beds close together. Workers often ride with dozens of coworkers to get to the fields and to the stores to buy food and other necessities. The regulations created to ensure that worker housing and transportation are adequate in normal times are wholly inadequate now. The regulations require that housing have only 50 square feet per person for sleeping; they also allow beds in shared sleeping areas to be as close as three feet apart. This simply will not allow for the kind of social distancing being recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), which recommends that non-family members maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another.

H-2A workers rarely have any form of health insurance. They also generally live in rural, isolated areas without access to transportation. As a result, their ability to access any kind of medical care is extremely limited. In addition, there is generally no place for an H-2A worker to be isolated if he or she develops symptoms of COVID-19 or other illnesses. Farm employers should be required to provide facilities to isolate H-2A workers who become infected and to ensure that they are able to see a doctor. Employer-provided housing should be required during this emergency to have sufficient space to comply with guidance by the CDC. 

Furthermore, many workers do not have access to handwashing facilities on the job. Those facilities are not required for employers who employ 10 or fewer workers. Even the larger employers that do provide these facilities are merely required to have them located within ¼ mile of the worksite. This does not afford workers the practical ability to wash their hands regularly as recommended by health experts. Furthermore, most farmworkers lack access to the masks, gloves, and disinfectant supplies they need to keep from becoming infected or infecting their colleagues. Adequate hand washing facilities and necessary safety equipment must be readily available at all times to workers. 

Finally, there is a high likelihood H-2A workers who do enter the United States will be overextended for their labor due to the disruptions taking place with visa processing in countries of origin. This is most likely to occur among employers designated H-2ALCs. H-2ALCs migrate across states and regions to provide labor to growers they contract with, moving their workers along with them. It is likely that H-2ALCs will be in high demand due to imminent labor shortages in the industry. This will increase dangers to worker health and wellbeing. 

Other temporary workers are also vulnerable. Over 100,000 H-2B workers were employed in the United States last year. Some of the biggest H-2B occupations require migrant workers to work closely next to their colleagues in factories (seafood processing, for example), to interface closely with the public (waiters and waitresses), to prepare food (cooks in restaurants), and to perform dangerous jobs like construction. Many H-2B workers are employed in the service sector, which is on pace to lose millions of jobs within a matter of weeks. These workers do not have access to unemployment insurance or any other public benefits. If they do not work, they do not have income. Yet they remain responsible for paying often very substantial debts they incurred in securing their jobs. 

College-educated migrants with temporary work visas may also face challenges. More than 800,000 workers with H-1B and L-1 visas are currently employed in the United States in health, education, and high-tech fields. Doctors with temporary visas are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, working in crowded and understaffed hospitals. And teachers face an uncertain future as schools and universities all but shut down for the rest of the academic year. The biggest employers of H-1B and L-1 workers are staffing firms that send workers to third-party worksites as temporary contractors, which makes them vulnerable to disparate treatment.

Many temporary workers who work in the U.S. are women.  They are already at great risk of sexual violence and harassment and other forms of discrimination. Health requirements to shelter in place or engage in social distancing measures will place survivors in close quarters with abusers and at greater risk of violence. Women also have specific physical, cultural, security, and sanitary needs, which must be recognized and addressed.    

International recruitment of temporary workers is poorly regulated and not transparent in ordinary times. These are not ordinary times. Many workers have already paid recruitment and visa fees to travel for jobs that may or not exist this year. Many workers are forced to take out substantial loans to get a job, and many are provided false information about the jobs for which they are recruited. Those workers must be provided clear and accurate information about COVID-19 in their native language. They must be given clear tools to protect themselves while traveling, working and residing in the U.S.

Temporary foreign workers already in the United States report having been displaced from jobs for which they were recruited. In some cases those workers are unable to leave the country because the borders to their homes are now closed. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor should require employers to offer employment in the U.S. to any displaced temporary workers before other workers are recruited for employment.

It is essential that we enact immediate policies to protect the most vulnerable workers from this virus. Temporary migrant workers must be entitled to all protections offered to other workers. And far greater protections must be enacted to safeguard workers residing in employer-provided housing and riding in employer-provided transportation. Workers must be covered by workers compensation if they become ill from the virus.  They must know that all costs of testing and treatment for COVID-19 will be paid. The United States will be far less safe if we deny healthcare and safe working conditions to an essential portion of our workforce. 

Migrant workers are on the front lines of this pandemic. Each day we accept the benefits of their labor. The time has come to accept our responsibility to adequately protect these workers from this potentially deadly threat.

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