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Ensure Basic Rights of the Working Poor on Cesar Chavez's Day

March 31, 2020
By: Andy Currier
Image: Essential Workers. Copyright: Dignidad Rebelde
Image: Essential Workers. Copyright: Dignidad Rebelde


The outbreak and subsequent spread of COVID-19 has radically altered daily life around the world. As of March 26, the US has the highest number of confirmed cases of any country. With current shelter in place orders looming indefinitely, most white-collar jobs have transitioned to remote work, and people have been directed only to go into public places to get food and medicine.

The workers who ensure that grocery stores are full during the pandemic have been deemed essential and are risking their health. From the farmworkers picking fresh produce, to the supply chain workers packaging and shipping it, to the grocery store employees who continue to stack shelves – the vital role these women and men play has never been more apparent.

Forced to continue working in conditions that place their lives at risk, the harsh realities these workers face in daily life are coming center stage. With low rates of healthcare coverage, working (and often living) in close proximity, and in conditions where exposure to dust and chemicals results in high prevalence of underlying conditions, farmworkers face especially grave health risks from COVID-19. In the words of Cesar Chavez, whose birthday we celebrate today, “It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.”

What Farm & Food Chain Workers on the Frontlines Should be Guaranteed

“Despite the fact that the undocumented immigrant communities are possibly the only people in this country who will not have access to any of the federal government’s relief aid, the response from industry has so far been minimal…”

The United Farmworkers (UFW), founded by Chavez, issued an open letter on March 17 to agricultural employers and organizations calling on them to take concrete steps towards protecting workers’ health and safety. These include extending sick leave, eliminating the 90 day waiting period for new workers to accrue sick time, and ending the need for doctor notes to take sick time. Farmworkers cannot be faced with the choice to either come to work feeling sick during a pandemic or lose their jobs and ability to take care of themselves and families. UFW additionally calls for state and federal stimulus benefits to include all farmworkers, including the estimated 50 percent or more who are undocumented. Despite the fact that the undocumented immigrant communities are possibly the only people in this country who will not have access to any of the federal government’s relief aid, the response from industry has so far been minimal, failing to meet any of the workers’ major demands.

The Food Chain Worker’s Alliance (FCWA) is leading the charge on what food workers on the front lines urgently require through a petition to grant workers the health and financial protections they have long deserved. The letter calls for investments in making working places safe, hazard pay at a premium of time and a half, paid sick time, expanded access to unemployment insurance and cash grants for the restaurant workers laid off en-masse, a moratorium on rent, protections for street vendors, and increasing the right to organize workplaces, among other measures – all of which must also apply to undocumented workers. Long marginalized and exploited, food workers are coming together at this crucial moment to address their needs.

Undocumented Workers under the Double Threat of ICE and COVID-19

The undocumented workers are especially vulnerable. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to conduct raids and imprison people in close quarters that medical experts from the Department of Homeland Security have labeled a “tinderbox scenario” during the pandemic. In response, hunger strikes have broken out at three ICE detention centers over justified fears of COVID-19’s rampant spread. On March 26, a federal judge in New York ruled that detainees must be released from county jails where cases have been confirmed, freeing 10 detainees being held at three different centers where positive cases have already been found. With over 37,000 people in immigration custody, where inadequate medical care has already had fatal consequences, immediate action is required. It is time for the US Congress to force ICE to immediately release detained people.

Essential Grocery Store & Delivery Workers Need a Fair Deal

While corporations in the food economy continue to generate massive profits amidst the crisis, the people making this possible have been left behind. As sales skyrocket at grocery stores, their employees are fighting for higher wages and adequate sick leave. Following a petition that quickly gained over a thousand signatures, employees at the Northern California based Berkeley Bowl grocery stores just received a $2 hourly increase in pay during the pandemic. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, representing another 30,000 workers at Albertsons-owned Safeway grocery stores also reached an agreement for $2 hourly increase and additional paid sick leave. Workers at Whole Foods are planning a “sick-out” day on March 31 calling on Amazon to meet their demands for hazard pay, increased sick leave and adequate sanitation equipment.

Delivery workers for Instacart, the grocery delivery service company now seeing historic business, began a massive strike on Monday, March 30 – demanding hazard pay, safety gear, and expanded paid sick leave to workers with pre-existing conditions. Instacart has been able to profit from the pandemic without protecting the wellbeing of its employees. For many of the delivery workers who depend on each paycheck, they are being forced to work when sick in order to pay rent and feed themselves. In response to the planned strike, Instacart countered with measures that the strike organizers (Gig Workers Collective and Instacart delivery workers) called “a sick joke,” as the planned strike remained in place. Understanding that Instacart cannot function without them, delivery workers are coming together to demand the basic protections they require during a pandemic. 

The same solidarity that has secured past victories is needed now more than ever. As reminded by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), “only when we realize that we are one community of workers with common interests, regardless of race or nationality or gender, can we truly come together to defend those interests as one, unified force.”

Long Term Implications of Pandemic Response

The next few months, as the US government mobilizes monumental sums of money in stimulus packages, will be extremely consequential. Instead of the Trump administration granting massive subsidies to the wealthiest interests in society, this moment should be a catalyst for monumental shifts towards a more equitable society. This starts with ensuring basic rights of the working poor in the United States of America and holding corporations like Instacart and Amazon accountable.

Ideas around universal Medicare coverage, student debt relief, and tenant protections deemed radical just weeks ago, now offer a sensible path out of the current situation. Following the rapid allocation of trillions of stimulus dollars, the persistent “How will you pay for it?” question used to stifle progressive policies can finally be put to rest. Moving forward it cannot be forgotten that we could have always taken action to remedy the suffering of the millions of working Americans who suffer from low wages, lack of health care, food, water, and adequate housing.

To sign the Food Chain Workers Alliance Petition: