Who is ‘essential’? Food and farm workers left in limbo in vaccine priorities – POLITICO
The nation’s food workers, hit hard by Covid-19 infections throughout the crisis, are finding resistance in the race to get vaccinated.
The industry is clamoring to prioritize frontline food workers who kept Americans fed throughout the worst of the pandemic even as thousands of them fell sick and hundreds died. But limited doses and a haphazard patchwork of distribution plans are leading to fears that thousands more workers will get hit — potentially stymieing food production in the coming weeks and months.
After last year’s widespread failure by employers and government regulators to protect food and farm workers from the virus, labor advocates fear that millions could once again fall through the cracks. President-elect Joe Biden is pushing for a $20 billion national vaccine program, but the plan doesn’t specifically address the needs of food and ag workers.
The CDC’s guidelines designate meat processing, grocery store, and food and agriculture workers as “non-health care frontline essential workers,” part of the second tier of vaccine priority, or “Phase 1b.” But the federal government is giving states the authority to craft their own plans and timelines for distribution — some of which leave out agriculture workers altogether, while others are rapidly changing.
In New York, for example, a last-minute decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo dropped farm and food processing workers from its Phase 1b vaccine rollout, after the state received fewer doses of the vaccine than it expected. Agriculture groups including the New York Farm Bureau, apple growers and dairy processors were quick to blast that decision.
“We understand this is a fluid and evolving situation and unexpected circumstances occur, but we are asking that these employees be first in line when expanding Phase 1b to other populations,” said Ozzie Orsillo, executive vice president of the Northeast Dairy Foods Association.
In the absence of standard guidance, labor advocates are left to stitch together clear directions and information for workers who are vital to America’s food system but face unique challenges to accessing the vaccine.
“It’s challenging since the U.S. is so big and there’s 50 states with 50 different ways of distributing,” said Laszlo Madaras, chief medical officer at the Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit organization of clinicians who help bring health care to farm workers. “We don’t want to see farm workers lost in that shuffle.”
Madaras said his group is pushing for equitable access to vaccines for workers in the agriculture industry, which relies heavily on immigrants and seasonal foreign labor.
“We have a database geared towards people on the move to help get them from one community health center to another,” Madaras said. “We are working to help those farm workers who are on the move — who may get the first vaccine in North Carolina and then are due for their second one when they reach Virginia — and to make sure (they get the) correct second vaccine.”
Difficulties of reaching workers
A lack of access to health care, misinformation, public charge concerns and uncooperative employers also pose major challenges. Biden on Friday promised to focus on low-income communities of color and combating mistrust about vaccines as he overhauls the federal rollout.
The complexities in vaccine distribution can be seen across the country, including in Idaho, where health officials have warned that outbreaks in food processing plants are driving the disproportionately high rate of coronavirus infection among Latinos in the state.
Some agriculture workers in Idaho, including food processing employees, could get the vaccine as early as February, but advocates in the state still worry about equitable reach.
“Our farm workers are likely to live in rural communities which don’t have an adequate health care structure,” said Samantha Guerrero, an agriculture and food community organizer at the Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance, which was formed by a coalition of community organizations. “This places these communities last.”
Oregon was one of the first states to see large outbreaks of Covid-19 among agriculture workers — but it has not designated them within the order of vaccine distribution.
“Transporting to rural areas in Oregon, storing and making the vaccine available in rural communities really adds to the complexity of reaching our workers,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director for Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, the largest Latino union in Oregon.
Other large agriculture states like Florida and Texas also didn’t specify when food sector workers can access the vaccine.
Hot spots turned into vaccination sites
The nation’s largest meat processors — whose slaughterhouses became hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks last spring — have since stepped up worker safety measures and testing. Now they’re mounting an effort to vaccinate the meatpacking workforce, including by doing it themselves.
JBS says it’s working with health officials and providers to coordinate vaccine distribution at meat plants, purchasing ultra-cold freezers, and educating employees about the importance of getting the shots.
“Our goal is to achieve the highest voluntary participation rate possible,” said Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA and its majority-owned poultry giant, Pilgrim’s Pride.
Depending on the plant, Bruett said, vaccines could either be provided at nearby clinics or administered directly by company nurses.
Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer for Smithfield Foods, said the company already has medical sites at its plants and expects vaccines will be available for distribution to critical workers within 60 days, though the situation varies by state.
Tyson Foods is teaming up with clinical services provider Matrix Medical Network to deploy “mobile health clinics” at slaughterhouses to administer vaccines and offer counseling and education to employees, the company announced on Wednesday.
Cargill is checking with health authorities about the potential for distributing vaccines at its facilities, but it’s still “too early to make firm plans” at this point, said Daniel Sullivan, a spokesperson for the company.
Sullivan said Cargill would help facilitate vaccines for its employees, particularly frontline plant workers, “without jeopardizing the prioritization of essential health care workers and others at extreme high risk.”
Again, the lack of a uniform distribution system means the nationwide companies have to tailor their approach by state, leaving some in limbo as state and federal officials come up with clearer guidelines — including instructions on immigration status eligibility, because a significant portion of food and farm workers are undocumented.
In Nebraska, for example, Gov. Pete Ricketts first declared, then walked back, a statement that undocumented immigrants were ineligible for vaccines. The Mexican government later threatened to use the labor provisions of the USMCA to ensure that Mexican migrants aren’t left out.
Advocates say the U.S. federal and local governments need to clearly state that immigration status will not be a factor in eligibility for the vaccine — nor will getting vaccinated jeopardize a worker’s immigration status in the future.
For its part, the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC released a data use and sharing agreement essentially promising that any data collected during vaccination will remain confidential and cannot be used in any prosecution, including immigration enforcement.
Confronting vaccine misinformation
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a national farm worker women’s organization, is trying to increase awareness and confidence about coronavirus tests and vaccines, and combat confusion about the cost, requirements for immigration status and how the vaccine works — including mistrust fueled by social media and the Trump administration’s hardline immigration rhetoric.
“People are afraid … We knew this was going to be a battle,” said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “In Florida, the governor was blaming agricultural workers for the increase in Covid-19, and these kinds of racist accusations have contributed to distrust. There is a pressure on our people that they shouldn’t be a public charge. When you talk about publicly available, government-provided vaccines, you do this after they have been told to not be that public charge.”
Mónica Ramírez, president and attorney at the advocacy group Justice for Migrant Women, has been organizing in Ohio — another state without a public plan for agriculture and food sector workers. Ramírez faced pushback from growers and employers who refused to let testing occur at their operations over fear that it was a way to get workers to unionize.
“In order for this to work, there has to be a partnership between growers, advocates, the community and the state. That’s the only way it’s going to work,” Ramírez said. “Those concerns need to be secondary, and they weren’t this summer… I hope when it comes to vaccination people will set those concerns aside.”
Published at Sun, 17 Jan 2021 12:00:00 +0000