Notes from Susan: Essential But Unprotected: US Farmworkers

By Susan MacLaury

Shine Global is hosting a series of most of its documentaries throughout 2020 in celebration of our 15th anniversary. On June 12th – World Day Against Child Labor – we screened The Harvest (La Cosecha) and I had the privilege of moderating its Q and A. The panelists included US Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, who authored the CARE Act (Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety) and was a co-sponsor of the recent HEROES Act, which provides protections to millions of Americans dealing with COVID-19. She was joined by Norma Flores López, the Chief Programs Officer at Justice for Migrant Women and Chair of the Child Labor Coalition’s Domestic Issues Committee. The third panelist was Zulema Lopez, one of the three young subjects of The Harvest, then 12 and now 23 and a recent college graduate.

We spoke mostly about how little has changed for migrant farmworkers in the US. Their lives are arduous, traveling many months a year following crops to harvest, often traveling thousands of miles each season. Their children routinely miss weeks of school, making it very difficult for them to keep up with classmates. Their housing is substandard, wages very low, and though now deemed “essential workers,” farmworkers still lack many of the basic rights afforded workers in other lines of labor like the right to overtime, or to collective bargaining.

The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) passed earlier this spring provides protections and salaries for many workers through from April 1 -December 31 of this year. It requires employers with under 500 employees to give workers up to 2 weeks of fully or partially paid sick leave for COVID-19 reasons. It makes full-time employees who’ve been employed for at least 30 days and must quarantine because of symptoms or possible exposure to the virus, eligible for 80 hours of paid sick leave at their regular wage. They’re also able to get 2/3 of their salary if they can’t work because they need to take care of a sick relative or a minor.

The problem is that migrant workers may not work as long as 30 days for an employer. When they don’t qualify, they are left to bear the full brunt of the loss of head start and childcare programs and public school closures. Thus, while the FFCRA is an important first step in the protection of “essential” farm workers, it’s not a 100% guarantee that their rights and needs will be protected. Much more can and must be done.

As I watched The Harvest again, I was struck by how hard the lives of migrant farmworker families are. As filmmakers we come in, document these issues with the help of charismatic and courageous subjects. Then we go on to our next project while they continue to live their lives. And their lives are very, very hard.

I asked all our panelists what average American’s can do to help – and I’ll leave you with their inspiring words: