The bishops of the United States have called for increased protections and support for farm workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
An April 29 statement from the U.S. bishops' conference, co-signed by four bishops, advocated that employers of migrant and farm workers, as well as public health officials, acknowledge that “all workers need access to free testing and care related to the COVID-19 virus.”
The bishops called for renewed commitments from employers to ensure that housing and transportation provided for farm workers is safe and compliant with Centers for Disease Control guidelines, that information on health and hygiene practices is “easily accessible in multiple languages” and that workers be given any appropriate personal protective equipment.
The statement was signed by Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Cultural Diversity; Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima, who leads the Subcommittee on Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers (PCMRT); Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Jose, the PCMRT’s episcopal liaison for migrant farmworker ministry; and Bishop Mario Dorsonville, an auxiliary bishop of Washington and leader of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration.
The statement also noted the need for emergency plans, establishing protocols for when a worker is diagnosed with COVID-10.
“To defeat the virus, no one must be left out,” said the bishops. “The COVID-19 virus teaches us we are one human family, says the Holy Father. ‘We can only get out of this situation together, as a whole humanity.’”
The bishops said it was essential to “honor the dignity of farmworkers and make sure that they are paid a livable wage as well as be eligible for other benefits to help protect their health and the health and safety of their families at this time.”
Bishop Tyson told CNA on Tuesday that the safety of migrant workers is especially important in his own diocese, where much of the population and economy is connected to the agricultural industry.
“We’re hoping that [these suggestions] are principles that will guide all the stakeholders --whether that’s ranchers, orchardists [...] owners of the packing plants, government officials, health department people” Tyson told CNA in an interview.
“We’re just offering those as principles for all of the stakeholders, regardless of how they’re involved in the agricultural industry,” he added.
Tyson told CNA that the statement was “just at the beginning” of a process of developing policy suggestions. He said he and his brother bishops were “trying to be proactive” with their recommendations and best serve the migrant farmworker population, which swells during the state’s bigger harvesting seasons.
The Diocese of Yakima, where Tyson has been a bishop since 2011, grows by one-third each summer as migrant workers come to work in the area. More than 62% of his diocesan population are considered “essential workers” during summer months, meaning they are at increased risk of contracting the virus as they continue to work ensuring the country’s food supply.
“We are very concerned that our workers, our parishioners, our fellow Catholics, have the protection they need in order to do their essential work in the fields” said Tyson. “They are the ones harvesting the fruit, cutting the asparagus, pulling the apples off the trees and sorting them.”
Tyson told CNA that there are “many” employers, ranchers, and orchardists who are working to provide equipment to their workers, for which he is grateful. He said that he hopes these policies will become more widespread across the agricultural industry.
“This is all very real to us,” explained Tyson. “It’s a real key issue, our own folks, here.”