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Written Testimony of Mónica Ramírez, Founder/President, Justice for Migrant Women, Co-founder, The Latinx House, Poderistas & Alianza Nacional de Campensinas

April 28, 2021

Chair Burrows, Vice Chair Samuels, and Members of the Commission, thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s hearing to testify about the civil rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant women workers, including farmworker women.

As the global pandemic unfolded, thousands of workers across industries were called upon to continue to do their work—business as usual—to keep the world running. Some of the least visible workers were deemed frontline and essential during this crisis. Frontline is an accurate moniker, given that they literally put their lives on the line for the benefit of all of us. Among those are the migrant women workers, including farmworker women, who we serve through our organization, Justice for Migrant Women.

According to a study published in April 2020 by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “‘women are overrepresented in frontline jobs and 41.2% of frontline workers are Black, Latinx, Asian-American Pacific Islander, or some other category other than white.’” In addition, many were over the age of 50 and live in poverty.

Today, on this World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we must acknowledge that one of the biggest civil rights crises of our time is employers’ failure to create terms and conditions that adequately protect the very lives of their employees.  Over the past year, immigrant workers have navigated through fear and confusion while enduring a range of hardships -- from the lack of safety equipment, to the limited access to COVID testing and paid sick leave when they got sick or had to quarantine from exposure to COVID. Due to their immigration status, many did not qualify for the benefits from COVID-19 relief bills. Some of these workers were guest workers subject to the whim of their employers to make changes to keep them safe in their housing, transportation and workplaces. Among them, 200 Mexican agricultural guest workers at a single farm in Tennessee and 169 farmworkers at Green Empire Farms in New York were infected with COVID. It appears that their employers failed to keep them safe.

They, like other essential workers across our country, have been treated as disposable. The consequence of this has been an estimated 560,000 positive COVID-19 cases and more than 9,100 deaths among agricultural workers as of April 2021.  There was a 59% increase in mortality among Latino food and agricultural workers alone in the state of California from March through October 2020. Between 236,000 to 310,000 COVID cases and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths are attributed to livestock plants across the US, as of July 2020. Rather than concerning themselves with preventing the spread of the virus, reports revealed that supervisors at a Tyson plant in Iowa placed bets on how many workers would contract COVID. It is estimated that more than 12,500 Tyson Foods workers contracted COVID-19. An article published on April 29, 2020 by The Center for Economic and Policy Research indicates that ‘44% of meatpacking workers are Hispanic and 25% are Black. It also stated that more than half of frontline meatpacking workers are immigrants.’  This is just a snapshot of some of the industries and some of the data. We may never have a full picture of the crisis, but what we do know is that a devastating number of workers became sick, lost their lives, infected their family members and other community members, while many of these same companies experienced financial boons.

I call upon the EEOC to investigate the civil rights implications that have resulted due to the actions and inactions of companies that literally cost thousands of workers, their families and other community members their lives, not to mention the terrifying and life-altering experience of contracting this virus. These consequences have been especially acute for the lowest paid and most marginalized workers among us.

We must call to question whether it can be said that in companies where large- and small-scale outbreaks occurred, affected workers held jobs in all ranks of those workplaces; or whether certain classes of workers—and by extension certain classes of people—were better protected by their employers during this pandemic. Further, we must question the impact that discrimination and bias played in the decision-making process of whose lives were worth protecting and which workers enjoyed the benefits of workplace precautions. I contend that one day when we reflect upon this crisis, we will see clearly that it was not by chance or accident that black and brown people across our nation were among the hardest hit by COVID, from infections to death.

But we have an opportunity to address these issues now. First, companies must reassess and update their policies to protect all workers, taking into consideration the differing jobs and how different measures might be required for different workers.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has been isolating, and it has made people more vulnerable to violence, exploitation and harm. The EEOC must explore alternative ways to make sure that workers get information about their rights and have access to make complaints and that a meaningful attempt is made to investigate these complaints in a timely manner. 

Third, given the large number of individuals who lost their jobs during the pandemic, it will be critical that the EEOC be vigilant about who companies are hiring back and how they are hiring given the disparate impact on certain groups of people, including women, individuals over the age of 50 and people of color. It will be vital to ensure that these workers can return under equitable conditions. This will require companies to conduct internal assessments of their policies and procedures to be certain that they do not discriminate and are not providing less favorable opportunities or conditions to those who are returning to work.

As we reflect on the way forward, we must never forget that the moment that we are contending with and the way that we manage it will make a difference between whether people will live or die, literally. Beyond that, ensuring fair treatment, good conditions and basic equality are even greater aspirations. It is incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to ensure that at a minimum we do what it takes to protect workers and their families from further risk of harm, illness and, even death.