U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, questioned witnesses at a hearing titled “From Farm to Table: Immigrant Workers Get the Job Done.” The hearing highlighted how critical immigrant workers are to our food supply and our economy, the urgent need for immigration reform to help American farms and businesses, and the importance of worker protections and fair wages for both domestic and immigrant workers.
During the hearing, Padilla heard testimony from Daniel Costa, Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute, and Diana Tellefson Torres, Chief Executive Officer of the United Farm Worker Foundation.
Padilla began his remarks by highlighting how farmworkers work long hours, often in dangerous conditions, to keep food on the table for the country. He then asked Mr. Costa how providing a pathway to legalization for farmworkers could bolster the U.S. economy. Mr. Costa responded by saying that if the undocumented workforce were granted a path to legal status, they could contribute to our workforce more easily and pay additional taxes.
In a second question, Padilla spoke about the frequent dangers of heat exhaustion, which is responsible for up to 2,000 worker deaths across the U.S. annually, and how legislation like his Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) could help save lives. Padilla asked Ms. Torres to discuss what protections exist for farmworkers that suffer from heat related injuries and what Congress can do to better support those protections. Ms. Torres responded by saying there are no protections or heat standards for the vast majority of farmworkers and underlined the importance of getting bills like Padilla’s enacted into federal law to establish similar life-saving measures that are in place in California.
Padilla then spoke about how farmworkers struggle to feed their own families and their lack of health insurance, paid leave, and fair wages—which is why last Congress he introduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act to guarantee overtime and additional minimum wage protections for farm workers. He also then asked Ms. Torres to describe the protections that are available in California and how they’ve helped workers. Ms. Torres responded by pointing out that most farm workers do not have access to overtime pay, but California enacted life changing overtime pay laws and emphasized that people deserve to be paid for the work they do.
Padilla concluded with a response to comments made during the hearing by Senator Graham, who implied that providing permanent protections for farmworkers would serve as a magnet for migrants and lead to a surge at the border. He emphasized that irregular migration is largely due to how difficult it is come to the U.S. lawfully, with an insufficient number of lawful pathways available, long backlogs and encumbered processes, and hindering visa number caps. He then called out Republicans for their often-employed scare tactics meant to steer conversations away from commonsense immigration reforms and encouraged his colleagues work together and get past the pretext and rhetoric to get something accomplished for our nations’ growers, farm workers, consumers, and national security.
- PADILLA: We have established today that farm workers play a critical role in ensuring our domestic food supplies both secure and sustainable farm workers, and I’ve seen this firsthand work in jobs that are among the most dangerous, the most strenuous, and yet the least compensated in the country. And far too often with the fewest labor protections. […] It’s one of the many reasons that the first bill I introduced in the Senate was my Citizenship for Essential Workers Act. My first question is for Mr. Costa, agricultural workforce industry employs about 400,000 workers. Given the significant overrepresentation of undocumented immigrants in the industry, how could providing a pathway to legalization for farm workers bolster the US economy and trade relations?
- COSTA: Well, it would bolster the economy by allowing immigrants to have rights in the workplace, labor and employment rights, and be able to better themselves and their wages would rise and they’d be able to pay taxes and have just the security of being able to go to work. And I would say it’s actually 800,000 workers in California, 400,000 is full time jobs. So it’s a very large number of workers that need those protections.
- PADILLA: As temperatures continue to rise across the country, more and more workers, including farm workers are at increased risk of heat illness, which can often lead to not just cramps, but organ damage, heat exhaustion, stroke, even death. In fact, according to a recent public citizen report, heat stress is expected to kill 2000 workers and cause an additional 170,000 workplace injuries across the country. That’s why I’ve introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. Can you discuss what protections exist for farm workers currently that suffer from heat related injuries or what Congress can do to better support these protections?
- TORRES: Well, for most farmworkers, there remains no requirement that would provide access to shade for periodic breaks to be able to get a reprieve from the sun, something that basic at the national level, there is no heat standard. And clearly, the bill that you have introduced, Asuncion Valdivia Bill, would basically do what we have done in California where farm workers do have access to be able to take paid breaks whenever they need them, when it is hot, so that they can get that reprieve and you know the type of water and access to water that they would need.
- PADILLA: Official data tells us 1/3 of farm workers live below the poverty line it actually think the real numbers bigger, fewer than half have health insurance or paid sick leave of any kind that do not qualify for unemployment insurance or other state social safety net programs because of their undocumented status. And most farm workers do not have the right to collective bargaining. And without that they can be retaliated against for organizing, for reporting unfair labor practices, or even complaining about working conditions. That’s why I’ve introduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act last Congress that would have guaranteed overtime, simple concept, overtime pay and additional minimum wage protections for farm workers. Can you describe for a minute what some of the protections that have been in California and how they’ve helped workers.
- TORRES: Overtime pay, as you mentioned, is something that farm workers around the country don’t usually get to experience. And so in California, we were able to pass an overtime law that allows for farm workers to be able to get overtime after 40 hours’ worth of work. […] So it makes a huge difference in the quality of their life. But in addition for their paycheck, right, it makes a difference to be able to get paid for the very deserving backbreaking work that they do.
- PADILLA: Senator Graham also implied that providing permanent protections for farm workers which serve as a magnet for migrants can lead to a surge at the border. Let’s be real. Republicans said the same thing about the lifting of Title 42. And the surge did not happen. For members wanting to address irregular migration, we have to acknowledge that the pressures created for irregular migration are in large part driven by how hard we make it to come to this country lawfully whether it’s the process, whether it’s the backlogs, whether it’s the caps. Mr. Chair, there was no surge when Title 42 was lifted, there will be no surge if we pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, there will be no surge if we pass the DREAM Act. To paraphrase Senator Graham, once again, we can do a small deal, we can do a medium deal, we can do a big deal. But my God, let’s get past the pretexts. Let’s get past excuses. Let’s get past the rhetoric and let’s do a deal that’s good for growers. Good for workers, good for consumers and good for national security.
More information about the hearing is available here.