Hispanic Liaison, others urge state to issue workplace protections for essential agricultural workers

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The Hispanic Liaison joined over 120 North Carolina advocacy groups last week in signing an open letter that urged the state to issue COVID-19 protections for essential food workers — a promise Gov. Roy Cooper made in August but ultimately chose not to fulfill.

“I’m very pleased to be part of this effort to petition the governor and other state agencies to do more,” said Ilana Dubester, the Hispanic Liaison’s executive director.

The letter was addressed to Gov. Cooper, N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry. Among other protective measures, the letter asks the state to require that employers implement social distancing, daily temperature screenings, improved ventilation and improved access to personal protective gear or PPE.

Leaders also ask for transparency about case numbers — both to workers and local health departments — as well as a clause that would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who report symptoms, test positive or report exposure.

“For the sake of our communities, you must act,” the Sept. 25 letter read. “North Carolina must change from a culture of corporate cooperation that values profit to one of industry accountability that values people. The time for backroom negotiations with employers has passed.”

Many signatory organizations form part of the N.C. Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN), a coalition of organizations which strive to improve working conditions for agricultural workers and which also have been lobbying the state to mandate protections for agricultural workers since the beginning of the pandemic. The Hispanic Liaison is not officially a member.

“More than 3,000 North Carolina workers in meatpacking plants alone have contracted COVID-19, and hundreds of complaints to state health officials have gone unanswered,” FAN wrote in a Sept. 25 press release. “Despite initially promising a group of Latinx worker advocates that he would issue an executive order protecting workers, Governor Cooper has failed to take action to address this dire situation.”

On Aug. 13, Gov. Cooper promised before nearly 900 delegates of the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations (NCCLO) to issue an executive order to require employers to carry out social distancing, regular sanitation and other measures to protect their agricultural workers against COVID-19.

“I care about the people who are performing these jobs,” Cooper told the NCCLO in August, adding, “Since we can’t get the General Assembly to do anything, we think an executive order would be the best way to provide these protections. We’re working very hard to put it together.”

In early September, several Spanish-language media outlets reported — Enlace Latino NC and Qué Pasa were first — that he’d quietly backed down, citing opposition from state officials in the departments of Labor and Agriculture who said they would not enforce the order.

In a letter to Cooper dated Aug. 31, Labor Commissioner Berry wrote that standards proposed in his executive order exceed the department’s existing authority.

“I oppose any order that would add new mandates for employers in agriculture or other food processing industries,” Berry wrote. “This (executive order), as currently drafted, represents over-regulation of industries that are already facing tremendous hardship and that, in general, have shown a willingness to voluntarily comply with CDC guidance to protect their workers.”

But Hispanic Liaison’s Dubester said the rationale behind Cooper’s decision didn’t much matter to her. Rather, she said she thinks Cooper’s refusal to issue the promised executive order represents “a lack of courage.”

“It’s just appalling what is happening, and we were all extremely disappointed that the governor would spend weeks promising an executive order to protect essential workers and meat and poultry processing workers only to renege at the last minute and say he was not going to do it,” she told the News + Record. “That leaves a lot of people vulnerable and no mechanisms to really protect their health and safety.”

The Hispanic Liaison has been petitioning the state and the county to do more to protect the state’s essential agricultural workers — especially meat and poultry processing plant workers — for some time, Dubester said.

Echoing the letter, she said state agencies appear to be more concerned about “protecting employers than protecting the health and safety of our communities.”

She emphasized that state agencies need to be more transparent about COVID-19 cases reported in these workplaces so that others can determine whether measures to slow the virus’ spread are working and hold employers accountable.

Beyond increased safety measures, Dubester said an executive order would also reduce fear and anxiety among many essential workers.

“People who (are) afraid of losing their jobs and may not be feeling well or may have somebody who’s not feeling well in their homes don’t want to report that they’re perhaps a little bit sick,” she said. “They feel that they will be sent home and they won’t be paid for their time, and they can’t afford two weeks without pay.”

That’s why the Hispanic Liaison signed onto this letter, Dubester said.

“We’ll do much more than that,” she added, “but this is at least a step.”

You can read the full letter here.

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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