By Diana Saguilan
After a year of sacrifice and loss, New York State (NYS) failed to include farmworkers and food processing workers as essential to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in its initial roll out. Throughout the pandemic, access to basic goods like vegetables, fruits, dairy, and poultry have been important to every community in the state. For this simple reason, farmworkers and food processing workers were and continue to be essential to our state’s economy. Our communities have worked endlessly to ensure food distribution warehouses, grocery stores, and food banks have enough food to keep New Yorkers nourished. After all, every human must eat to stay alive. Yet, when the vaccine became available farmworkers and food processing workers were not listed in the Phase 1B category along with other essential workers - seemingly nobody knows why.
Farmworkers and food processing workers were considered essential in the beginning of this pandemic. Many workers in these industries live on employer-provided housing. The housing is typically small living quarters sheltering many people. In a pandemic where social distancing is required, how do you social distance when every room in your house is shared space? The consequence was clusters of Covid-19 positive cases that affected entire farms in NYS. The workers who were Covid-19 positive had to isolate themselves from everyone with whom they shared accommodation. The rest of the workers had to quarantine due to the exposure of their colleagues. In some places this was a repeated cycle. In small farms, this could (and did) stop work production.
To this day, NYS never gave farmworkers an answer to why they were asked to put their lives on the line to produce food for millions of New Yorkers during a global pandemic but not given priority to a vaccine that would protect their own life. In the early stages of the vaccines Phase 1B vaccinations were intended for individuals seventy-five (75) years of age and older, first responders, public workers, and teachers to name a few. Just like first responders, farmworkers kept the state alive as best they could while putting their live at risk. However, the state government chose to exclude agriculture from phase 1B vaccinations.
In February 2021, the United States Government initiated a program called the Community Health Centers Vaccination Program. This program gave states access to up to 11 million vaccines in addition to the weekly distribution state quotas. The intention of this program was to ensure equity in vaccine access and distribution to “disproportionately affected populations.” Migrant and seasonal farmworkers were listed as a group. These vaccines could be available via the network of the health centers which includes Migrant Health Clinics throughout the State. The only condition to this program was that the state lists these categories as essential as part of the Phase 1B. New York chose to leave the agriculture community behind, creating further inequities.
Now, the vaccine is available to everyone sixteen (16) and older. As a community of farmworker allies, we should be aware of the challenges our neighbors are facing and have gone through in this pandemic. They continue to struggle to get to a vaccination site. If they get there, language access is often an issue. Furthermore, it is not easy to get much time off to receive the vaccine and/or to deal with the side effects.
We can support farmworkers and food processing workers who continue to be essential to New York if we stay informed and advocate for their human rights. Farmworkers are essential. They feed all of us. And they deserve to be included in benefits all essential workers receive. Think of them when you sit with your family at dinner tonight.