Trenton – In response to recent COVID-19 outbreaks on New Jersey farms and the Department of Health classifying farmworkers among the state’s most vulnerable, legislation sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz and Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez would require the implementation of greater protections for farmworkers during epidemics. The bills cleared the Senate Economic Growth Committee today.
“By codifying state guidelines into uniform requirements, we can ensure all farms across the state are taking adequate protocols to protect farmworkers throughout this pandemic and during any future epidemics,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “We understand implementing these safety protections has a cost associated with it, which is why we are moving a companion bill appropriating $5 million to help pay for sanitation stations, personal protective equipment and other required improvements. This is not only about the health and wellbeing of farm owners and their employees but also the entirety of our state’s fresh food chain which we all rely on. ”
In May, the Department of Health identified farmworkers as vulnerable residents, classifying them alongside those in nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals and prisons as the top priorities to receive COVID-19 testing. They classified frontline workers, such as healthcare workers and first responders, as the second priority and the general public as the third.
“We need to protect the health and safety of our farmworkers and ensure that their work environment meets the proper precautionary standards that are required for workers in other industries who are designated by the Department of Health as vulnerable,” said Senator Cruz-Perez (D-Camden/Gloucester). “Farmworkers continue to ensure that our communities do not go hungry during this public health crisis, and we must ensure that their health and safety is valued and prioritized at work.”
The bill, S-2602, would mandate the testing of all farmworkers and require employers to implement infection control measures. The required measures would include performing regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and providing the provisions needed for frequent and thorough handwashing.
Under the bill, employers would be required to provide employees with any personal protective equipment deemed appropriate for the public health emergency and any other equipment which would make facilities safer.
The bill would require the Department of Health to conduct inspections of each worksite or facility and determine whether employers are meeting all standards, guidelines and guidance.
The Commissioner of Health, working alongside the Commissioners of Labor and Workforce Development, Community Affairs and Environmental Protection, and the Secretary of Agriculture, would be required to develop a public awareness campaign to ensure farm owners and workers are aware of these protections.
The provisions of the bill would apply during any public health emergency, not just the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The second bill, S-2596, would appropriate $5 million in federal funds to the Department of Health for grants to farmers for the reimbursement or purchase of protective health materials for farmworkers.
Both bills were released from committee by votes of 4-0.