Trenton – In response to recent COVID-19 outbreaks on New Jersey farms, and the Department of Health classifying farmworkers among the most vulnerable, Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz introduced legislation to require the implementation of greater protections for farmworkers in the state during epidemics.
“It is crucial that health precautions for farmworkers are required, not recommended. Especially after the administration prioritized them alongside those working in nursing homes and prisons, they must be granted the same protections,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “Farmworkers are an integral part of our food chain and our communities, throughout this pandemic and in any future public health emergencies, they deserve to feel safe when they go to work each day.”
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.
“Guidelines are not enough to protect farmworkers. In the past several months, protections for other essential workers have been mandated to address the health and safety issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic, while farmworkers have been left behind. As essential workers, farmworkers are particularly vulnerable during this pandemic,” said Meghan Hurley, policy and advocacy organizer at CATA, the Farmworker Support Committee. “There needs to be strong enforcement and accountability measures that can ensure farmworker safety in the workplace and these must be put into place immediately. We support this legislation that creates health and safety protections for farmworkers and creates safer and healthier workspaces that also benefit employers and the public at large.”
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.
A companion bill, S-2596, introduced last week, would appropriate $5 million in federal funds to the Department of Health for grants to farmers for the purchase of protective health materials for farmworkers.