By Josh Leach on May 6, 2020
Across the United States, workers in essential industries are putting their lives at risk every day to protect the health, safety, and food supply of the country. All too often, they are asked to show up to work without the most basic protections needed to keep themselves and their families safe from COVID-19. Even as the entire U.S. economy and the basic needs of the country rest on their labor, their lives are being treated as disposable.
Compared to other sectors of the labor force, essential workers are disproportionately likely to be women, people of color, and immigrants or refugees. In other words, they belong to groups already facing systematic deprivation and exclusion in U.S. society that has increased their risk of dying from COVID-19. Our leaders must not compound these dangers still further by failing to ensure adequate health and safety protections for essential workers.
Yet, in many cases, politicians are doing just that. In an April 28 executive order, President Trump invoked wartime powers to keep meat processing facilities open; even though his administration has laid out no binding standards to ensure worker safety. This decision came after more than 700 employees fell sick from coronavirus at a pork facility in South Dakota. The vast majority of workers in these plants are people of color, including many recent immigrants and refugees from Africa, Central America, and elsewhere in the Global South.
Immigrant workers in the meat industry are courageously fighting back against these policies that put their lives and families in jeopardy. UUSC’s partners the Rural Community Workers Alliance sued Smithfield Foods—one of the nation’s largest meat producers—for failing to protect employee safety. In the workers’ 22-page legal complaint, they describe company practices that force employees to violate social distancing and work at a pace that does not leave them enough time even to cover a cough or sneeze.
On May 5, a federal judge dismissed the suit, claiming that Smithfield has since taken “significant steps” to minimize harm to employees, and that authority to enforce workplace safety rests with the executive branch. Counsel for the workers disagreed that the company is doing enough to keep workers safe; however, they observed, any positive steps on the company’s part since the suit was filed were due to the bravery of the frontline workers who first spoke out about conditions at the facility.
Meanwhile, UUSC’s partners at the National TPS Alliance are calling attention to the more than 130,000 immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) who are employed in essential industries. In a recent video, they shared the stories of TPS holders like Sonia Lazo, a TPS holder originally from El Salvador, who has worked in a U.S. hospital for 16 years. Today, she continues to work as a healthcare provider serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even as TPS holders—like other immigrant workers—are making heroic contributions to the U.S. coronavirus response, the Trump administration has placed them at needless peril by trying to cancel their immigration status. Depending on the outcome of a pending court decision, they face imminent deportation and separation from their families. The National TPS Alliance recently submitted a letter to the court to emphasize the critical public interest served by maintaining TPS protections. They also continue to call on Congress to create a path to permanent residency for immigrants with TPS.
TPS holders and other immigrant and refugee workers are out there fighting each day for all of us. They deserve a Congress that is willing to fight for them. Our leaders must include protections for all essential workers in the next COVID-19 relief and stimulus bill, while ensuring that no one is left behind due to their immigration status.
This means fighting for paid sick leave for workers in industries and large companies who were excluded from previous bills, as well as the other measures described in the proposed “Essential Workers Bill of Rights.” It means eliminating the cruel provisions that left out many immigrant taxpayers and mixed-status families (including U.S. citizens) from the previous round of stimulus payments. Finally, it means enacting permanent protections for TPS holders, DACA recipients, and other members of our society who are having to grapple with the threat of losing status and being deported, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
If you agree with this message, post this article on your social media accounts and tag your members of Congress. UUSC’s allies are calling for a national day of action on May 7 to support the Essential Workers Bill of Rights. Let your representatives and senators know that immigrant workers, TPS holders, and other frontline workers deserve protections now. Our leaders owe it to the people who are helping keep us all safe to recognize that their lives, not just their labor, are essential.
Photo Credit: iStock – FatCamera
About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!