Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden marked the birthday of civil rights icon César Chávez Tuesday by calling on employers to provide protections and benefits for farmworkers exposed to the coronavirus.
Chávez’s birthday was declared a national commemorative holiday by President Barack Obama in 2014. Biden was vice president during both of Obama’s terms.
While many Americans are working from home, farm laborers have been in the fields in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, sustaining the food supply that is under strain amid the crisis.
In a statement provided to NBC News, Biden thanked the more than 2 million farmworkers who he described as “on the front lines, working to keep Americans fed and healthy during this pandemic.”
Biden called the farmworkers “soldiers in this war against an invisible and undiscriminating enemy.” The majority of the nation’s farmworkers are undocumented.
More than ever, employers should ensure the health and safety of their workers by providing those exposed to COVID-19 with paid leave so they can self-quarantine, Biden said. He also called for lifting a 90-day waiting period for farmworkers to be eligible for sick pay and for child care assistance and worker flexibility, because many farmworkers’ children may be home as schools in their communities closed.
“Farmworkers have always been essential — essential to our national strength, essential to who we are as a people,” Biden said. “And in a moment of national emergency, like we in now, we all see and recognize just how vital they are, and the dignity and respect they are owed.”
Biden is leading Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the Democratic nomination race, based on numbers of delegates won.
The Trump administration had restricted visas for farmworkers earlier this month in response to coronavirus, but the State Department has eased some of those limits in recent days.
César Chávez Day is what is known as a federal commemorative holiday. It honors the life and achievements of Chávez, but does not call for the closing of federal agencies as is done on President’s Day, for example. A handful of states celebrate it as a holiday, while other states offer it as an optional holiday.
Chávez, who was Mexican American, led marches, boycotts and other civil disobedience actions in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement to demand and secure rights for the nation’s farmworkers. At the time, a greater share of them were American citizens working for little pay under poor living conditions, with little worker injury protection or benefits and a lack of educational resources for their children.
Along with labor activist Dolores Huerta, Chávez unionized farm laborers and helped win contracts with certain guarantees; he also helped push for federal and state legislation. But farmworkers continue to struggle for labor protections, particularly as the U.S. agriculture industry has become more dependent on immigrant labor.
The U.S. House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act last December, bipartisan legislation that provides a path to legal residency for undocumented farmworkers, makes changes to the agricultural guest worker program known as H2A.
The $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package that Congress approved excluded undocumented people from the stimulus checks that will be sent to Americans. Many farmworkers could get paid sick days and paid family and medical leave under the second coronavirus response bill signed by President Donald Trump, as long as businesses with 50 employees or fewer are not exempted, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus pushed for protections for farmworkers too in a letter Tuesday to the administration. Among other things they asked whether it will advise agriculture employers how coronavirus relief money can be used to prevent COVID-19 transmission in housing and transportation provided to farmworkers.