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California Lawmakers Call for Farmworkers to Get Hazard Pay in New COVID-19 Relief Package


California lawmakers have proposed a "first-in-the-nation" relief package targeting the state's one million essential farmworkers, many who risk their health to put food on the nation's tables and grocery store shelves amid the coronavirus pandemic.

If passed, the "California Farmworker COVID-19 Relief Package" will expand paid sick leave to farmworkers, provided supplemental hazard pay of $3 an hour and help create temporary housing to mitigate overcrowding and encourage social distancing.

"This package will go far to protect the health and safety of these essential workers and therefore avoid the disruption of our nation's food supply," said Assemblyman Robert Rivas, who represents the Salinas Valley, also known as the nation's "salad bowl."

Rivas said the proposal will help all farmworkers regardless of their immigration status, noting that California agriculture faces "unprecedented demand" as residents flock to grocery stores to stock their pantries and honor the governor's "stay-at-home" order.

"Farmworkers are the unsung heroes who help keep our country fed," Rivas said. "I feel a personal responsibility to make sure we take care of them, just like they take care of us.”

The package encompasses a suite of five bills offering the ag labor force "significant and comprehensive relief" in several areas, from rural healthcare access to childcare, housing, court records, workplace safety and outreach.

Rivas said the California Department of Food and Agriculture, farm owners and field advocates were consulted in drafting the package.

“Protecting our farmworkers is especially important as they step up to the plate, placing themselves at risk, to feed our families and keep our food supply intact during this challenging time,” said Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, who represents the Coachella Valley, another heavy ag district close to the Mexican borderline.

Farmworker advocates in California's Central Valley applauded the proposed legislation but said that state lawmakers could do more to provide direct and immediate assistance to those working in the fields.

"I think state representatives can do more by immediately providing Farmworkers with a stimulus package and assistance with rent during these difficult times," said Hernan Hernandez, who heads the California Farmworker Foundation.

"Farmworkers deserve a bailout and the State can help by working toward providing them economic relief during these difficult times," he added.

The proposal's path to becoming law is unclear. The state has suspended the legislative session until at least May 4 and likely longer as residents continue to hunker down to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Visalia Assemblyman Devon Mathis, a Republican and vice-chair of the agriculture committee, said he is reviewing the package and will work "to make sure we get this right."

"Agriculture and farmworkers are the backbone of California, and we must continue to ensure food reaches our citizens safely and timely," he said.

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