(TRENTON) – In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among New Jersey’s farm workers, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano sponsors a bill that would allocate funding to the Department of Health (DOH) to be distributed to farm owners for the purpose of protecting their workers. The Assembly Health Committee advanced the legislation Monday.
Each year, thousands of migrant workers travel to New Jersey to find work at one of the more than 10,000 farms in the state – many of which are concentrated in South Jersey. With the ongoing pandemic, this year’s season has proven more dangerous for these workers than ever before.
As of July, nearly five percent of the COVID-19 tests conducted on farm workers came back positive, for a total of 193 infected workers out of the 3,900 tested. Yet the actual number of infected farm workers in all of New Jersey may be even higher, since testing was voluntary and certain farms barred medical teams from testing on-site.
Under the bill (A-4505/S-2596), the New Jersey DOH would receive $5 million from federal CARES Act funding to be used for grants and stipends that would be given to farm owners and operators in the state. Recipients would use that funding for the purchase or reimbursement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other materials that would help protect farm workers from COVID-19, including improvements to housing and workstations.
“The nature of their close living quarters and the fact that migrant workers, by definition, travel to our state from all over, make farms a fertile place for viral outbreaks,” said Quijano (D-Union). “Far too many workers have already been infected with COVID-19, which poses both a personal and public health risk to residents. It is critical we provide farm owners with the funding they need to protect this vulnerable population from the rapid spread of a deadly virus.”
The legislation would also permit the Commissioner of Health to issue stipends to farm workers with COVID-19 who must be quarantined but do not qualify for paid sick leave or unemployment insurance. The stipend would be equivalent to half the pay the farm worker normally receives for two weeks of work.
“Many of these seasonal farm workers cannot afford to miss even a day of work, let alone several weeks as they stay away from others while they recover,” said Quijano. “If we want to encourage sick workers to quarantine themselves in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to their fellow employees, the state must be able to compensate them for at least a portion of their lost wages. Making sure farm workers and their employers have the necessary means to prevent infections and deal with any that do take place will help keep these workers safe going forward.”
The bill will now head to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.