Close to Home: Recognizing the fruits of our laborers
After more than a year of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, two things have become abundantly clear. The first is the importance of essential workers — without whom we could not function — and the second is the disproportionate disadvantages and risks our essential workers face.
As workplaces closed, many of us headed en masse to Costco and every other grocery store to stock up on food and basics for a sustained shelter-in-place. There was no such sheltering in place for farmworkers and countless immigrant essential workers.
Before the pandemic, we witnessed vineyard workers and farmworkers don N95 masks or handkerchiefs to continue toiling in the sun, soot, smoke and ash of the past few fire seasons. Signs reminded us that in Sonoma County love in the air was thicker than the smoke.
During the pandemic, signs were posted thanking essential workers (including undocumented immigrants), and bells and pots and pans were used every evening at 8 p.m. to thank health care workers, who were hailed as heroes.
Our health care heroes reminded us of the importance of all the people working behind the scenes to clean and maintain hospitals, health care settings, grocery stores and countless other essential businesses. Sadly, undocumented janitors, vineyard workers, farmworkers and countless others will be unable to use those signs or displays of gratitude to prevent their families from being separated, to prevent the daily fear of deportation or to access basics such as health care to protect them from the brutal grip of COVID-19.
But we can and must do something to prevent their daily fear and senseless deportation or separation. It is clearly our responsibility after witnessing and benefiting from their commitment to keep our economies afloat, our shelves stocked and our plates full of food.
Over the past year we learned just how much COVID-19 could exploit inequities, poverty and poor health resulting from lack of access to care for residents who are immigrants, low-income or people of color. Let us move toward a pathway to legal status for farmworkers who for too long have been out of sight and out of mind.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides us with an opportunity to reckon with the manner in which our economies, food production and businesses function by using the bodies, sweat and blood of our most vulnerable while denying them an immigration status that would allow them to exist in this country without fear and retribution.
As we continue to grapple with social and health inequities and who we aspire to become, we must also decide not just what is equal, but what is equitable and just. A pathway to legal status for farmworkers is not a favor or a handout for these hardworking individuals; it is a step in learning to treat each other fairly and to becoming a more fair and just society.
The House of Representatives recently passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would create a pathway to legal status for farmworkers. Now is the time for the U.S. Senate to pass this important legislation.
Recognizing the many disasters that farmworkers, immigrants and essential workers have pulled us through, it is time that we truly show that our love and gratitude is stronger than immigration status. It is time to demonstrate that our commitment to our workforce exists not just when they are serving us, but also when they need us.
Pedro Toledo is chief administrative officer of Petaluma Health Center, which provides health care to more than 45,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties.
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