A Farmer Offers an Op-ed That Puts Into Question Her Life’s Value

The Lempert Report
May 07, 2020

If you haven’t read Alma Patty Tzalain’s op-ed in the New York Times entitled I Harvest Your Food. Why Isn’t My Health ‘Essential’? Please do.

She writes “We sacrifice so much for a country that doesn’t value our lives”. And at at a time in our world that every newscast makes you emotional and sometimes feel like sobbing, her words will certainly add to those emotions. Here’s a few of the words she put to paper:

“I am one of the thousands of farmworkers across the country making sure there is still food to put on your tables. Since I came to New York from Guatemala 11 years ago, I have cleaned cabbage in a packing shed, milked cows on dairy farms, trimmed apple trees in orchards and wrapped and pruned tomatoes in a greenhouse.

If I get sick with Covid-19, I’m afraid of what it will mean for my children, my compañeros and my community. But unlike many other workers in the United States, my workplace has not shut down. Farmworkers are considered essential, and yet we are left out of government support.

A few weeks ago I started to have a headache and fever. The symptoms got worse, with a sore throat and coughing. I called a health clinic, concerned that I had the coronavirus. The doctor told me that I should stay home for a week, and since there is no cure, there was no reason to come in for a checkup. But I was able to get tested for the virus.

I called my supervisor to relay what the doctor told me. She agreed that I should go home. But she didn’t say anything about sick pay or assure me I would still have a job when I felt better. For many farmworkers like me, being sick has always meant choosing between going to work sick and staying home with no pay, which could mean getting fired.

My employer’s policy is to withhold our pay if we stay home sick. If employees take too many days off, we lose points, which leads to deductions from a small yearly bonus. So we have continued to work even if we are sick or injured.

But since I am a leader of Alianza Agrícola, a grass-roots organization that is an advocate for immigrant farmworkers in Western New York, I knew my rights. New York had passed legislation before I got sick that requires employers with more than 10 employees to provide paid sick leave to workers who must stay home because of coronavirus concerns.

So I received the paid leave I was entitled to, the first time in 11 years as a farmworker I was paid while ill. But after my test result came back negative, my employer stopped paying me, even though I was still feeling sick.

We have always lived and worked isolated from the rest of society, invisible to most. This leaves our community even more vulnerable now.

It’s hard to be in a country that isn’t ours, and in this crisis, it is even harder. We put food on everyone’s table, but we struggle to feed ourselves and our families.

I’m back at work and more co-workers are going home sick. I still don’t know what precautions my employer is taking to prevent the virus’s spread among the workers. We need protections now and for the long-term. The world we create during and after this crisis has to be one where we are no longer invisible, and where we will be safe and healthy and can hug our children tight.

Alma has a lot more to say in her op-ed, I’ve just highlighted certain parts, and its mandatory for every grocery employee – from stock boy to CEO to read it. It’s one of the building blocks that will fix our fragile food system.