Oregon launched the Oregon Worker Quarantine Fund on August 1, providing two weeks of financial assistance to agricultural workers amidst the coronavirus pandemic regardless of immigration status.
The program provides $860 for two weeks in the event of a necessary quarantine for workers. The fund comes as a reaction to large-scale outbreaks at several agriculture and food packaging locations. It is approximated that the average agriculture worker makes $24,200 annually and thus “cannot afford to take off work in order to quarantine if exposed.”
Nearly 33 million Americans are currently on unemployment benefits. With such drastic job loss and the emergency grants for small businesses running out of money, you would think that elected officials and corporations would prioritize American workers and entrepreneurs struggling to make ends meet during the shutdowns.
The program is one of many in the last few months that attempt to give financial aid to illegal aliens amidst the coronavirus shutdowns. California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) provided a $125 million package for 150,000 illegal aliens back in April, with $75 million coming from California tax payers. The Seattle City Council pressed Governor Jay Inslee (D) to create a similar package for the 250,000 illegal residents in Washington state, requesting an allocation of $100 million.
Current laws and wages do not reflect the essentiality of agricultural workers in the United States. Large corporations, and even smaller farms, take advantage of cheap labor coming from other countries. In 2019, farm companies hired over 250,000 H-2A foreign workers, and the Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 75 percent of workers in these industries are illegal migrants. According to a FAIR 2011 estimate, the average unlawful worker’s annual income is $5,600 less than that of authorized workers in the same field.
While agricultural workers are a vital part of American society, illegal aliens are not essential to the agriculture business for two reasons. First, the agriculture industry collects tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies every year. If they would pay a market wage and not overwork their employees, it is likely that more Americans would work in the field. Second, if agricultural employers legitimately could not find willing Americans to fill those positions, the current law allows them to apply for legal guest workers.
It is important to acknowledge the harsh reality that coronavirus has affected every person in some way. Coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, there needs to be a focus on ending agriculture’s exploitation of foreign-born labor. Policymakers must implement legislation that paves the way for a shift to legal workers. Any policy change would require legislators to acknowledge the capacity of American agriculture to pay higher wages to legal workers. The argument that illegal workers are essential because Americans won’t work the long days and harsh conditions is nothing more than a reminder that the industry continues to get away with forcing employees to work in inhumane conditions for far less than the going market rate for such work.