This week, on one of my visits, I ran into Alberto*. We had met briefly at the beginning of the season at a farm before the rush of blueberry picking began, but I hadn't seen or spoken to him much since then. Now, at the end of the growing season, workers on blueberry farms have a little more downtime than they used to, and Alberto, being one of the workers who did not leave for Michigan or back to Florida already, got to talking with me on an early October evening last week.
When Alberto started to get engaged in our conversation, we started talking about using your accumulated paid sick time for doctor's appointments, a COVID vaccine appointment, or when a worker gets sick and should stay home and rest.
Over the next 30 minutes, Alberto told me several stories of injuries his coworkers or he had suffered, from a blueberry bush snag hitting someone's eyeball and damaging it; to another getting poison ivy all over his body and face, which left him in bed out of work for over a month; to a more recent gash that one of his coworkers received from a piece of farm equipment.
In all of these cases, the farm owner left them without pay for their time without work. Which, in the state of New Jersey, is illegal if a worker's employment exceeds six months with the company. After six months of employment, any employee can begin to use their accumulated sick time. Farmworkers are excluded from many worker protections (such as overtime), but they do qualify for sick pay - in the State of New Jersey.
This legal right has increased significance during the COVID-19 pandemic with mounting cases of more contagious virus variants. On another occasion, Alberto told me, the employer here told a worker that if he got sick with COVID, he would fire him. This story was not unique. Whether a boss, a supervisor, or no one at all threatens that workers won't get paid or will be fired for contracting COVID, many undocumented farmworkers hold that fear.
Throughout the pandemic, I had heard many accounts of people not wanting even to get tested when they experienced coronavirus symptoms because they didn't want to know. They couldn't afford to quarantine or to lose their job. So, I was surprised and frankly excited when Alberto asked if I could print them a large poster with the sick pay law and the workers' compensation law on it so he could post it in their kitchen for his coworkers (and his boss) to see. (He specified, not the one with tiny print, we want to be able to read it.) Alberto told me, "I would have used this information if I had somewhere to point out to my boss or supervisor that this was law."
As so many have said before, the pandemic illuminates how essential workers and disenfranchised people bear more risk of exposure to COVID-19 and other health and safety workplace dangers. For people who did not qualify for stimulus checks and pandemic assistance (not just undocumented folks but also formerly incarcerated, among others)
In New Jersey, many began to fight this inequity and demanded a more just fund be created. Grassroots organizations, community members, essential workers, families who knew the struggles marched in the streets for the Excluded Women March in Passaic on March 7, 2021. From the Laundry Workers Center, Emilio Flores remembers the day of this march, one of many actions where these forgotten or excluded families went into the streets, lifting their voices together, demanding attention and more just action from local leaders.
From the pressure those efforts and direct actions of so many put on local leaders, the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund was created. In this fund, there are 40 million dollars. Of the more than half a million undocumented residents of New Jersey, that will only benefit 20 thousand families. This is not enough to help everyone who will need it. So CATA, other collaborating organizations, and YOU can continue to demand the governor and local elected officials do better and increase the funding!
Follow-updates, bring your ideas and get involved by following CATA on social media or calling the office at 856-881-2507.
Note: The applications as of October 21, 2021, are NOT OPEN. Beware of scams that ask for your money to apply. Many organizations across the state of New Jersey are receiving funding to help you with the application process - FREE OF CHARGE. We will be sharing information about these organizations in the future so you can connect with CATA or another organization. More details about what each applicant needs to provide in their application will be shared in the coming weeks, so of course, follow CATA on social media for more updates.
*Some names have been changed to protect the farmworkers privacy