Immigrant workers on Vermont’s dairy farms say they want access to the same coronavirus aid programs that have helped other residents weather the unprecedented economic downturn.
Vermont’s dairy industry has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and a sudden drop in milk prices due to COVID-19 has forced some farmers to scale back operations, or close down altogether.
Setbacks in the dairy industry have meant a loss of jobs, income and even housing for the immigrant workers that keep many farms running. But they’ve been excluded, by virtue of their citizenship status, from the federal stimulus checks, unemployment payments and pandemic unemployment assistance that have helped keep other newly jobless Vermonters afloat.
“We come to this country to be able to work, not with the idea of doing anything bad, just to contribute. And during these times in particular, we’ve seen that we’re essential, they call us essential, and we want that to always be respected,” said a farm worker named Uriel. “And we’ve seen they’ve created a fund for the community, but unfortunately we’ve been excluded from that fund.”
Uriel works on farm in central Vermont, where an old wooden shed now serves as a makeshift temperature check station. He's among the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 immigrant workers on the frontlines of the state’s dairy industry.
So far at least, Uriel’s job has been secure. But he said other immigrant workers in the state haven’t been so fortunate.
“I’ve heard from my cousins and my friends. In fact, a cousin called me and asked if there was any work here, because the farm he was on had closed down, because they were dumping milk and the owner decided he didn’t want to keep farming,” Uriel said.
More than 90,000 Vermonters have filed for unemployment since COVID-19 arrived in the state, and the state and federal government have taken extraordinary measures to replace their lost incomes.
But workers like Uriel, because of their citizenship status, aren’t eligible for the aid programs available to other Vermont workers.
“And one of the things we’re doing in our organization is fighting for that aid to come to us, too,” Uriel said.
The organization Uriel’s referring to is called Migrant Justice, a coalition of workers and advocates that has advocated for better working conditions and pay over the past decade.
“Workers who the country is admitting are necessary to keep our food chains going, to make sure we have stocked shelves in the supermarkets, are being left out of government responses to this crisis,” said Will Lambek, a spokesperson for the group.
According to the state Agency of Agriculture, seven Vermont dairy farms have ceased operations since March. A spokesperson for the agency said it knows of five migrant workers that have been displaced as a result.
Migrant Justice is asking lawmakers and the Scott administration to cut $1,200 stimulus checks not only to immigrant farmworkers, but any Vermonter who’s been excluded from the program by virtue of citizenship status. That population includes U.S. citizens who are married to, or children of, non-U.S. citizens.
Lambek said it’s a matter of fairness and equity.
“And also issue a clear statement of values, that as our state responds to this unprecedented crisis, our response will include everyone,” Lambek said.
Some lawmakers say they want to ensure that it does. Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy says the Senate Agriculture Committee is trying to figure out a way to get $500 payments to every migrant farmworker in Vermont.
It’s not the $1,200 Migrant Justice is calling for. And it would only help farmworkers, not the other Vermonters whose citizenship status has impeded their access to government aid.
Hardy said a projected shortfall in next year’s general fund means resources are already stretched thin.
“I feel like it’s at least a bit of a recognition, a bit of a sort of, 'Thank you for your work,' and hopefully helps these farmworkers to make ends meet and also support their own families, whether their families are here in Vermont or in their home countries,” Hardy said.
Federal regulations prohibit the state from using coronavirus relief funds to provide direct support to non-citizens.
Last month, California became the first state to create an aid program for immigrant workers. They used nonprofits as fiscal intermediaries to disburse the money to workers, and Hardy says her committee is considering a similar approach.
“It’s complicated,” Hardy said. “So we’re trying to be creative in how we can provide relief, provide some kind of benefit to these farmworkers. We’re still working out the details.”
Gov. Phil Scott recently unveiled a $400 million coronavirus relief package that includes $40 million in aid for struggling farms.
The proposal does not include any money for the farmworkers whose incomes have been affected by the downturn in the industry, and Scott hasn’t taken a position on the Senate legislation.
At least one of his cabinet members, however, will be advocating on behalf of immigrant workers.
“Speaking only for myself as a person whose focus is racial equity, I think that a fund like that is really the least that we can do for a population that’s so incredibly vulnerable, and it is a part of our community,” said Xusana Davis, Director of Racial Equity for the Scott administration. “It’s up to the state to prove it when we say that these folks are quote, ‘essential.’”
Olga has been working and living on a dairy farm in the northern part of the state for the past two years. She said she’s been fortunate to keep her job as a milker, but said friends at other farms are hurting.
“Some are leaving the state, which is problematic,” Olga said. “Others are waiting to see if something is going to change, if they can find another job — just waiting to see if people are going to get any benefits or anything.”
Olga said many immigrant farmworkers are making new lives in Vermont, and that they serve important roles in an important industry. They may not be U.S. citizens, Olga said, but they are Vermonters.
“More than anything else, they need to recognize that we immigrants are a really important part of this country,” Olga said. “I don’t say this to offend anybody, but we’re continuing to work in spite of everything that’s happening. So what the government needs to do is to include us. If, for example, they create a benefit for people who are from here — Americans — they should include us, too.”
Lincoln Rep. Mari Cordes said a coalition of lawmakers in the Vermont House is working to address a number of issues facing immigrant workers, including health care and housing.
She said she believes the chamber has the votes to pass the sort of direct-aid legislation under consideration in the Senate. And she said the House may try to get closer to the $1,200 that Mirant Justice and other groups, including the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, are calling for.
“The pandemic has exposed serious deficiencies in many of our systems, especially for members of our communities who are most vulnerable,” Cordes said. “And the migrant workers and undocumented Vermonters are definitely in that situation.”