Legal, financial and language challenges leave Vermont’s migrant workers especially vulnerable during Covid-19 crisis

By Hannah Bensen

Migrant Justice, an organization based in Vermont whose mission is to organize for economic justice and human rights for the farmworker community, also runs the Milk with Dignity program. (Migrant Justice)

In addition to the Covid-19-related difficulties all Vermonters face — such as finding childcare or struggling to pay rent — migrant farmworkers in the state are encountering additional challenges during the pandemic, according to Vermont Director of Racial Equity Xusana Davis.

“[Migrant workers] are more legally vulnerable than a lot of other Vermonters because of things like immigration, wage effects, lack of labor protection, et cetera,” Davis said. “So all of these things really compounded to make Covid-19 especially difficult for a population that was already vulnerable for a lot of reasons.” 

The roughly 1,300 migrant farmworkers have also been excluded from the $1,200 stimulus payments that were a product of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Congress passed the bill in late March to provide economic assistance to families, businesses and workers. 

Federal regulations mandate that states use federal Covid-19 relief funds for U.S. citizens, permanent residents and other qualifying immigrant groups who meet certain specifications. Recipients must also have t a Social Security number, meaning that certain groups, such as undocumented immigrants or F-1 student visa holders, would not qualify for stimulus payments. 

In cases of mixed-status families, in which one spouse with a Social Security number is married to an individual with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and the pair filed taxes jointly, neither individual would qualify for federal payments. 

In mid-May, Migrant Justice, an organization based in Vermont whose mission is to organize for economic justice and human rights for the farmworker community, spearheaded a call-your-legislator campaign that advocated for Vermont legislators to create a Covid-19 relief fund for immigrant families. 

“We have a population of people we consider to be essential,” Davis said. “But they are essential not just to Vermont’s bottom line. They are essential to our state as a whole, just as people.”

According to Vermont State Senator Ruth Hardy, Vermont received about $1.25 billion from federal Covid-19 Relief Funds (CRF), money distributed to each state to help with economic consequences of the virus. Hardy was involved in discussions with the Senate Agriculture Committee back in May to provide $500 payments to every farmworker in Vermont. These efforts have fizzled as the legislature later learned that providing payments to migrant workers would not be an eligible use of the CRF money “for a variety of reasons,” according to Hardy. 

First, states cannot use federal funds for stimulus payments to people who do not have social security or other documentation, Hardy said. The state must also be careful to use the funds for eligible recipients — the state would never want to provide stimulus payment and then be in the position where they would have to ask for that payment back, according to Hardy. 

“There isn’t a clear connection between just providing the funds to the workers and the allowable uses of the CRF funds, which have to be for economic harm or expenses due directly from the Covid-19 crisis,” said Hardy. 

State funding is not really an option either, Hardy said. Vermont’s General Fund, which is normally used to fund state programs and operations, has been severely depleted due to the declining revenues from sales taxes and other taxes. According to Hardy, the state’s funds are about “$350 million in the red right now.” 

Last week, Hardy was among a group of legislators who met with the Vermont Community Foundation, a charity that identifies communities in need and provides financial resources, to investigate the possibility of using private philanthropic funds to assist migrant workers and other workers who were not eligible to receive a federal stimulus payment. 

The discussions are still in their early stages, and Hardy said that the Foundation has received inquiries from other groups of people requesting philanthropic assistance. However, Hardy said she believes the private route may be the best option at this point. 

“There is a lot of demand for every type of money, whether it is federal money or state money or private money,” Hardy said. 

Many of Vermont’s dairy farms, where many migrant workers are employed, have responded with precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The measures have seemingly been effective so far: the Open Door Clinic, a free health clinic for people who are uninsured or underinsured in Addison County, has documented only one patient with Covid-19, said Julia Doucet, the clinic’s outreach nurse and nurse case manager. 

“What [farmers] have done is isolate the farm instead of isolating the individuals,” Doucet said in an interview with The Campus. According to Doucet, the challenges that migrant workers are facing are not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic, but are nonetheless heightened by it. 

“They have always struggled with food insecurity,” Doucet said. “They have always struggled with social isolation. They have always struggled with lack of transportation. But Covid-19 has, in some ways, made it worse.” 

Doucet said that the coronavirus has diminished the support system that migrant workers have. For example, The Addison Allies, a network of volunteers in Addison County that provides transportation, social interaction and in-person English lessons to migrant workers, has had to hold off on volunteering during the pandemic. Many of the volunteers are considered “higher risk” and therefore have to abide more strictly by social distancing guidelines. 

Migrant workers may also face language barriers in acquiring health care or information about the virus. In addition, some workers may not have the necessary materials to identify the symptoms of the coronavirus, according to Doucet. 

“There was not a single farmworker that we spoke to who said, ‘Oh, let me take my temperature on this thermometer I have in the bathroom,’” Doucet said. 

The Open Door Clinic subsequently put together “Covid Kits” with soap, hand sanitizer, ibuprofen and masks. Many of the supplies were donated, and the masks were hand-sewn by community members. In total, the clinic was able to give 750 masks to 51 farms, according to Doucet. 

Doucet also said the Open Door Clinic has been working hard to plan ahead and reach out to farmworkers ahead of the coronavirus spike that is expected to occur in fall and winter. They are also working with the Vermont Department of Health to make sure there is proper language access for contact tracing in Spanish.

“We’re all fairly concerned about what this fall will bring,” Doucet said. “I don’t know if we can get lucky enough and get through a second season with only one worker getting sick.” 

Editor’s Note: Ruth Hardy is married to Middlebury College Professor of Film and Media Culture Jason Mittell, who is the Campus’s academic advisor. All questions may be directed to [email protected]