- Paul Heintz
- Pati, a migrant worker, on the northern Vermont farm on which she works
Even before the coronavirus pandemic reached Vermont, many of the state's migrant farmworkers were leading lives of quarantine.
"Usually we just go from the house to the farm to the house to the farm," said one 25-year-old laborer who asked to be identified as Pati. "Now, it's even more isolated."
Pati, who emigrated from Chiapas, Mexico, as a teenager, counts herself lucky. In an interview last week on the northern Vermont dairy farm where she works and lives, Pati expressed relief that she and her husband have remained healthy and employed. But she cannot shake the feeling that, even though the government deemed her and fellow agricultural workers "essential," they have not been treated that way.
When the federal government distributed economic relief payments worth up to $1,200 for adults and $500 for children last spring, Pati was excluded due to her immigration status. Only those with valid Social Security numbers qualified for the cash.
"It really hurts when you see that you're not being treated the same," she said through an interpreter. "The government is saying these people we're going to help, but these people we're not. It means that some people are worth more than others, and I don't think that should be the case."
It may not be for much longer. Last week, Gov. Phil Scott proposed spending $2 million out of the state's general fund to compensate those who were denied federal payments, including undocumented workers, their U.S. citizen family members, those on student visas and others. "This is about bringing some equity and parity and including those who were excluded by Washington when they implemented the stimulus program," Secretary of Administration Susanne Young told reporters
Precisely how the program would work remains unclear. Though Scott included the money in his latest budget, Young characterized it more as a "conversation we think it is important to have with the legislature" than a fully fleshed-out proposal.
This isn't the first time the idea has surfaced. In the spring, as lawmakers were considering how to dole out $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid, the Senate Agriculture Committee considered making $500 payments to every Vermont farmworker. The proposal was ultimately shelved over concerns that it would not qualify for federal funds and could therefore leave the cash-strapped state on the hook.
In the months since, many rank-and-file legislators have joined advocacy groups such as Migrant Justice in calling for undocumented workers to receive the full $1,200 payments.
"They're human beings, putting themselves at risk on the front lines at all times," said Rep. Mari Cordes (D/P-Lincoln). "In our policy making, we also consider them part of our community, so when we're talking about programs and services, they need to be included."
Even some Republicans appear open to the idea, including Rep. Rodney Graham (R-Williamstown), vice chair of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. "We've brought some of these people here," said Graham, a former dairy farmer who sold his milkers earlier this year but still raises heifers and beef cattle. "They deserve to be taken care of, too."
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) have also signaled their support, at least in concept. The legislature, which returned this week for an unusual late-summer session to complete this year's budget, will likely consider it soon.
The program has been championed within the Scott administration by Xusana Davis, who for the past year has served as the state's first executive director of racial equity. The impact of the pandemic on migrant farmworkers, she argues, is "too great for words."
"They're being welcomed to this country often because of their less expensive labor, and then when the chips are down they are left with very few, if any, lifelines," Davis said. "What they're going through is — it isn't right. It's not right that we let it happen on our watch."
According to Davis, up to 4,000 adults and 1,000 children in Vermont missed out on the payments. That includes roughly 1,250 undocumented dairy workers and 1,750 undocumented workers in other industries. It also includes about 500 U.S. citizens or green card holders who were excluded because they file their taxes jointly with a spouse who is neither, as well as about 500 noncitizens who are in the country legally but do not have a Social Security number, such as those with student visas and those seeking asylum.
Even children have been denied support due to their parents' immigration status. That's the case with Pati's 8-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Vermont her entire life. She has been stuck at home, where she lives with her parents and two other family members, since March.
"It's been really hard," Pati said of her daughter's experience. "She misses school. She misses her friends. When this all started, she was really anxious to go to school, but now she's worried about going back because she's scared about getting sick."
Since her daughter cannot eat school meals, the family's expenses have increased, Pati said. And because everyone in the household works on the farm, it can be challenging to provide adequate childcare.
Unlike other migrant workers, who have lost their jobs as their farms have downsized or gone under, Pati and her husband have maintained their pre-pandemic income. She works five hours a day, and he, 11 hours, with a day off every other week. Like many of their peers, they send money home to Mexico whenever they can to support other family members.
"On the one hand, it felt good to keep working and to be recognized as essential workers, but on the other hand, it feels bad to have to keep working through this crisis and have to hear about the whole state and the whole country staying home and still getting paid," she said. "And then, on top of that, the government was giving them checks."
Pati said she is grateful to Scott for supporting the proposal, but she worries that the money he has requested from the legislature won't cover everybody who needs it. "We don't want to be in a situation where some people are included and some people are excluded yet again," she said.
By the administration's own admission, $2 million would cover only 1,250 adults and 1,000 children, according to an outline the governor's office provided to Seven Days.
"The $2 million is not enough to meet the need," said Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The reality, according to Davis, is that demand for the program may be more limited than she would hope. "Not everyone who qualifies is going to come forward, because there's a big risk to making yourself known in a country that loves to take advantage of your presence and your labor but would turn on a dime and deport you," she said.
In May, when California became the first state to provide stimulus payments to undocumented workers, it distributed $75 million in public funds, matched by another $50 million in donations, to a dozen nonprofit organizations charged with distributing the payments. That arrangement created a buffer between those requesting the money and the state, which could be compelled to turn over identifying information to the federal government.
In her budget presentation last week, Young said Vermont might mimic that approach by asking "a trusted nonprofit" to administer the program. But according to Davis, the state might dole out the funds directly in order to reduce administrative costs. "Confidentiality is really paramount to this thing working," she said, adding that the application process would be "minimally invasive."
Pati said she's not sure she would apply for the money if she had to interact directly with the state.
"We haven't been fighting hard for this money just so that we turn our information over to the government and they turn it over to someone who would come to our house and get us," she said. "The truth is, I would be afraid that they would use the information for other things."
Migrant Justice, which provides services to and advocates for Vermont's dairy workers, would be willing to help, according to staff coordinator Will Lambek. In recent months, his group has raised $200,000 from foundations, companies and individual donors and has already distributed $420 payments to more than 400 workers. Lambek hopes that a second round will reach another 150 people.
"For the program to be successful, it needs to be administered by organizations that are known to and trusted by the communities that have been excluded from federal relief," Lambek said. "So, in putting together this fund, the state should be reaching out to these organizations."
The coronavirus crisis could not have come at a worse time for Vermont dairy farmers, who were already grappling with a yearslong slump in the price of milk — one that has been exacerbated by the closure of restaurants, schools and colleges. According to the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, the number of cow dairies in the state has declined from 649 to 629 since the start of the year.
"No one really knows where it's headed," said Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts. "It's really nerve-racking for everybody."
According to Tebbetts, Vermont dairies have largely avoided coronavirus outbreaks so far. But Julia Doucet, an outreach nurse at Middlebury's Open Door Clinic, worries that could quickly change.
"The potential for a rampant infection in that population because of their living and working conditions is significant," said Doucet, whose organization serves more than half of Addison County's migrant dairy workers. "If there's an infection, it would spread quickly."
While their relative isolation may protect them from exposure to those who are already infected, she said, their distrust of authorities sometimes prevents them from seeking help or abiding by public health messaging.
"There's a lot of mistrust of the government in this population and a hesitancy to go to the hospital," Doucet said. "Because the rates of COVID are so low here and because they don't have access to local news, they rely on what they hear from their news sources in their home country and also sources like YouTube and Facebook that may not be truthful and accurate."
Doucet said she believes her clients should receive the same financial support that all Vermonters do, but she wonders whether the $2 million would be put to better use covering health emergencies that may yet arise among migrant workers. "An appropriate use of that money could be to create a COVID emergency relief fund, especially to help support unpaid medical bills," she said.
To Pati, it's less a question of money than fairness. "More than anything, it's about recognition," she said. "It's recognizing that we're continuing to work day in and day out and sacrificing to make sure that the cows are getting milked."