(Beyond Pesticides, November 28, 2023) Final regulations implementing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) are expected to be issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in December, 2023. The legislation, which went into effect June 23, 2023 and applies to all workplaces with 15 or more employees, extends protection for pregnant workers for disability (including temporary or short-term disability) associated with childbirth, miscarriages, or related conditions. The legislation was passed as part of the 2023 Omnibus Spending Bill and signed into law by President Biden in December 2022.
With the elevated adverse impacts associated with pesticides and reproductive health, this law may be used to improve protections for farmworkers and other high-risk employees. One of the lawâ€™s key provisions is an anti-retaliation clause, that protects workers asking for â€śreasonable accommodation.â€ť See short video on the law. Â
However, there are barriers for pregnant farmworkers, as seen in California, where existing programs go further than the new federal law. California is part of a handful of states that offers a state disability Insurance (SDI) program. The SDI, which most employees pay into, provides short-term disability insurance and paid family leaveâ€”paying part of a workerâ€™s wages when an employee needs to take time off from work.
Under the California program, farmworkersâ€”regardless of citizenship statusâ€”who are exposed to pesticides can take time off during the pregnancy as a preventive measure if other accommodations are not available, receiving 70 percent of their wages to make up for lost income. In 2025, that number goes up to 90 percent for low-wage workers. In California, farmworkers who are exposed to pesticides can access SDI practically from the time they find out they are pregnant because of the risk pesticide exposure poses.Â Â
A California initiative, Dar a Luz: Legal Rights for Farmworkers in Pregnancy and Postpartum, a collaborationÂ between Worklife Law and Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Community (CAUSE). The program raises awareness in the farmworker community, educating on workers’ rights under the law. In many cases, farmworkersâ€™ health or the health of their fetus is at risk because of direct daily exposure to agricultural pesticides.Â
By any measure, farmworkers and agricultural communities are among the least protected and least visible populations in the United States. In California, 97% of farmworkers are Latinx, 92% are Spanish-speaking, and over 90% are immigrants. California produces 1/3 of the nation’s vegetables and nearly 2/3 of the nation’s fruits and nuts and 90% of the strawberries grown in the U.S. Between 1/3 and 1/2 of all farmworkers in America reside in California, or roughly 500,000 – 800,000 farmworkers.Â Approximately 75% of California’s farmworkers are undocumented.Â â€śFor too long, the experience of farmworker families and communities affected by pesticide exposure has been disregarded,â€ť said Angel Garcia, co-director of the statewide coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform.Â Â
Despite health risks, most pregnant farmworkers cannot afford to take unpaid time off, often working throughout their pregnancies and returning shortly after giving birth. The annual income for farmworkers is estimated to be just $25,000 to $30,000 a year, and the majority of workers are Latinx.
Disproportionate Pesticide Harm Is Racial Injustice and Systemic Racism
Currently, the average life expectancy for a farmworker is 49 years, compared to 78 for the general population. As Beyond Pesticides previously reported, Exposed and At Risk: Opportunities to Strengthen Enforcement of Pesticide Regulations for Farmworker Safety, by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School, in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy group, Farmworker Justice, again highlights the systemic racism of our countryâ€™s pesticide policies. Our nation depends on farmworkers, yet, the occupational exposure to toxic pesticides by farmworkers is discounted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while study after study documents the disproportionate level of illness among farmworkers.
Many farmworkers are migrant workers, and are subject to conditions that would not be permitted for U.S. citizens. The U.S. is not a signatory to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which would set a moral standard to treat migrant workers like workers who are citizens. To learn more about farmworker protection, please visit Beyond Pesticidesâ€™ Agricultural Justice page.
Take Action: Tell EPA to protect farmworkers. Please tell President Biden (through Secretary of State Blinken) to sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Tell EPA that we need strong Worker Protection Standards, and more fundamentally, EPA must base its pesticide risk assessments on the dangers to the most vulnerable peopleâ€”farmworkers and their families. EPA must reverse its policy and require that risk assessments adopt a standard that protects farmworkers. Food production is not sustainable unless the workers who plant and harvest our food are safe in their place of employment.
Pregnant farmworkers and their families are better protected when we support organic agriculture and purchase organic food. Organic practices eliminates industrial agricultureâ€™s reliance on petrochemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, protecting health and the environment .
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.