Both authors have been closely following the 2021 legislative session in Virginia and are members of the University of Virginia’s CIO SERV (Students for Equity and Reform in Virginia). They have discussed the following pieces of legislation with a variety of content experts, including members of the Virginia Interfaith Center as well as Delegates and Senators who have both supported and proposed the following legislation.
After a highly successful 2020 legislative and special session for Virginian Democrats, where the party controlled both chambers of the house and the governor’s office (Article), Republicans made an unprecedented decision prior to this year’s legislative session. Republicans in the House of Delegates (Virginia’s legislative lower house) broke a five-decade precedent by refusing to approve a sixteen-day extension to the legislative session (Article). This decision forced Democrats to restrain the amount of legislation they could propose this cycle, limiting the total amount of progressive legislation. Governor Northam did in fact implement a special session to extend this legislative session partway through the current session, but no new legislation could be proposed (Article).
In the 2021 legislative session, there is much legislation focusing on farmworker and immigrant worker legislation:
Senate Bill 1358 focuses on the threat of heat stress that farmworkers in the state face.
House Bill 1786 focuses on the removal of Jim Crow era legislation that blocks farmworkers from the minimum standards.
Additional legislation was also prefiled:
Delegate Hudson prefiled legislation to regulate the housing for
H2-B immigrant workers
Delegate Lopez proposed legislation requiring parental approval in order for minors to work in tobacco fields.
During this legislative session, Virginia state legislators struck down a bill that sought to prevent heat illness experienced by farmworkers. Heat illness, in the context of Senate Bill No. 1358, means a serious medical condition resulting from the body’s inability to cope with a particular heat load and includes heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat syncope, and heatstroke. 2021 is the second year that this bill failed, leaving farmworkers exposed to hazardous working conditions that jeopardize their health, which has been exacerbated by climate change. A public appreciation of the issues faced by farmworkers may increase the likelihood of a successful bill passage in the future, and as a community committed to the public good, that reaps the fruits of farmworkers’ labor, we have a moral obligation to understand the issues these individuals face.
Senate Bill No. 1358 stipulates that the Safety and Health Codes Board adopt regulations establishing standards as provided in this section that are designed to protect employees from heat illness in indoor and outdoor work. The standards themselves were part of the Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and include requirements for the provision of drinking water, access to shade or climate-controlled environments, rest periods, effective emergency response procedures, acclimatization to working in heat, training to employees and supervisors, and other standards related to heat illness protection. The bill also guaranteed the right of employees to bring violations before the court of the Commonwealth in defense of their rights.
House Bill 1786 has recently passed through the House of Delegates and has moved on to the Senate in the 2021 special extended session. This bill is vital to the safety of our farmworkers in Virginia and ensures the maintenance of their livelihoods. This legislation removes farmworkers from a list of positions that were exempt from having to match minimum wage standards in the state. Farmworkers both in Virginia and the country as a whole have historically been minorities and people of color, as well as immigrants to the United States. Legislation such as the one that HB 1786 is targeting is demonstrative of America’s racist past and is another example of de facto segregationist legislation passed during the Jim Crow era. As a community, it is our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of some of our hardest and most vulnerable workers, who deserve just as much as any of us to be making a living wage on which they can survive. These essential workers are what allow those of us in non-agricultural positions to maintain our livelihoods.
Additional vital legislation was proposed this legislative cycle, the first being legislation prefiled by Delegate Hudsonto to regulate housing for H2-B (Non-Agricultural workers) migrant workers. This legislation aims to regulate the housing situations for these workers similarly to how housing is regulated for H2-A workers. The H2-B program is rife with abuse and has become a threat to the wages and working conditions of all Virginia workers, H-2B and Americans alike. Federal H-2B regulations give state governments a vital role to play. State Workforce Agencies (SWAs) like the VEC share responsibility with the federal government in running and overseeing the H-2B program. One of the biggest problems with H-2B enforcement and oversight is that no one but the employer knows where the workers are. Virginia employers who use agricultural guest workers have to let the state and federal government know where the workers are being housed. But employers who use H-2B workers have no such requirement, allowing employers to hide abusive labor practices from prying eyes.
This bill would mandate the following: If an employer provides or helps H-2B workers find housing, Virginia will require the employer to disclose the address of the housing to the VEC, which would then create a public registry. The bill would require inspections of the housing to ensure proper standards, including working water and sewage access. Additionally, legislation such as that proposed by Delegate Lopez could not be proposed this year due to the Republicans’ refusal to extend the annual legislative session. This legislation is vital to be proposed in the future, however, because it focuses on the safety of minors across the state. This proposal would require minors to gain permission from their parents to work in tobacco fields and to be aware of the long-term health implications of doing such.
Farmworkers form the backbone of our local and global economies. They are unseen but invaluable and are essential for society as a whole. As a community, it is our duty to place the needs and rights of the farmworkers before our personal and economic gains and to guarantee their livelihoods and job safety.