National Politics

Buttigieg’s new policy proposal would protect Hispanic farm, domestic workers 

Pete Buttigieg, whose presidential campaign is gaining traction from Democratic donors but struggling to appeal to voters of color, released a plan Friday that would dramatically increase rights for American domestic and farm workers, the majority of whom are Hispanic.

“Our economy is changing, and too many Americans are working full time, some working two or even three jobs, and still finding it impossible to make ends meet,” Buttigieg said in a statement. “That’s why I’m proposing that we restore fairness and balance to our economy, so that every American worker can afford a trip to the doctor, can put themselves through college and can save enough to retire comfortably.”

In a June Mason-Dixon poll on behalf of Telemundo, 400 registered Hispanic voters in Florida showed that among the Democratic candidates, 26% of them support Joe Biden.

Sen. Bernie Sanders sat in second with 12%, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a close third with 10%.

Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke were tied for fourth at 4%.

Buttigieg came in at 3%.

This isn’t lost on the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who conducts bilingual interviews on networks like Telemundo and even discussed the United States’ relationship with Latin America at the National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference in Miami.

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His new “New Rising Tide” plan focuses on expanding federal protections to cover farm and domestic workers by ensuring that they are covered by labor and employment law and empowering them to use strategies like consumer pressure campaigns, boycotts of a specific product or service, for example.

Federal labor and employment law currently excludes most farm and domestic workers from certain requirements or benefits like the right to organize a union or making minimum wage. According to the National Agricultural Law Center, this is because the law exempts employers who do not use more than 500 cumulative days of agricultural labor.

Generally, all agriculture workers are also exempt from the overtime wage requirements and legal minimum age requirements for employees. Outside of school hours, children 14 and older may be hired, and 12- or 13-year-old children may be hired with parental permission.

Buttigieg’s plan to address these conditions is part of a larger policy proposal that includes guarantees of labor rights like a national paid sick leave system, unionization for gig economy workers (Uber and Lyft, are you listening?), gender pay transparency and penalties for companies that participate in anti-union activities.

The mayor has been outspoken in the past in supporting organized labor, writing on his campaign website that he aims to pass a new Wagner Act to support the role of organized labor and defend the right of workers to organize.

Buttigieg also endorses raising the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025. The Economic Policy Institute predicts the proposal will give over 8 million Hispanic workers a raise.

The farm and domestic worker leg of the proposal largely affects Hispanic workers, who make up about 80% of farm workers and about one-quarter of domestic workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The suite of protections included in his proposal would give millions of Hispanic workers access to paid sick, family and medical leave, establishing protections against retaliation regardless of immigration status and giving them the opportunity to form a union.

Antonio Tovar, the interim executive director of Farmworker Association of Florida, said there are a litany of problems farm workers face in the fields, spanning from physical exhaustion to wage theft.

He said every month he gets at least one complaint from often undocumented workers of sexual harassment, exposure to pesticides or threats of calling federal immigration enforcement.

Other workers refuse to take breaks to drink water, even in extreme heat. These workers are often paid by the amount of produce they pick instead of an hourly wage, Tovar said, and drinking water means an eventual bathroom break.

“To them, spending that time is money lost,” Tovar said. “That is a very risky situation because they have to be running all the time. They work very fast and there are lots of injuries.”

Because Florida is a “right to work” state, there is little leverage for workers to avoid these kinds of situations, Tovar said. They either stay quiet or get fired. Or worse, get barred from ever working with their employer again.

Buttigieg supports policy that would end “right to work” laws and released a plan Friday that would provide visas for victims of labor law violations who are helpful in prosecuting their employer.

“There’s talk between workers of a blacklist. If you don’t behave, they will not get called back next year,” Tovar said. “There’s no good structure or path for them to report these kinds of violations.”

When it comes to workers who earn their wages as caretakers or housekeepers, the conditions are often similarly bad.

They, like farm workers, experience sexual harassment, wage theft and physical abuse, said Andrea Mercado, executive director of Miami-based New Florida Majority and co-founder of National Domestic Workers Alliance.

She said because these workers work behind closed doors in Florida, they are extra vulnerable. Former Gov. Jeb Bush abolished Florida’s state department of labor in the early 2000s, leaving domestic workers with little recourse.

“They are doing the work that lets us know our families are well and cared for,” Mercado said. “It’s high time that the work is recognized.”

She added that while Buttigieg’s proposal is important, she is still concerned about the diversity of his staff.

At the NAACP presidential forum in Detroit, moderator April Ryan pointed out that the mayor’s “top-tier staff does not reflect the diversity of America.”

“We need to see his campaign commit to racial inequity,” she said. “The candidate needs to be able to speak to the needs and fears of immigrant families in a state like Florida, where immigrants make up an important fabric of our community.”

Jeannette Smith, executive director of a Miami-based interfaith workers’ advocacy group, said any policy that formalizes protections for groups like farm and domestic workers is a good idea.

She said she hopes candidates like Buttigieg think of Florida when crafting these types of policies, citing heat standards and enforced wage theft laws as examples.

“Anything protecting workers rights is a good thing because when you think about certain groups, there aren’t any protections there,” she said.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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