Rural Health Requires Paid Leave

On National Rural Health Day, we honor the millions of workers that keep America running the best way we can—continuing the drum beat for paid leave for all. No one should have to choose between their jobs and being there for those they love.

National Rural Health Day
International Workers Day march for immigrant and workers rights in Minneapolis, Minn., on April 29, 2016. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

One constant during this roller-coaster pandemic has been the essential role of those who grow and process our food day in and day out. Without them, grocery stores would be empty and kitchen tables bare.

In spite of playing such a critical role, the nation’s three million farmworkers are often an overlooked demographic. They earn low wages and are exposed to extreme work hazards due to long hours and having to work in close proximity–conditions further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Many face challenges to accessing health care because many organizations don’t offer language translation services or because of the transient nature of their employment. And nearly all of them lack paid leave.

Clearly, the nation’s lack of protection for all workers has been a factor behind the spread of the coronavirus. And for farm and food workers, lack of paid leave means having to choose between their livelihoods and their health. It can mean the difference between life or death for themselves or those they love.

Margarita “Magy” Viveros, an activist leader with our Oregon state partner, Family Forward Oregon, knows all too well the difficult decisions farmworkers have to make when they don’t have paid leave. That’s why she became an activist for paid leave for all and serves as an advisor for the national campaign, Paid Leave For All, as a member of their Worker Advisory Group.

When she was 14, Magy was diagnosed with a chronic illness and was in and out of the hospital for a year. Two years after her diagnosis, she had a stroke that paralyzed her left side. Recovery was brutal and she needed her mother’s support.

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Magy’s mom—a farmworker and single mother of three—couldn’t work while her daughter was recovering. She had been working for minimum wage for different farm labor contractors, none of whom offer benefits, and easily used up the 40 hours of state-guaranteed sick leave during Magy’s first hospital stay. The result for Magy was enormous stress and uncertainty while she and her family should have been focused on her healing.

“My mother had to figure out how to tend to my medical condition in addition to my siblings’ basic needs at home,” Magy said. “Sometimes, I could hear her call family members when she couldn’t pay the rent, and I worried that I might not have a home to return to.

“I’ve had my fair share of hospital stays, but it’s not the stays that are painful—it’s the thought that my mother can lose her job and everything she’s worked for, just for making sure I’m able to recuperate.” 

No one should have to worry about missing work when they’re trying to care for a loved one. Those with a chronic illness or disability are suffering enough—the last thing they need is added weight on their shoulders. 

Magy’s story is not unique. That’s why the third Thursday of each November is set aside as National Rural Health Day, an acknowledgement of the contribution rural communities and workers among these communities make to society and their pressing health needs.

This National Rural Health Day, we are honoring Magy’s mom and the millions of workers like her nationwide that keep America running the best way we can—continuing the drum beat for paid leave for all. Because no one should have to choose between their jobs and being there for those they love.

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Wendy Chun-Hoon serves the director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. She is the former executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 27 states working for policies like paid family and medical leave.