Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, trying to amp up his Latino support, sent a message to essential workers, particularly those in meat processing plants, saying "we owe you" and stressing that they deserve additional pay, protective equipment and priority for coronavirus tests.
Biden shared screen time with the children of meat processing plant workers who are infected with the coronavirus and have taken their infections home from work. The virtual town hall was organized by the League of United Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC, one of the nation's oldest Latino civil rights organizations.
"These stories are heart-wrenching," Biden said after the young Latinos told their stories. "There's nothing worse than worrying about a family member, whether they're going to make it or not — it's not a whole lot worse than ending up in the morning and knowing your son or daughter is in a war zone," said Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer and had served in Iraq. "They basically are in war zones."
President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to compel meat processing facilities to stay open and to keep shelves stocked with meat, despite coronavirus outbreaks and deaths of plant workers. He has reassured the companies of protection from liability, and his administration has said it will work with the Labor Department to keep workers safe.
Some plants have closed temporarily following the deaths of workers. Workers have complained of being given little protection in the facilities, which require shoulder-to-shoulder work, of having no sick leave and of not getting information about the virus in languages other than English, among other issues. Unions and advocacy groups have been pushing for better protections for workers as the number of cases continue to rise.
Edgar Ramirez, 27, said his father, Edgardo, who worked at a meatpacking plant in Iowa, is on a ventilator "fighting for his life." According to LULAC, his father started having symptoms but thought they were due to allergies.
At the time, his employers were only taking temperatures and had not fully implemented guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LULAC said. Although Ramirez urged his father not to work, his father said the company wanted him to continue.
Ramirez, who works for the Center for Health Equity Transformation at Northwestern University, said his father brought the virus home and that now his mother and younger sister are ill.
"My mother cries every night wondering whether she is going to see my dad again. This has caused so much trauma to the Latino community especially, but also to immigrant communities across the country," Ramirez said. "There's all these health inequities that exist, that have existed before this pandemic."
Biden said the country can afford to tack an additional $13 an hour on to the pay of front-line workers who must work during the pandemic, including those in meat processing plants. He also said that, regardless of immigration status, plant workers should get paid sick leave and free COVID-19 treatment and that they should be able to join unions and be shielded from deportation when they report an illness.
"This is the case I've been trying to make, and so have my colleagues in the House, trying to make to people who have no idea of what this is about, who get advised on some of Trump's malarkey about immigrants are the problem," Biden said. "They need the immigrant population ... and they should be treated with dignity and fairness."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and citizenship, said it is "ridiculous that the president is ordering undocumented individuals into these hazardous plants while denying them assistance, access to health care and letting them live in fear of the immigration enforcement."
Lofgren said Judiciary Committee Democrats are pushing a proposal to provide temporary protected status to the workers. Further details were not immediately available from her office.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said that with the executive order to keep the plants open, Trump could give temporary protected status to undocumented people who work in the facilities.
"That would send a strong signal that not only are you protecting a vital part of our economy, but we value what you are doing, too," Thompson said. But he tempered hopes for such action, saying the Democrats and workers advocates pushing for such change "would be the last people that President Trump would listen to."
Monday's LULAC town hall followed an online "Todos Con Biden" ("Everyone With Biden") panel that his campaign held over the weekend. It featured civil rights and labor leader Dolores Huerta, actor and activist John Leguizamo, former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas.
Biden did not join in that conversation, but the two events served as a counterpoint to the Trump campaign's Latino outreach, which, among other things, has emphasized the community's low unemployment before the pandemic and entrepreneurship among Latinos.
The panel countered that the Trump administration had eroded Americans' safety net, including access to health care, that could have helped families as they lose jobs and the economy takes a hit.
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Huerta, 90, who coined the slogan "Sí, Se Puede," which was later translated to "Yes, We Can," endorsed Biden last week, adding him to the list of Democratic presidential candidates she has backed and campaigned for during several decades.
"We can mobilize our Latino community," said Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers. "With our numbers, we can be deciders. We have to make sure to do the work to get Joe Biden elected. ... Sí, se puede."