Research Will Focus on Residential Air Quality, State Policies and Legal Protections
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In mid-2020, a few months after COVID-19 struck the United States, University of Maryland Associate Professor Devon Payne-Sturges began hearing stories about migrant and seasonal farm workers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore getting sick but still going to work—a dangerous choice that didn’t surprise her.
During the pandemic, they were deemed “essential” and had to come to work, she said, or risk being fired if they stayed home.
“Legally, farm workers are exempt from overtime pay,” said Payne-Sturges, of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health in the School of Public Health. “They don't have health care, and they don't have sick leave. These are policy decisions made on purpose that are creating vulnerabilities.”
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recently awarded Payne-Sturges a $3.7 million grant to study structural racism and health among Black and Latinx migrant and seasonal farmworkers around the country.
While anecdotes are important, data around these issues is lacking, she said. The grant will support her team’s efforts to better understand health disparities facing these crucial but marginalized workers who are often exposed to unsafe environments and toxic chemicals on the job yet rarely offered sick leave or health care when they fall ill.
The project, “Research Employing Environmental Systems and Occupational Health Policy Analyses to Interrupt the Impact of Structural Racism on Agricultural Workers and Their Respiratory Health (RESPIRAR),” includes other partners in the School of Public Health as well as the Francis King Carey School of Law at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and CATA: The Farmworkers Support Committee. Additional institutions involved include Washington University in St. Louis, American University and Indiana University Bloomington.
The team will use a three-pronged approach:
Study results will inform the design of policies and best practices to counter the longstanding mechanisms of structural racism impacting these farmworkers, while optimizing their living and working conditions to stave off future disease outbreaks, Payne-Sturges said.
Field work is scheduled to begin this spring.
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