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Agricultural Workers’ Disaster Leave




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The rise in frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes emphasizes the need for businesses to provide leaves and recognize the impact of disasters on individuals and their ability to fulfill work. Disaster leave has emerged to safeguard safety and support employees after a natural disaster or emergency. This type of leave recognizes individuals' unique challenges during and after such events. It provides them the necessary time off work to address immediate personal and family needs, cope with the disaster's aftermath, and contribute to community recovery efforts.

 

This form of leave encompasses various sectors, including agriculture. Given the unique nature of agriculture and the specific challenges faced in the aftermath of natural disasters, disaster relief becomes crucial in the agriculture sector. In this realm, the interplay between natural disasters and the well-being of agricultural employees is a significant aspect of resilience and recovery. With its volatile nature and reliance on climate patterns and environmental conditions, the agricultural sector is particularly vulnerable to the disruptive impacts of natural disasters. Recognizing the unique challenges faced by agricultural workers enhances the agricultural sector's resiliency by equipping workers to adeptly overcome challenges and return to their vital roles in sustaining food production once emergency situations end. In fact, for farmworkers, who are frontline workers dealing with distinct challenges during environmental crises, taking time off due to natural disasters becomes especially crucial.


There is currently no specific federal law explicitly addressing disaster leave. However, it is essential to note that employees may be eligible to take leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA grants eligible employees up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave under specific circumstances, provided they meet certain criteria. Eligibility includes working for at least 12 months and accumulating a minimum of 1,250 hours within that period. Moreover, the employer must have at least 50 employees within 75 miles. The FMLA does not specifically include provisions for disaster leave; it allows eligible employees to take leave for qualifying medical or family-related reasons, which becomes pertinent in the aftermath of natural disasters. Notably, suppose the disaster results in an employee or their close relative experiencing a serious health condition that interferes with their ability to perform job duties. In that case, FMLA provisions may come into play. 


It is important to note that FMLA protections do not apply to agricultural workers. Most agricultural employees are not covered by the FMLA since the law generally applies to employers with 50 or more employees. Due to agricultural workforces' seasonal and often transient nature, many agricultural operations have fewer than 50 employees, exempting them from the FMLA regulations. Agricultural workers, however, may be subject to other state regulations for employers' policies that govern the relationship between agricultural employees and employers. These state laws or policies may provide distinct leave provisions, addressing agricultural workers' specific needs within their respective regions or workplaces.

 

For instance, under the Maryland Essential Workers Act (MEWA), essential workers are provided with fourteen days of paid health leave and a minimum of three days of paid leave in the event of the death of an immediate family member of an essential employer when a declared emergency occurs, and the federal or state government provides funding. An emergency, as outlined by the MEWA, is defined as a severe health crisis and must be associated with a communicable disease. 


The MEWA is a state-level effort to address the unique needs of essential workers during the health emergency crisis. Even though the scope may be limited to health-related emergencies rather than broader natural disasters, this state-level effort establishes a framework that ensures the well-being and rights of essential workers, including agricultural workers, during disasters. State-wide legislation and employer policies empower authorities with the necessary tools to mitigate the impact of emergencies on public health by providing paid public health emergency leave. Through its provisions, the MEWA for health emergencies exemplifies a dedication to the overall well-being of essential workers as a robust basis for addressing disaster-related crises with flexibility and proactive planning.



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