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Devon Payne-Sturges Awarded $3.7M NIH Grant to Study Structural Racism, COVID-19 Impact on Farmworkers

The interdisciplinary project will explore environmental and legal inequities facing farmworkers and help shape future policies

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Devon Payne-Sturges
Devon Payne-Sturges, associate professor, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recently awarded Devon Payne-Sturges a $3.7 million grant (R01) to study structural racism and health among Black and LatinX migrant and seasonal farmworkers (MSFWs).

The grant will support her team’s efforts to better understand health disparities facing these essential 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.

A few months after COVID-19 arrived in the United States, Payne-Sturges began hearing stories about many MSFWs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore getting sick but still coming to work. 

She wasn’t surprised. 

“Legally, farm workers are exempt from overtime pay,” said Payne-Sturges, associate professor, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental 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. Then during the pandemic, these farmworkers were deemed ‘essential workers’ and had to come to work. But if they got sick, they were under threat of being fired or dismissed if they did not show up.”

[Opinion: We Must Protect Workers Who Put Food on Our Table]

While anecdotes are important, data around these issues is lacking, she said. 

The project, known as “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 partners in the School of Public Health, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and CATA - The Farmworkers Support Committee. Researchers will use a three-pronged approach:

  • Environmental health – Researchers will assess the air quality inside MSFW housing and determine the best ventilation using techniques and algorithms developed by Donald K. Milton, professor of environmental health. They will also test MSFW for SARS-CoV2 and other respiratory viruses. 
  • System engagement – Researchers will engage farm owners, farm operators, state agency leaders, state policymakers and MSFW advocates using a technique called “Community-Based System Dynamics.” Through interviews and group work, participants will explore their roles in MSFW inequities.  
  • Policy and legal analyses – Along with partner Marley S. Weiss, professor of law at UM Carey School of Law, researchers will study states’ legal actions to protect MSFW health during the pandemic and if those actions altered the trajectory of the pandemic during its first year.  

“Our study will inform the design of policies and best practices to counter the longstanding mechanisms of structural racism impacting migrant and seasonal farmworkers,” Payne-Sturges said. “It will also optimize living and working conditions for better health protections and help control future outbreaks of infectious diseases among these vulnerable workers.” 

Field work is scheduled to begin this spring. 

Additional partners: Ellis Ballard, director of the Social System Design Lab at Washington University in St. Louis; Thurka Sangaramoorthy, anthropology professor at American University; and Raul Cruz-Cano, epidemiology and biostatistics professor at Indiana University.


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