Farmworkers in the U.S.

The Silent (And Invisible) Farmworker Housing Crisis

Farmworker Justice Welcomes Guest Bloggers from the  Housing Assistance Council : Lance George, Research Director, and Leslie Strauss, Senior Policy Analyst

“Rural America’s Silent Housing Crisis,” an article in The Atlantic magazine’s February edition, describes the overlooked plight of rural families who struggle to obtain quality housing they can afford. The article does not look specifically at the housing problems of farmworkers – a crisis that deserves attention because it is not only silent, but often invisible.

Because of the nature of their employment and working conditions, farmworkers’ housing options are often substantially different from the overall market in terms of cost and quality. Most farmworkers find housing through the private market. But rental housing is not as plentiful in rural places as it is in most cities. Additionally, landlords typically ask for a security deposit, a credit check, and a long-term commitment, requirements that often conflict with the unique conditions of the farm labor industry. Furthermore, especially in remote rural areas that are typically not subject to standards or regulations, available rentals may be substandard and expensive relative to farmworkers’ incomes. 

A smaller, yet still substantial number of farmworkers live in housing provided by employers. The prevalence of employer-owned housing has declined markedly over the past few decades, and it is estimated that now between 10 and 15 percent of farmworker housing units nationally are made available by employers. In many states, employer-provided housing is regulated to some degree for health and safety reasons, thus benefiting workers whose other housing options are not subjected to scrutiny. But employer-owned housing is not problem-free either. A situation where an employer also serves as a landlord may compound an already asymmetric relationship. Some farmworkers may find it uncomfortable to complain about poor housing conditions to their employer.

Regardless of how they obtain housing, farmworkers cope with a range of problems including costs that typically do not fit their incomes, substandard quality, and the need for short-term housing during temporary work. Farmworkers disproportionally live in crowded housing conditions. The Housing Assistance Council estimates that at least one-third of farmworkers live in crowded conditions -- more than six times the rate of crowded homes nationally. 

Very few farmworkers receive any form of housing assistance from a state, local, or federal government entity. The federal government has been working to combat farmworker housing problems for more than 40 years through grant and loan programs administered through various federal departments and initiatives. One important farmworker housing resource is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Section 514/516 Farm Labor Housing program, which provides funding to buy, build, improve, or repair housing for farm laborers. Despite moderate increases in overall funding, however, the development of new federally funded farm labor housing has been steadily dropping over the past 25 years. 

Rural nonprofit organizations have proved that developing decent, affordable housing for farmworkers is possible. Examples can be seen online at, for example, Yakima Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing and CASA of Oregon.  With the prevalence of crowded, substandard, and unaffordable housing conditions, an increased investment in housing for farmworkers is critical. This investment should be multifaceted and come from private as well as public sources. We have a responsibility to ensure that the people who are integral elements of our nation’s food supply are appropriately compensated, housed, and protected. 

12/19/14 Farmworker Justice Immigration Update

As the 113th Congress comes to an end, so does the closest chance that we have had to passing comprehensive immigration reform in over a decade. The prospects for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship in the incoming 114th Congress are dim. On the bright side, President Obama’s executive actions on immigration will be implemented in 2015, including expanded DACA and the new deferred action for parents program (DAPA), which could grant deportation relief for up to 5 million people. US Citizenship and Immigration Services is expected to begin accepting applications for expanded DACA in February and DAPA in May 2015.

President Obama’s executive action on immigration is likely to face challenges in the upcoming Congress; however, any efforts to block the President’s immigrations actions are likely to be largely symbolic because Congress lacks the vote to override an expected Presidential veto. In the last couple of weeks, Congress passed and the President signed the omnibus appropriations bill which funds all government agencies through FY 2015, except for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS was separately funded until February, when the Department’s budget will be reconsidered. House Republican leadership chose to only fund DHS for two months to give them another opportunity to block the President’s immigration executive action.

In the Senate, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) filed a bill in an attempt to prevent the President from implementing his deferred action programs for undocumented immigrants. The “The Preventing Executive Overreach on Immigration Act,” is the companion legislation to Rep. Yoho’s (R-FL) bill, H.R. 5759, with the same title, which passed the House two weeks ago. Paul’s bill would prevent the Administration from implementing the DAPA program (the program which will allow parents of US citizens and lawful permanent residents who have been living in the US since January 1, 2010 to apply for deferred action and work authorization). The bill would also prevent the Administration from processing any new DACA applications, effectively terminating the program.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing titled, “Keeping Families Together: The President’s Executive Action on Immigration and The Need to Pass Comprehensive Reform.” Prior to the hearing, UFW member Raul Esparza de la Paz participated in a press conference with Senators and other impacted community members. De la Paz said that he has one adult child who has already benefited from DACA and that he and his wife and 2 of his adult children will now be able to benefit from deferred action, removing the fear of immigration enforcement that they currently live with. De la Paz urged Congress to support the executive action on immigration and work to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

In addition to challenges from Congress, President Obama’s immigration actions are facing legal challenges from the courts. On Tuesday, in an overreach of his authority, a federal judge in Pennsylvania took it upon himself to declare Obama’s executive action on immigration unconstitutional in a court opinion that provided no basis for him to issue such a decision. The judge, Arthur Schwab, did not order the Administration to stop implementing the executive action and his ruling has no legal effect on it. The decision has been criticized because the constitutionality of the case was not at issue: neither party had argued that the President’s actions are unconstitutional nor had they briefed the court on the issue. Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University writes in the Washington Post that the court opinion’s discussion of the executive action was brief and poorly reasoned. The Huffington Post reports that Judge Schwab has a checkered past. He has been removed from two cases by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2008 and 2012, a move that is rare and considered to be a disciplinary action.

There are also two pending constitutional challenges to the President’s administrative action. As mentioned in a previous update, several states have sued the President; the total count is now up to 24 states. The notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona has also requested a federal court to declare the President’s administrative relief programs unconstitutional and issue an order preventing the President from implementing it. The Department of Justice has asked the court to dismiss the Arpaio case. As we’ve said before, the President’s deferred action programs are firmly rooted in his prosecutorial discretion authority and many legal scholars believe the programs are constitutional. Nonetheless, we will be watching these cases closely and will keep you informed on developments.

Recent polls indicate that the majority of voters want Congress to act to fix our broken immigration system, rather than prevent President Obama’s executive action. Only time will tell whether Congress will listen. Unfortunately, statements by Congressional leaders indicate that Congress may move forward on a guestworker and enforcement-only strategy, doing nothing for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. In the new Congress, Farmworker Justice will continue to advocate for immigration reform that treats farmworker communities and other undocumented immigrants humanely and in a way that comports with our values as a nation of immigrants. We will also be preparing to help implement DAPA in farmworker communities.

It’s Not Too Early to Start Thinking About Tax Season, Especially When it Comes to the ACA

Starting in April 2015, individuals and families who file U.S. income taxes will have to provide information about their health insurance coverage to the IRS. Those individuals who do not have health insurance and do not qualify for an exemption will have to pay a tax penalty under the Affordable Care Act’s shared responsibility provision (more commonly known as the individual mandate). For tax year 2014, the penalty is $95/person or 1% of household income above the tax filing threshold, whichever amount is greater. 

Although tax season is several months away, it’s important to start educating communities about the intersection between taxes and the ACA. With that in mind, the IRS recently unveiled Spanish-language webpages dedicated to the ACA’s tax provisions. These webpages include information about eligibility for the advanced premium tax credit, the individual mandate, and eligibility for exemptions. While mostly text, there are also YouTube videos that answer basic questions about advanced premium tax credits and the individual mandate. These webpages and videos can be found on the IRS website.

Of course, filing federal income tax returns is not easy. In 2015, tax filers will have to fill out additional forms that detail health insurance coverage, the provision of tax credits (if the filer received tax credits to lower the cost of health insurance), and any claimed exemptions (if applicable). Due to a lack of access to tax preparers, farmworkers and their families will rely on community-based organizations to navigate the tax filing process.

Farmworker Justice developed fact sheets in Spanish and English for farmworkers and their families on the Affordable Care Act, including the health insurance requirement. To supplement IRS resources, we will be working with advocates on the ground in the coming months to develop tax-specific resources that address the unique needs of farmworker communities. We also plan to host a webinar devoted to the issues of taxes and the ACA in March 2015. 

Farmworkers have rights and responsibilities under the Affordable Care Act. Farmworker Justice will continue to work with advocates across the country to ensure that farmworkers have the tools they need to comply with the ACA’s requirements.
 

Remembering Farmworkers This Labor Day

When it comes to farm labor, immigration policy is labor policy.  So this Labor Day, let’s hope that our collective advocacy persuades the President to create a generous program that helps many farmworker families. President Obama plans to grant some undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation and authorization to work.  Unfortunately, whatever the President does won’t be enough.  Only Congress can change the law.
 
Most of the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers – at least 1.25 million and possibly 1.75 million -- are undocumented.
 
We as a nation permitted this to happen.  A broken immigration system allowed employers to hire new immigrants and deprived these productive workers of  immigration status.  Such vulnerable workers, especially absent a union, cannot negotiate  for job terms as forcefully as U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
 
“We have long waivered and compromised on the issue of migratory labor in agriculture.  We have failed to adopt policies designed to insure an adequate supply of such labor at decent standards of employment.  . . . We have used the institutions of government to procure alien labor willing to work under obsolete and backward conditions and thus to perpetuate those very conditions.”  Report of the President’s Commission on Migratory Labor (1951), p.23
 

The President should offer administrative relief.  And then Congress should offer a true legal immigration status and opportunity to earn citizenship  But that is not enough.
 
“Shall we continue indefinitely to have low work standards and conditions of employment in agriculture, thus depending on the underprivileged and the unfortunate at home and abroad to supply and replenish our seasonal and migratory work force?  Or shall we do in agriculture what we have already done in other sectors of our economy – create honest-to-goodness jobs which will offer a decent living so that domestic workers, without being forced by dire necessity, will be willing to stay in agriculture and become a dependable labor supply?”  Id.
 
We must empower farmworkers to bargain for better wages and conditions.  A starting point would be to end to discriminatory employment laws that deprive farmworkers of occupational safety protections, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, overtime pay, and other labor standards that apply to other workers.  Most important, we must help farmworkers organize to demand and win better treatment by their employers.
 
Some agricultural employers demand a new agricultural guestworker program.  They prefer guestworkers on restricted temporary visas compared to immigrants and citizens, who may have the freedom to switch employers, challenge illegal conduct, join a labor union, and vote in elections that lead to policy changes. We already have the H-2A guestworker program.  Many don’t want to use it because it has modest labor protections and government oversight. There is also a recent history of successful union organizing of H-2A guestworkers in North Carolina’s tobacco farms.
 
President Obama should issue a policy that allows the largest possible number of farmworkers and their family members to obtain immigration status and work authorization.  Then Congress should act to grant access to a true immigration status leading to citizenship.  Our challenge at Farmworker Justice is to help farmworkers gain access to any new program and help them organize to win a greater measure of justice in the fields and in their communities.


 

Farmworker Justice Immigration Update 8/22/14

President Obama is expected to announce his plans regarding immigration policy in the coming weeks upon completion of a review by agency officials.

However, some Democratic Senate candidates prefer that he wait to take administrative action on immigration until after the November elections. Senate Democratic leadership has not taken a position on the timing of the President’s announcement, saying that it is up to the President.

Some advocates predict that the President will create an affirmative relief program for millions of undocumented immigrants who are not a priority for deportation. These individuals would apply, undergo a background check and receive protection from deportation and work authorization for a temporary period of time. The program’s criteria could be similar to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Applicants could be required to demonstrate residence in the U.S. for a certain number of years in the U.S. There could also be application criteria based on relationship to family members who have immigration or citizenship status in the U.S.

There have been some who question the President’s authority to create a broad affirmative relief program. However, many legal scholars and immigration experts have argued that the President has ample legal authority to create a broad affirmative relief program. Such a program will improve the administration’s execution of the law and use of enforcement resources to apprehend serious criminals, such as human traffickers and members of drug cartels, and focus on securing the border. The President’s authority is explained in NILC’s factsheet available here.

Farmworker Justice is part of a group of labor unions and immigrants’ advocates urging the Administration to provide greater protections for immigrant workers in labor disputes. Currently, undocumented workers who win a case for being fired for joining a labor union or filing a complaint for sexual harassment cannot obtain reinstatement to their job; for this reason many workers will not take such risks. Such workers should be eligible for a temporary stay of deportation and work authorization. Similarly, workers on temporary visas have little recourse to enforce their labor rights because their visas often expire before the case is adjudicated and they are forced to return home. Worse still, some employers contact immigration authorities to have workers deported if they join a union organizing drive or challenge illegal job practices. Such retaliation has a profound chilling effect on other workers experiencing rights violations. Granting deferred action to workers exercising their civil and labor rights would send a strong message to bad-actor employers that they can no longer use the immigration system to exploit workers. The New York Times Editorial on this issue is available here.

Business groups including growers’ associations have also been meeting with Obama Administration officials to discuss their priorities for administrative relief. High tech groups are requesting that the Administration make some changes to the high-skilled visa system such as the way that the yearly caps on greencards are counted.

Despite the fact that over half of the farm labor force is undocumented, there does not appear to be a strong unified push by agribusiness groups for affirmative relief in the form of protection from deportation and work authorization for undocumented farmworkers. Some groups have asked for reduced immigration enforcement in agriculture. One growers’ association said that it is not pushing for aggressive executive action because its members do not want to anger Republicans and spoil the chances for legislative action.

Statements by some agricultural trade associations further indicate that many of them do not support affirmative administrative relief:

United Fresh Produce Association (representing shippers, processors and marketers) states: “there are unique considerations that agriculture has to deal with and so blanket initiatives may not be as helpful to agriculture as might be intended.”

AmericanHort (representing nurseries and greenhouses) states: “first “do no harm,” meaning, avoid measures that might accelerate the attrition of agricultural and seasonal workers at a time of worsening labor shortages.”

Some growers assume that farmworkers who receive work authorization will leave agriculture; therefore, the President should not grant them work authorization and they should remain working in agriculture with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

Farmworker Justice, the United Farm Workers and many others are encouraging the Administration to include farmworkers in any administrative relief program. It would be morally reprehensible, legally questionable and economically disastrous to exclude farmworkers. Farmworkers who are undocumented suffer in the form of low pay and poor conditions, and their lack of status should not be perpetuated. Moreover, agricultural employers should compete in the marketplace by improving wages, benefits and working conditions to retain workers.

In addition, it is not necessarily true that most farmworkers would leave agriculture upon obtaining relief. Many people make their careers doing farm work and some lack the education and language skills for other jobs. More than 20 years after the farmworker legalization program in the 1986 immigration reform, 2007-09 data show that 17% of foreign-born workers still performing agricultural work had been legalized by that program; many others would have aged out, died or were promoted to management.

Some growers associations are also asking the Obama Administration for changes to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program rules, but one noted that it is unlikely to be an Obama Administration priority. Farmworker Justice opposes any changes to the H-2A program rules that would lower wages or reduce worker protections for H-2A workers and domestic workers in corresponding employment. As explained in our H-2A report, No Way to Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Program Fails US and Foreign Workers, despite the existing protections, H-2A workers are still subject to abuse. Growers have tried this before. In 2008, they convinced the outgoing Bush Administration to make changes to the H-2A program rules that lowered wages and reduced protections for workers. In 2009, the incoming Obama Administration reversed these changes.

In other news regarding the H-2A program, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, has mounted an impressive campaign this summer to expand the number farmworkers under collective bargaining agreements at employers that use the H-2A program. FLOC has been pressing the big tobacco corporations to negotiate along with the growers to reach agreements for fair treatment of farmworkers.

Farmworker Justice continues to press the administration to create a broad, bold affirmative relief program that includes undocumented farmworkers and their families and protects workers.  

Worker Protection Standard Comment Period Ends Tonight: Tell the EPA to Protect Farmworkers

Today is the last day that the EPA will accept public comments on proposed revisions to the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) that provides the regulatory minimum for occupational pesticide exposure protection. Other workers who are exposed to toxic substances are covered by stronger protections, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The result is that the men, women, and children who produce the nation’s food are less protected from workplace hazards than other workers.

Although the proposed changes to the WPS will not address all the challenges in the fields, they are a step in the right direction to prevent pesticide illness. If the final rule includes our recommended improvements, the results will include greater awareness by farmworkers of the risks they face and preventative measures; and fewer pesticide-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths among farmworkers and their family members.

The agricultural industry is working hard to dissuade the EPA from adopting the rules that benefit farmworkers the most. Today, Politico reported the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture submitted comments that “call on the EPA to scrap the proposed changes.”

Farmworker Justice and other farmworker advocates have provided the EPA with extensive information to justify stronger protections for farmworkers. Your voice is needed to make sure farmworker safety does not take a back seat to the interests of agribusiness and pesticide manufacturers.

Please join Farmworker Justice and urge the EPA to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. You have until midnight tonight to submit comments.

Visit our website to use our model comments and submit by midnight tonight!
 

Farmworker Justice Update 8/1: Hot Goods Hearing

Democrats and Republicans rarely find common ground in Congress these days, but apparently attacking Department of Labor’s(DOL) efforts to protect our nation’s vulnerable farmworkers is one area in which they agree. On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture held a hearing titled “To review the impact of enforcement activities by the Department of Labor on specialty crop growers,” in which the DOL’s Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil and Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian testified.

Under the hot goods provisions, goods produced in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage, overtime and child labor provisions are considered “hot goods” because they are tainted by the labor violations and pollute the channels of interstate commerce. The FLSA makes it illegal for anyone to transport, ship, deliver, or sell “hot goods” in interstate commerce. Section 17 of the FLSA authorizes the Department of Labor to seek a court order forbidding anyone from placing tainted goods into the stream of interstate commerce (a “hot goods order”). Hot goods orders are a powerful remedy against illegal practices that harm low-paid workers who cannot afford to wait to be paid properly. To read more about the hot goods provisions, see our fact sheet.

The Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture subcommittee is led by members from farming districts: Chairman Austin Scott (R-GA) and Ranking Member Kurt Schrader (D-OR). Both of these members seem to have a bullseye on farmworkers. Rep. Schrader has introduced two bills to limit farmworkers’ rights to healthcare and labor protections. Rep. Scott has also introduced legislation to defund the Legal Services Corporation just days after the legal services program in Georgia announced that it had assisted an EEOC determination that a Georgia grower in Scott’s district was discriminating against US workers in favor of H-2A agricultural guestworkers.

Rep. Schrader’s vendetta against DOL on behalf of “my” farmers was clear in the many, many, many questions he asked. Many of the questions were related to a 2012 case in which DOL invoked the hot goods provisions against 3 blueberry growers in Oregon for failure to pay the minimum wage to many workers and for violation of child labor laws. Although the cases settled, two of the growers sought to vacate the settlement agreements almost a year later by claiming that their due process rights had been violated and they had been coerced into accepting the settlements due to the threat of a hot goods injunction. A federal district judge overturned the settlement agreements and reopened the case. DOL has requested permission to appeal the decision; the case is still pending.

With the sole exception of Wage and Hour Administrator Weil, the hearing lacked any consideration of the farmworker perspective, including the extensive labor law violations in agriculture or the experiences of the farmworkers in the controversial Oregon cases. Instead, the underlying sympathies and assumptions seemed to be that contrary to widespread statistics, growers are not really violating the law, and thus, are the real victims. There were many questions about how the poor beleaguered farmers will recoup their attorneys’ fees, legal costs, etc.

Of course, not all agricultural employers break the law. In fact, the primary purpose of the hot goods provisions is to protect law-abiding employers from being competitively undermined by unscrupulous employers seeking unfair business advantage by unlawfully lowering their labor costs.

The hearing sent a clear message to the Obama Administration to curtail enforcement of the hot goods provision in agriculture. We urge the DOL to continue to enforce the FLSA hot goods provision to maximize its limited enforcement capabilities, to incentivize compliance with the law, and to ensure that all workers receive their fair day’s pay. Representatives Scott and Schrader have filed a bill, HR 1387, that would exclude perishable agricultural goods from the hot goods provisions of the FLSA. Congress should end the discrimination against farmworkers in our nation’s labor laws, not seek to expand the exclusions.
 

Reversing America’s Declining Health Trend Means Focusing in Equity

For the first time in decades, the current generation isn’t as healthy as the one that came before.” The theme for day five of National Public Health Week is “Be the Healthiest Nation in One Generation” and is dedicated to turning around the declining trend in health faced by Americans today. To address this trend, it’s important that we understand the barriers to good health faced by all people in the United States. At Farmworker Justice, we spend a lot of time contemplating migration as a social determinant of health. Specifically, we discuss the roadblocks that affect good health and quality of life and we think about ways to lift those roadblocks, either through advocating for policy change or through health promotion and education projects.

In terms of farmworkers, migration from their home to the U.S. has a lot to do with their health. Just a few factors related to migration that affect farmworkers include poverty, language, discrimination, and national policies.

Most farmworkers live at or below the poverty line. Health outcomes of people who live near the poverty line are worse than for those who enjoy higher incomes.
Eighty-one percent of farmworkers speak Spanish but immediately after arriving in the U.S. they need to navigate everything from grocery stores, public schools, housing, and health clinics almost entirely in English.
• Discrimination, both overt acts of discrimination and microagressions (every day, more subtle forms of discrimination), is associated with increased anxiety, anger, depression, and stress levels.
• Policy can be discriminatory when it is does not provide protections to workers equitably across professions. For example, many states do not require agricultural employers to provide workers’ compensation insurance coverage for farmworkers, even though agriculture is ranked among the most dangerous occupations by the U.S. Department of Labor.
• Policies that don’t seem to be about health, like immigration policy, can actually have a great impact on the health and wellbeing of our community members. For example, children who hear about deportations may constantly fear the separation of their families and people who cannot obtain driver’s licenses may avoid driving to a clinic.

Not only do poverty, language barriers, discrimination, and policy serve as enormous sources of stress, but they also stand in the way of accessing and receiving appropriate medical and mental health services. In addition, sixty-four percent of farmworkers are uninsured, so even when they do seek care, paying for it presents another barrier.

To reverse the decline in the nation’s health outcomes, it is important to address the barriers, social inequalities, and injustices that contribute to the decline. We must also recognize that the health of each individual is affected by the overall health of our communities so working toward better health outcomes for the entire community will create better health for each individual.
 

Farmworkers and our Food Safety System

The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne illnesses. We’ve all seen the frightening consequences from fruits and vegetables contaminated with salmonella or listeria. Eating safe, healthy food, today's theme of National Public Health Week, is a basic building block of public health. While most conversations about this topic revolve around responding to outbreaks or creating more rigorous standards and surveillance by government agencies, few consider the important role of farmworkers in preventing foodborne illnesses.

Food safety advocates have long recognized that the working conditions and training of farmworkers can significantly affect food safety: overworked and underpaid farmworkers in the field are typically not encouraged to look out for safety concerns. If employers don't provide sanitary facilities, or fail to provide the necessary training or economic incentives to stop production when unsafe conditions exist, important opportunities to improve food safety are lost. 

Farmworker Justice is a co-founder of a unique collaboration between farmworker, environmental and consumer advocates, retailers, and farmers that aims to promote food safety and improve working conditions in the produce industry. The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) has developed a set of food safety, labor, and pesticide standards and a training program to help farmworkers and farm owners and their managers work together to implement the standards. 

EFI's food safety standards recognize that farmworkers are often the first line of defense against contaminated food. Under the EFI system, workers receive training to recognize food safety risks and are encouraged to report unsafe conditions, improper practices or procedures in the field to their supervisor. It’s a common sense approach to food safety that benefits workers, growers, retailers and consumers: fresh fruits and vegetables grown and harvested in ways that respect workers can help reduce the potential for transmission of foodborne illness.
 

National Public Health Week: Getting Ahead with Preventative Health Care

Day three of National Public Health Week is entitled “Get Out Ahead!” and is dedicated to prevention as a national priority. Community and migrant health centers across the United States serve the preventative and primary health care needs of many of the farmworkers who plant, tend, and harvest the nation’s crops. Farmworkers and their families encounter numerous barriers to accessing health care such as cost, transportation, language, and lack of sick leave, to name a few. Outreach is a critical component of health care delivery to farmworker communities. I spent several years as a farmworker health outreach worker in rural North Carolina. This personal experience working in farmworker health in a small community provides insight to health problems faced by farmworkers and the barriers they regularly face when seeking health care.

Let’s first start with some quick farmworker health facts. Agricultural work is low paying, physically demanding work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked agriculture as the third most dangerous job in 2012. Many farmworker families live at or below the poverty level and approximately 64% are uninsured. Cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are among the top five causes of death for Latinos in the U.S. For farmworkers, specifically, many of whom are Latino, a recent study showed an elevated prevalence of anemia and obesity and stunting in children of farmworker families. The burden of these conditions can be lessened or prevented under the regular care of a physician. Lack of insurance limits the options that farmworkers have when they seek health care and it is sometimes a barrier to receiving care at all. Many turn to community and migrant health centers to receive preventative care where they are able to pay for health care on a sliding-fee scale based on their income. Outreach workers are a valuable part of the health care team at these health centers.

As an outreach worker, the farmworkers I served worked in the Christmas tree fields nine months of the year. Many traveled from Mexico year after year to do this work, leaving behind their homes and families to live with other farmworkers in old houses, trailers, or barracks that were provided by the growers that hired them.

My work entailed visiting farmworkers in their homes in the evenings after work, collecting their personal and contact information, asking questions about their health, and screening for diabetes, high blood pressure, and HIV. They would usually be cleaning up from work and taking turns in the kitchen so many of these conversations happened while they cooked dinner and made lunch for work the next day. I let them know their options for accessing health care in their community and explained the process for making and paying for appointments. During the day, I coordinated these appointments, making calls to farmworkers, clinics, and specialists. I drove farmworkers to appointments and provided Spanish-English interpretation. I learned about their home towns. I heard border crossing stories. I knew when their kids in Mexico were getting in trouble at school. Working in this capacity allowed me to spend the time necessary to gain the trust of farmworkers within our community. I used this insight to help doctors, nurses, dentists, and clinic administrators better understand the conditions that affect farmworkers’ health and adjust treatment plans to best fit the realities they face.

The outreach workers at community and migrant health centers connect farmworkers to important preventative health care services through education, case management, and building trust within the community. The work, while challenging, is extremely fulfilling. We recognize that regardless of where you live, everyone has a right to be healthy. Our nation’s farmworkers, who harvest the fruits and vegetables essential to our health, deserve access to quality health care.

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