Farmworkers in the U.S.

Healthy Food Begins with Healthy Workers

Agricultural work is one of the most hazardous occupations in the U.S. Farmworkers suffer poor health outcomes due to their living and working conditions. Among the most common health issues in farmworker communities are diabetes, hypertension, musculoskeletal injuries, pesticide poisoning, and depression. Unfortunately, few farmworkers have health insurance. According to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, only 31% of farmworkers have some form of health insurance. For those who get injured or fall ill on the job, only a handful of states requires farmworkers to be covered by workers’ compensation coverage to the same extent as other workers. Access to affordable and culturally appropriate healthcare for our nation’s farmworkers is crucial to ensure a just and sustainable food system.

Migrant and community health centers across the country provide primary healthcare services to farmworkers and their families. Anyone, whether or not they carry health insurance, can receive medical care. No one is turned away. Farmworkers are not only the health center’s patients; they are also active members of the health center’s governing boards, ensuring that the health center is responsive to the needs of the community. Through mobile units, outreach workers, and promotores de salud (community health workers), migrant health centers provide health education and medical care where farmworkers work and live. 

In 2012, I had the opportunity to join outreach staff at a health center in western North Carolina. We drove to trailers nearby and arrived just as the farmworkers were returning home. The trailers were dilapidated and housed multiple people. One trailer we visited housed 10 men. This was not the first time the outreach staff had visited these workers. We were warmly received as the outreach staff provided information about physical and mental health. They spoke with the farmworkers about pesticide safety, sexual health, and their general well-being. Many had visited the health center and were familiar with the services offered, though a few learned about it for the first time during our visit. It was clear that the outreach staff had gained the workers’ trust. 

My experience in North Carolina is not unique. In fact, migrant and community health centers are at the forefront of outreach and the establishment of a patient centered medical home. Yet despite their best efforts, health centers are underutilized by farmworker communities. Recent health center data tells us that only about 20% of farmworkers and their families visited a health center in 2012. Barriers to healthcare are numerous, including but not limited to unavailability of sick leave, affordability, fear of employer retaliation, and lack of knowledge about the health center or the U.S. health care system. We can help break down these barriers. Through community partnerships and education, we can empower farmworkers to engage in their local health center. After all, healthy farmworkers contribute to a healthy, sustainable food system.

Family Separation in America’s Fields

Every day at the crack of dawn, farmworkers leave their homes to endure long difficult days cultivating and harvesting the food we all enjoy. Like undocumented workers across the country, many farmworkers leave their homes in fear—fear that they may not return home that night to their children.

Recently, Farmworker Justice had the opportunity to speak with farmworkers about their lives and work. When asked “how does immigration impact your life,” the farmworkers shared stories of painful separations from their family members due to deportation. Because the majority of farmworkers are undocumented, the broken immigration system and the cost of harsh immigration enforcement is omnipresent and impacts every facet of farmworkers’ lives. Farmworker families face a variety of challenges in their working conditions, such as low wage rates, and pesticide exposure, but the constant fear of being deported weighs heavily on farmworker communities. One farmworker, Lupita, explained how difficult this omnipresent fear of separation is for children and the toll this wears on parents, when sometimes they do not have the words to reassure their children. Like other workers, farmworkers deserve the right to live and work without fear. Immigration reform must be passed to fix the broken immigration system.

Lupita shared her personal story with tears in her eyes. Her husband had recently been detained after a routine traffic stop and she was left alone with her five children. She tried to get him released but he was transferred to a detention center so quickly that she did not have the chance to even say good bye to him. She didn’t know how to tell her children about what had happened and told them that their father had gone to visit his grandmother because she was sick. But the news had spread around the community and another child told her kids that their father was in jail. The children came home in a panic, crying, and she tried to explain the situation to them. But the children were too young to really understand and were distraught at the thought of their father in jail. They refused to eat and were distracted at school. Lupita herself was suffering from anxiety to such an extent that she was afraid to take a shower because she feared an immigration raid. 

Lupita’s children were not handling the separation well and Lupita was desperate to help her children. She found a distant relative that was willing to drive the children to Texas to visit their father in the detention center. The children came back from the trip less upset with their father’s detention but still fearful of police officers. 

Now Lupita is scared to drive for fear that she too will be stopped and detained. She has been unable to drive her son, who has Down’s syndrome, to his occupational and speech therapy appointments. And her long hours in the fields and the lengthy hour-and-a-half bus ride make alternative transportation unworkable. Lupita spoke with emotion as she told me “My heart hurts to think that my son will be less developed because I can’t get in the car and drive him to therapy. What happens if I get deported, who will take care of my child with Down’s syndrome.”

Sadly, Lupita’s story is not unusual. As the Obama Administration approaches its 2 millionth deportation, families across the country are being torn apart with a devastating impact on the lives of the families, children, and communities. The separation of families must stop. Congress must act now to enact immigration reform. Last summer, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill which included a roadmap to citizenship as well as an agricultural stakeholder agreement to address the dire situation for farmworkers and agricultural employers. Now the House must do its part by passing immigration reform legislation that includes the agricultural stakeholder agreement and a path to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring citizens, including farmworkers and their families. The time is now. For its part, the Obama Administration must take action to end the devastation of its deportation and enforcement policies on families, workers and communities across the country. For up to date information about immigration, click here!

A Case for Medical Monitoring for Pesticide Handlers

Among farmworkers, pesticide handlers are most at risk of developing long-term health effects associated with pesticide exposure on the job . These workers are tasked with mixing, loading, and applying pesticides to crops. Long-term exposure to pesticides containing organophosphates and carbamates has been found to depress cholinesterase levels in farmworkers . Cholinesterase is an enzyme found in the blood which is necessary for proper functioning of the nervous system. Without it, nerves in muscles are unable to turn off, causing twitching and trembling, difficulty breathing, convulsions, and even death in severe cases characterized by continued daily absorption.

The EPA’s Worker Protection Standard, which contains the regulations that protect U.S. farmworkers from pesticide exposure, requires that pesticide handlers receive specialized training on top of the safety training required for all farmworkers. However, this training often fails to produce the safe environment necessary to protect them from harmful exposures. This failure may result when training is not provided or from poor quality training. Exposures also occur when appropriate respiratory and personal protective equipment is not made easily accessible or when the pesticide handler is placed under time constraints. Furthermore, inadequate training increases exposures among other farmworkers in the fields and of children and other family members when contaminated clothing, shoes, and bags are carried home.

Compared to farmworkers, workers in other industries that use harmful substances, like asbestos and radioactive elements, are protected by stronger training requirements and exposure monitoring. Pesticide handlers deserve this level of protection, as well. Several states have implemented medical monitoring programs for pesticide handlers that may serve as models for a national program. Since 1974, California has required medical monitoring of all agricultural workers who regularly handle an organophosphate or carbamate pesticides. The state of Washington began testing blood levels of cholinesterase in pesticide handlers in 2004 and, since then, has temporarily removed 79 pesticide handlers from the job when their cholinesterase levels were detected to drop. Blood testing has also made it possible to identify how the handlers are becoming exposed and to address common deficiencies around pesticide application on farms. This kind of medical monitoring is another form of education and data collection that is pro-active in nature. It is designed not only to detect problems in individuals before they get worse, but also will help to prevent over exposures for other pesticide applicators and field workers.

Now is the time to act in support of stronger regulations that protect farmworkers. For the first time in twenty years, the EPA has proposed major revisions to the Worker Protection Standard and is accepting public comments on its proposal until June 17. Medical monitoring of pesticide handlers is just one of several improvements to farmworker safety that a strengthened Worker Protection Standard could implement. 

The EPA needs to hear from workers, health professionals and other worker advocates about the need to bring protections for farmworkers up to the same level as those afforded to workers in other dangerous industries. Contact Farmworker Justice or visit our website for more information about the newly proposed Worker Protection Standard and how to participate in public commenting to advocate for a safer workplace for farmworkers. 

Shedding Light on Black and African American Farmworkers

February is Black History Month and today, 7 February is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD). In light of these events, Farmworker Justice would like to bring attention to the Black and African American farmworkers who harvest our crops on a daily basis. When people think of farmworkers, they most often think of Mexicans or Latinos. And while the majority of farmworkers are indeed Mexican, a small percentage of farmworkers are Black or African American. As most of us in the farmworker community have come to realize, up-to-date data on farmworkers is difficult to come by. However, the National Agricultural Worker Survey from 2001-2002 found that 4% of those interviewed self-identified as Black or African American (out of 6,472 workers interviewed). More recent data from the US State Department shows that in 2012 the government issued 65,345 H-2A visas to foreign workers and 1,135 were from an African country and 58 were from Haiti (the only Caribbean country that had H-2A workers). Although Black/African American farmworkers are a small percentage of the larger farmworker population, they do make up a larger portion in certain regions like Florida or other eastern states.

Unfortunately, neither US nor foreign-born Black/African American farmworkers have escaped mistreatment and abuse at the hands of their employers. Before sugar cane was mechanized, many Jamaican farmworkers came over to work in the sugar cane fields and were often cheated out of wages or gravely mistreated (see “In the Kingdom of Big Sugar” by Marie Brenner). More recently Farmworker Justice and Florida Legal Services reached a settlement in a case against a Florida potato farmer that was charged with labor trafficking violations for employing homeless, drug-addicted men from the streets of Jacksonville, FL. The majority of workers in this case were African American.

When we talk about HIV and farmworkers, we also tend to supplement the scarce farmworker data available with data on HIV among Latinos. However, on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Farmworker Justice would like to shine a light on the HIV/AIDS rates in the Black/African American community in the United States as a reminder that not all farmworkers are Latino. A study done over 20 years ago in 1988 found a very high HIV/AIDS rate among farmworkers in Belle Glade, FL. This is one of the few studies done on HIV in the farmworker community where the majority of participants were Black/African American. However, it is impossible to make any assumptions about current rates of HIV in Black/African American farmworkers based on a study done over two decades ago in the early years of the HIV epidemic.

However, we do know that African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV/AIDS in the United States. African Americans represent approximately 12% of the US populations but account for almost 44% of all new HIV infections. The CDC reports that 1 in 16 African American men and 1 in 32 African American women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. There are many reasons why African Americans are at such high risk of HIV infection including poverty, discrimination, stigma, limited access to high-quality health care, homelessness, fear, lack of education on HIV/AIDS, and negative perceptions of HIV testing, to name a few. All of these reasons are also issues that farmworkers deal with on a daily basis too.

So, what can we do?

The theme for this year’s NBHAAD is “I Am My Brother’s/Sister’s Keeper: Fight HIV/AIDS” which means that we all need to be part of the solution to the HIV epidemic. Being part of the solution means getting tested for HIV regularly, getting educated on HIV/AIDS, becoming involved by raising awareness and fighting stigma, and getting treated if you are HIV positive.

For more information:
“In the Kingdom of Big Sugar” by Marie Brenner
Farmworker Justice Press Release: Florida Potato Grower Charged With Labor Trafficking Agrees to Settlement Agreement with Farmworkers Comes After Accusations that Grower and Contractor Preyed on Vulnerable Homeless Men
Castro KG, et al. Transmission of HIV in Belle-Glade, Florida - Lessons for Other Communities in the United-States. Science 239(4836):193-197, 1988.
HIV Among African Americans Fact Sheet
National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Why are insurance enrollment numbers low for farmworkers and their families?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many farmworkers and their families could benefit from health insurance offered in their state’s marketplace. The plans will cover a range of services from preventative care to ER visits to maternity care. If eligible, they will likely qualify for subsidies to reduce the cost of health insurance premiums and co-pays. Yet few farmworkers are enrolling in the marketplaces. Generally, enrollment numbers for Latinos are low. Covered California, the state marketplace for California, reported that fewer than 1,000 Latinos enrolled in coverage during October. There are several reasons for these low enrollment numbers. Both in the state- and federal-run marketplaces, Latinos are finding it difficult to access information and apply for health insurance. Additionally, many immigrant families are reluctant to reveal the immigration status of family members when applying for insurance coverage.

71% of farmworkers speak Spanish as their dominant language. Spanish speakers are encountering numerous challenges to enrollment. Spanish language websites for both federal and state marketplaces have been slow in implementing online enrollment tools, and some are still not fully operational. And in California, a state where 32.8% of the population is Latino, the paper application is not yet available in Spanish. Furthermore, some states have placed burdensome requirements on navigators - individuals who are trained and certified to help people in the community find insurance plans. Such laws have discouraged some community-based organizations from assisting with outreach and enrollment efforts. There are several ways to apply for health insurance – by phone, online, on paper, or in person with the help of a navigator or application assister. While many Spanish speakers may be more comfortable applying for health insurance in person, all of these options should be available to them.

For immigrant families, barriers to enrollment go beyond issues related to access. In focus groups that we conducted with farmworkers over the summer, many had concerns about sharing sensitive information required for enrollment. Among the top concerns is that information about immigration status could be used to find and deport undocumented family members. On October 25, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a memo stating that information included in the marketplace application will not be used for immigration law enforcement purposes. Despite these assurances from ICE, fear and misinformation remain. Some navigators have told individuals that they should be careful because their information can be shared with immigration enforcement authorities. One-third of U.S. citizen children of immigrants live in “mixed-status families,” households that include members with a different immigration status. In farmworker communities, 24% of farmworker families are mixed-status. Reassurances for mixed-status families are crucial to boost Latino and farmworker enrollment.

Over the next several months, marketplace websites will continue to improve and more options will be available for the enrollment of Spanish-speakers. We are hopeful that with more options, farmworker communities will see improved access to affordable and preventative healthcare.

Supporting the Fast for Families: Farmworker Justice Staff Reflections

Several of my colleagues at Farmworker Justice and I have had the opportunity to volunteer at the Fast for Families, which is currently underway on the National Mall. Three white tents, visible from the steps of the Capitol, hold the fasters, support staff, and a community room where visitors can stop in to leave messages, design quilt squares, dedicate a cross to someone who died during their journey across the border, view items found in the desert and leave other tokens of encouragement and solidarity.

I have volunteered because I believe that comprehensive immigration reform is necessary, now more than ever. With Congress stalling as border deaths and deportations persist, it’s time to bring new attention to the daily struggles and fears of many of our own community members. I am inspired by the words of Eliseo Medina, who has been fasting since November 12th, when he describes many people in our country who live with the “hopelessness in not knowing that your contributions are recognized and appreciated.” It’s time that our leaders change current policy, which strips individuals of their civil rights and puts a crack in the very foundation upon which our country is built.

As a "caretaker" at the Fast, I kept tabs on the fasters and mostly remained in the background, listening and taking notes and photos when important visitors met with the fasters. I was impressed that, on day 13, spirits remained high. Even though their energy levels are low and some are experiencing pain, the fasters greeted me with smiles. Eliseo leads by example, bringing a determined faith that our leaders will change course.

While I was there, Tom Perez, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, came for a second visit and brought his daughters, both in high school and actively supporting change in their community. He sat next to Eliseo and they spoke about their families’ immigration experiences and their hopes for immigration reform. Most of all, he provided the positive and lighthearted conversation needed at that moment. Perez asked Eliseo to tell his daughters about when he first met Cesar Chavez. The tent was silent except for Eliseo’s voice as he told us that before he met Cesar Chavez he imagined him eight feet tall with a voice like James Earl Jones. His story about joining the movement and becoming a community organizer was inspirational and moving.

I encourage everyone to make a visit to the Fast for Families tents. The fasters cannot receive every visitor but all are welcome to bring their support and leave notes of encouragement, which are delivered to the fasters. Outside of DC, solidarity fasters are joining in, registering with the organizers and even participating in video calls.

On November 26th, the Fast for Families declared December 1st through 3rd National Days of Fasting. During this time, everyone is invited to fast for a day and join others across the nation to call for a vote on comprehensive immigration reform this year.  Learn more about the fast by visiting  Ready to sign up to fast?  Go directly to the sign up page here.

Part II: The New York Times Article on Health Care for Farmworkers Ignored the Farm Labor Contracting Scam

The New York Times article about health care reform in agriculture, “Tacking Health Care Costs Onto California Farm Produce” (Aug. 21) emphasized the views of the labor intermediaries, known as farm labor contractors, “who provide farmers with armies of field workers.“ The farm labor contracting system is a fundamental problem that deserved some explanation to help readers understand the conditions experienced by many farmworkers and their challenges regarding health care.

Farmers, many of them with big industrialized operations requiring large workforces, use farm labor contractors (FLCs) to fulfill their labor needs. FLCs may perform one or more roles, including recruiting, transporting, hiring, supervising, housing, and paying workers. In 1963, Congress passed the Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act, since replaced and expanded by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983, to regulate the use of FLCs due to widely publicized abuses.

Unfortunately, today abuses continue. Many farm operators, or “growers,” contend that they don’t employ any farmworkers on their farms. Rather, they claim that the FLC is the sole “employer” of the farmworkers who labor on the farmers’ property to cultivate and harvest the farmers’ crops. Frequently, such growers hope to escape responsibility, and liability, for paying the minimum wage, providing workers’ compensation coverage, paying Social Security and other taxes, providing drinking water and toilets in the field, and complying with immigration law. In other words, it’s often an avoidance scheme.

The farm labor contractors compete for business with growers against other FLCs by offering to provide them workers at lower and lower cost. As a 2008 USDA study found, the use of FLCs is a factor “accounting for the relatively low earnings of farmworkers (Kandel, W. Profile of hired farmworkers. USDA Economic Research Service. p. 22)." In many cases, the FLCs goal of fulfilling the growers’ quest for labor at the lowest possible cost leads to illegal practices, including failure to pay the minimum wage, violation of safety standards, and debt peonage. Too often the labor contractor cannot be found or has no assets to pay a court judgment for unpaid wages. And when one FLC is caught and punished, it doesn’t take much for growers to find a replacement.

One strategy to remedy and deter such abuses is to hold both the grower and the farm labor contractor responsible as joint “employers” of the farmworkers and therefore jointly responsible for complying with the minimum wage and other wage-hour laws, which have helpful definitions of employment relationships. A grower can still require a labor contractor to indemnify it when violations are found, but the worker would not bear the brunt if the FLC can’t pay what’s owed. Joint liability encourages employers to deal with FLCs who have the economic wherewithal and the will to comply with their responsibilities. Unfortunately, lawsuits often are necessary to force growers to accept joint responsibility.

The discussion of health insurance coverage for America’s farmworkers should begin, as it does for most workers in the United States, with their employers. The article, instead of focusing on farm labor contractors, should have focused on the real employers – the farm operators on whose land farmworkers labor to grow and harvest their fruits and vegetables.  

Farmworkers Are Using Social Media to Help Influence Policy

Websites like Facebook and Twitter help farmworkers not only to speak to people who influence policy but also the public who might not be aware of conditions in the fields. From June 25th to June 28th farmworkers posted pictures, on Facebook and Twitter, of themselves working in the fields or carrying homemade signs with words in support of farmworkers and immigration reform. With the link, #Fieldfotos, they sent these pictures to Senators asking them to support the bill. 

Farmworker Women Join the Immigration Conversation

A delegation of more than 60 farmworker women leaders and advocates will meet in Washington, D.C. from April 6 through the 10, 2013 to educate members of Congress about farmworker women's unique concerns related to the United States' broken immigration system, including issues related to family separation, discrimination against internationally recruited women workers, and the current anti-immigrant sentiment that exists in the United States. The women are members of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworker Women's Alliance, in English; Alianza de Campesinas). Members will be traveling from Florida, Arizona, California, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Texas to participate.

Read the full blog:

Where Pesticides Drift: A Look at Toxic Exposures to Children

As part of National Farmworker Awareness Week, Farmworker Justice recognizes the dangers of pesticides to the health and safety of farmworkers. One of the many problems pesticide use in agriculture poses is pesticide drift. Pesticide drift doesn’t have any real and defined boundaries.

Children are often subjected to pesticide exposure, whether or not they are intentionally near agricultural fields. Houses and schools in rural, agricultural communities frequently border fields exposing families and children to pesticide drift as they engage in their daily routines. The 1993 National Academy of Science study on children’s risks from pesticides found that agricultural pesticide drift can contribute to kids’ overall pesticide exposure and that airborne pesticide residues are generally higher in areas close to agricultural lands. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has also documented harmful exposures to the public from pesticide drift. Many pesticide residues can remain in the water and soil for years, effectively contaminating entire food supply chains. 

Farmworker Justice, in addition to a number of other advocates, has filed a petition asking the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remedy ongoing violations of its legal obligations to protect children from unsafe aggregate exposures to pesticides. This petition implores the EPA to protect children from exposure to toxic pesticides that drift from agricultural fields and contaminate areas where children congregate such as schools, homes, parks, and daycare centers. 

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