Farmworkers in the United States

//Farmworkers in the United States
Farmworkers in the United States2016-02-15T20:03:23+00:00


“It’s hard work in the fields, but at the same time, it’s also good, because it’s honorable work. All that produce is going to the tables of important people, and so that is the importance of the humble farmworker…”-Olga Ramirez, Promotora

In the United States, we enjoy abundant, affordable produce year round. Yet, few of us realize where that food comes from and who grows it. Each year, 3 to 5 million farmworkers and their families labor in fields and factories across the country to bring us fresh fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products. Many farmworkers leave their permanent homes for months at a time to follow the crops, working in isolated, rural areas of the United States. Farmworkers are typically hired seasonally and are essential during periods of peak production; they plant, cultivate, harvest and process the crops that become our food. The multi-billion dollar U.S. agricultural industry relies heavily on farmworkers to produce and harvest the crops that feed and nourish our families. Although farmworkers clearly provide invaluable and necessary goods and services, they often earn low wages and endure many job-related hazards, substandard working and living conditions, instability, long hours and isolation. Due in part to the isolated agricultural work environment, migrating workforce, language and cultural barriers and immigration status, little reliable information exists about farmworkers as a group or about their health. It is widely believed, however, that farmworkers in the United States face extreme occupational risks and exposures; suffer poorer than average health; and have a life expectancy significantly shorter than average.(1)(2)(3) Farmworkers face more substantial health challenges than other groups, but they have fewer resources and little or no access to health care, health education or other services. Farmworkers tend to visit health providers only in emergencies and often do not receive or have access to routine or preventative health care.(3) (4) Specialized services, such as substance abuse treatment, mental health services and HIV education, prevention and treatment, are almost nonexistent. Despite these challenges, farmworkers are incredibly resilient. They work hard, celebrate culture and family and strive to make a better life for themselves and their communities. Who are Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers?



“Never disrespect those people [farmworkers] because they are honorable people who are suffering to bring you the food on the table. If it’s a lettuce, someone uneducated cut it, and if that uneducated person hadn’t cut it, you wouldn’t have it there in front of you.”-Olga Ramirez, Promotora

Although the term “farmworker” is often used to mean both migrant and seasonal farmworkers, as it is throughout this website, there is a distinction. A migrant farmworker is generally understood as someone who has left his or her permanent residence, or home base, to work for months or an entire season in agriculture. A seasonal farmworker also works temporarily, or seasonally, in agriculture, but returns to his or her permanent residence each day after work. Both groups work in the same types of jobs, under the same conditions and often share language and culture. Migrant farmworkers leave their permanent homes in southern states, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean to seek employment in agriculture. They typically move northward, following the growing and harvesting seasons. Some migrant farmworkers relocate several times throughout the year, whereas others spend the entire season at the same farm. In contrast, seasonal farmworkers work near or within commuting distance of their homes. Most migrant and seasonal workers find employment in the agricultural industry for less than half of the year and may supplement their income with earnings from other jobs. (5) The farmworker population varies regionally. Generally, more than 89 percent of farmworkers are from minority groups, and three out of every four are of Mexican descent.(3) (5) Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Central and South Americans as well as African Americans, Native Americans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Laotians, Thais and others also work in agriculture. More than 50 percent of farmworkers are citizens or legal residents of the United States.(5) More than 30 percent are new to the United States, and the number of recent immigrants employed in the agricultural workforce is increasing.(5) Men, women, teenagers and children work in the agricultural industry. The vast majority of farmworkers are young men, a trend that has intensified in recent years.(6) While some families continue to migrate together, as they have for generations, a growing number of young workers travel independently. Changes in immigration policies as well as housing policies in labor camps may be partly responsible for such trends. Some farmworkers are part of a foreign labor force brought to the United States to work in the agricultural industry through guest-worker or H-2A programs. The H-2A permits U.S. agricultural employers to bring temporary foreign workers to the United States to perform seasonal agricultural work. However, the structure and implementation of H-2A programs can and often does create a working environment of poor wages and working conditions. The Economics of Farm Work and Farmworkers


“Coming to the U.S. [for farm work] is not like it was in the ’70s; it’s harder. People are poorer. There’s so much need.”-Enedelia Cisneros, Promotora and Member of the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health 2000-2004 (7)

Over the last decade, farmworkers have faced even greater challenges earning a living. Poverty levels have increased, work is available for fewer weeks per year and wages have failed to keep up with inflation.(6) The majority of farmworkers earn annual wages below the federal poverty level. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, the only national cross-sectional survey of farmworkers, 61 percent live in poverty.(3) The median income for farmworkers is less than $11,000 annually.(5) Farmworkers are the only workers who consistently earn lower hourly wages than fast food workers earn.(8) In fact, while 71 percent of every food income dollar goes to corporate food processors and 23 percent goes to growers, only 6 percent goes to farmworkers.(9) Moreover, “farmworkers are not afforded the same federal wage protections as other American workers. The minimum wage provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) do not cover thousands of laborers involved in certain kinds of agricultural work. In addition, farmworkers are not entitled under the FLSA to time and one-half overtime pay.”(10) Many farmworker families are eligible for public benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid or Medicare; however, few secure these benefits.(3) Differing state eligibility requirements, fluctuating income levels, residency dilemmas and problems navigating bureaucratic systems prevent farmworkers from using public benefits. Additionally, very few farmworkers qualify for Workmen’s Compensation or Social Security if they become disabled or retire.(1) Education


“I think a lot of people underestimate the migrants and misunderstand them. The kids do want to go to school. They do have goals and they do want to go to college one day and make something of themselves, like everyone else.”-Apryl Hernandez, former adolescent farmworker (11)

Migration and agricultural work often interrupt formal schooling. “Constant mobility makes it hard for farmworker children to complete their education. The median highest grade of schooling obtained by farmworkers is at the seventh grade level. Only 13 percent of farmworkers complete 12 years of schooling”, half of farmworkers attain a sixth grade education level or less, and only 19 percent feel that they read English well.(5) Children and young adults often work to contribute to the family income. They may miss part of the school year, attend multiple schools each year, face discrimination or have little time for their studies or any extracurricular activities. Educators estimate that only 55 percent of children in migrant households nationwide graduate from high school.(4) In addition, students from farmworker families may struggle with language differences or confront low expectations from educators. Through funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Migrant Education and Head Start programs provide children of migrating families with supplemental education and development programs and resources designed to help close the educational gap experienced by migrating children due to interruptions in their school year, poverty, lack of resources, and linguistic and cultural barriers. Migrant Education and Head Start programs are typically accessed through a local school district. Despite the added challenges of interrupted education and migrant life, farmworker children and teens have plans and aspirations that include pursuing higher education. Farm Work


“[Farmworkers] stoop among long rows of vegetables, filling buckets with produce under the stark heat of the summer sun and the bitter cold of late autumn. They climb ladders in orchards, piling fruit into sacks slung across their shoulders. They prune vines, tie plants, remove weeds, sort, pack, spray, clean, and irrigate.”-Daniel Rothenberg, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan and Author, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today (12)

Farmworkers work long hours in the fields throughout all seasons and weather conditions to accomplish their tasks according to nature’s schedule. They plant, cultivate, harvest, process and package food for shipment and sale. Their labor often involves stooping, working with the soil, climbing, carrying heavy loads and directly handling plants and pesticides. “Farm work is considered to be second only to mining in the rating of most hazardous occupations.  There is a high exposure to pesticides…resulting in the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries of any group in the United States.  Farm injuries, exposure to heat and sun, and poor sanitation in the fields are other factors that contribute to the dangers of this work.”(13) In addition, many of the labor laws and protection standards enacted through federal and state governments, which are designed to protect the health, safety and interests of workers have “agricultural exceptions,” or “loopholes,” that exempt agricultural employers from having to comply with the standards. For example, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects workers from retaliation for labor organizing, forming unions and collective bargaining, “specifically excludes agricultural workers from coverage.”(14) Furthermore, the worker protection standards that do apply to the agricultural industry are often not enforced. The result is working and housing environments that are potentially hazardous and can compromise the health, safety and well-being of farmworkers. Farmworkers contribute to the production and distribution of crops in almost every state in the nation.(4) California and Florida employ the largest numbers of agricultural laborers. The Great Lakes, Northern Pacific, Corn Belt and Southern Plains regions also employ large numbers of farmworkers each growing season.(15) In general, farmworkers harvest crops that bruise easily, such as apples, asparagus, beans, blueberries, cherries, chilies, cucumber, eggplant, grapes, melons, mushrooms, onions, oranges, peas, peaches, peanuts, peppers, pumpkins, raspberries, squash, strawberries, sugar beets, tobacco and tomatoes.(16) The fruit, nut, vegetable, greenhouse, nursery and grain industries also depend on the labor and skills of farmworkers. The production of fruits and vegetables in the United States has increased steadily over the last decade, and farmworkers harvest or cultivate over 85 percent of these crops by hand.(17) Key Health Issues


“Farmworkers frequently suffer from poor living and working conditions that lead to an array of health problems, most of which are similar to those found in developing countries.–“The Role of Health Centers in Caring for Farmworkers,” National Association of Community Health Centers, Dec. 2007

Farm labor results in unique challenges to the health of farmworkers and their families. Farmworkers tend to have more frequent health problems than the general public. In addition, their health problems are often more severe, and farmworkers are more likely to experience multiple health problems simultaneously. Agriculture is one of the most accident-prone industries in the United States, and workers in the industry face the second highest fatality rate in the nation.(4) (18) Fungi, dusts and pesticides commonly cause skin and respiratory problems among farmworkers. Lack of safe drinking water results in cases of dehydration and heat stroke. Pesticide poisoning, falls, eye injuries, accidents with farm equipment and exposure to the elements account for other work-related health problems among farmworkers. Low pay and unsafe or unsanitary working and living conditions also increase the likelihood of certain health problems among farmworkers. “Housing regulations attempt to provide decent living conditions for migrant workers, but [often due to lack of enforcement], housing is often overcrowded, poorly maintained, and lacking in ventilation, bathing facilities, and safe drinking water”.(13) Conditions such as tuberculosis, malnutrition, parasitic diseases and scarlet fever occur more frequently among farmworkers than among the general U.S. population.(4) Poor dental health, substance abuse, mental health problems, domestic violence, diabetes and hypertension are also prevalent among farmworkers. Female farmworkers face the additional challenges of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.  Often, it is difficult for women to find work outside of working within a family unit.  Moreover, their pay is often less than that of male farmworkers, and sometimes women’s income incorporated into the pay for the family, leaving women without an independent source of income.  Sexual harassment is also prevalent in farm work.  Women are subject to sexual harassment, advances and assault.  Often, the problem of sexual harassment is left unaddressed due to fear of retaliation. A woman’s job, as well as her family members’, is often at stake.  With limited means of money or bargaining power, there is often little recourse for female workers who have experienced sexual harassment.(14) Child and adolescent farmworkers are especially at risk for adverse health effects and consequences of agricultural work. “Every year nearly three hundred children die and twenty-four thousand are injured in farm work.”(13) The Bureau of Labor and Statistics concludes that “the risk of a fatality (per hour worked) in an agricultural wage and salary job is over four times as great as the average risk for all working youth”(19) The risk and poor health status of child farmworkers is further magnified by the fact that 90 percent of children in migrant and seasonal farmworker families have no health insurance.(20) Agricultural work by nature presents health risks, but to “children who are still developing physically and mentally are particularly vulnerable to these hazards.” (10) Health Care

“If you don’t speak English, you automatically come to a dead end. It is like we are on the outside, like we are not persons. It is worse for those people who work in the fields, because they arrive a bit soiled to the clinic… “-Promotora

Most farmworkers do not have access to regular, affordable health care. Farmworkers rarely have coverage through their employers or public programs, and they do not earn enough money to pay for health insurance. Seventy-two to 78 percent of farmworkers are uninsured.(3) Over half of the farmworkers surveyed in the National Agricultural Workers Survey said accessing medical care was “difficult,” and 77 percent of these same respondents cited cost as the major difficulty.(6) In addition, farmworkers typically cannot afford to take time off from work or to risk losing their jobs to seek medical care. Transportation problems, language and cultural differences and limited clinic hours also create barriers. As a result, most farmworkers tend to postpone care until a health condition becomes unbearable or interferes with work. Since 1962, federally-funded Migrant Health and Community Centers have served farmworkers. However, only 15 to 20 percent of farmworkers utilize these services.(1) (21) Follow-up and continuity of care present additional challenges; many farmworkers relocate several times each year and do not maintain permanent addresses or phone numbers. Farmworker Strengths


“We do the best we can to survive. And you know what? We survive pretty well.”-Enedelia Cisneros, Promotora and Member of the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health 2000-2004 (7)

Farmworkers are extremely resilient. They endure and, in many cases, overcome the difficulties of hard labor, poverty, discrimination, interrupted schooling and health problems or fragmented health care. Dedication to family and community provides many Latinos with a strong support system.(22) (23) Farmworkers take pride in who they are and their indispensable role in providing food for the nation. They work hard to provide a bright future for themselves and their families.

“The people who come here to work are family people. They have a strong work ethic, and they work hard.”-Mike DuRussel, Farm Owner, DuRussels’ Potato Farms, Manchester, MI

Many farmworkers work with local, regional and national organizations to improve conditions and health for all farmworkers and their families. Farmworkers have helped develop and sustain successful Community Health Worker programs, called Promotor(a) programs, in their camps and communities. These programs build on community strengths; farmworkers teach each other and address the unmet health needs of their friends and neighbors through education, referrals, peer support, advocacy and networking with service providers. Promotor(a) programs are at the heart of MHP Salud’s mission to improve the lives and health of farmworkers, their families and the communities. Farmworker unions have gained momentum in the last 40 years. Unions utilize tools such as collective bargaining and boycotts to acquire livable wages and better working conditions.(24) (25) Unions also inform the general public about farmworker issues, while continuing to organize and support farmworkers resisting exploitation within the agricultural industry.(26) Established farmworker unions include the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the United Farmworkers of America and the Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers Union. United Farm Workers Farm Labor Organizing Committee References (1) National Advisory Council of Migrant Health. (1993). 1993 recommendations of the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health. Rockville, MD:U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Bureau of Primary Health Care. (2) Dever, G. (1991). Profile of a population with complex health problems. Austin, TX: National Migrant Resource Program, Inc. (3) Villarejo, D. (2003). The health of U.S. hired farm workers. Annual Review of Public Health: 24:175-93. (5) US Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Office of Program Economics. (2000). Findings from the national agriculture workers survey 1997-1998: A demographic and employment profile of U.S. farmworkers (Research Report No. 8). Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Office of Program Economics. (6) Gabbard, S. (2003, May) National agricultural workers survey: What the demographics tell about farmworkers. Paper presented at the National Farmworker Health Conference, Phoenix, Arizona. (7) Price, R. (2002, October 27). The caring season. The Columbia Dispatch. pp. A1, A10. (8) Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast food nation: The dark side of the all American meal. New York: HarperCollins. (9) Student Action with Farmworkers. (2000). Factsheet: “Farmworkers in the United States.” (10) Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. (2007). “Children in the Fields: an American problem.” (11) US Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Office of Program Economics. (1997). A profile of U.S. farmworkers: Demographics,household composition, income and use of services. (Research Report No. 6). Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Office of Program Economics. (12) Rothenberg, D. (1998). With these hands: The hidden world of migrant farmworkers today. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Company. (13) Kugel, Candace. “Encyclopedia of Public Health: Migrant Workers.” Retrieved February 16, 2010, from (14)Embrey, K. (2001) Coming Up on the Season: Migrant Farmworkers in the Northeast Resources for Teachers Grade, Cornell Migrant Program, 2001. (15) Washington, DC: National Agriculture Statistics Service, Agriculture Statistics Board, USDA. (16) Why Finding Answers for Hunger and Proverty. (2008) “Food Security Learning Center: Who are the Farmworkers in the United States?” (17) Oliveira, V., Effland, J., & Hamm, S. (1993). Hired farm labor use on fruit, vegetable and horticultural specialty farms. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Washington: DOL, 2000),,p.66 (20) Rosenbaum, S.  “Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers: Health Insurance Coverage and Access to Care”(Washington: Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, 2005) (21) Duggar, B. (1990). Access of migrant and seasonal farmworkers to Medicaid-covered health care services. Unpublished manuscript. (23) Castillo, Y. & Winchester, M. (2001). After school in a colonia. Educational Leadership, 58, (7) 67-70. Retrieved June 14, 2004, from Retrieved June 18, 2004, from Retrieved June 14, 2004, from