Farmworkers in the United States2019-01-10T18:27:22+00:00

Farmworkers In the United States

“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

There are three million farmworkers in America.

In the United States, we enjoy abundant, affordable produce year-round. Yet, few realize where that food comes from and who grows it. Each year, 2 to 3 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 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) Farmworkers face more substantial health challenges than other groups and experience many barriers to access care, like language differences, high costs, or transportation barriers. (2)(3) Because of these factors, farmworkers often do not receive preventative health care. 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?

Although the term “farmworker” is often used to mean both migrant and seasonal farmworkers, 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.(4)

The farmworker population varies regionally. Approximately 78% of farmworkers are Hispanic, and about 95% are of Mexican descent.(5) About 1 in 3 farmworkers are citizens or legal residents of the United States.(5) In recent years, the number of immigrants employed in the agricultural workforce has drastically increased.(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

Over the last decade, farmworkers have faced even greater challenges earning a living. Poverty levels have remained high, and wages have failed to keep up with inflation. (7) Many farmworkers earn annual wages below the federal poverty level. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, the only national cross-sectional survey of farmworkers, 30% of farmworkers live in poverty and the median income for farmworkers is between $15,000 and $17,499 annually. (4) 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 overtime pay. (8)

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 exemptions for agricultural employers. 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. (8) 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.

“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, National Advisory Council on Migrant Health 2000-2004 (7)

“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

“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

Education of Farmworker Children

Migration and agricultural work often interrupt formal schooling. Moving regularly can make it difficult for farmworker children to complete their education. The median highest grade of schooling obtained by foreign farmworkers is at the eighth-grade level.(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 45% to 60% of children in migrant households nationwide graduate from high school.(9) 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 designed to help close the educational gap experienced by migrating children. 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 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.

Farmworkers contribute to the production and distribution of crops in almost every state in the nation. 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.(5) 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.(10) The fruit, nut, vegetable, greenhouse, nursery and grain industries also depend on the labor and skills of farmworkers. Currently, 20% to 25% of vegetable acreage and 30% to 40% of fruit acreage is dependent on harvesting by hand.(10)

Key Health Issues

Farm labor results in unique challenges to the health of farmworkers and their families. Farmworkers tend to experience health problems more frequently than the public. In addition, their health problems are often more severe, and farmworkers are more likely to experience multiple health problems simultaneously. Health concerns that farmworkers may face include poor dental health, diabetes, hypertension and behavioral health issues.(11) Farmworkers also face significant occupational dangers. Agriculture is one of the most accident-prone industries in the United States, and workers in the industry face the highest fatality rate in the nation.(12) Some challenges faced by farmworkers that can be linked to their occupation include pesticide exposure, infectious diseases, respiratory issues, hearing and vision problems and musculoskeletal conditions.(13)

Child and adolescent farmworkers are especially at risk for adverse health effects and consequences of agricultural work. Many children working as farmworkers suffer more frequent respiratory, parasitic, and skin infections, diarrhea, nutritional deficiencies and oral health issues.(2) Agricultural work by nature presents health risks, but children who are still developing are particularly vulnerable to these hazards.(2) Other factors commonly faced by farmworkers, like poor living conditions, can negatively impact health outcomes. Housing can often be overcrowded, poorly maintained, or lack clean drinking water. Female farmworkers face the additional risks of sexual harassment and sexual violence. While the national prevalence of sexual harassment and/or violence experienced by farmworkers is unknown, some studies suggest up to 80% of farmworkers may be experiencing this issue. Often, the problem of sexual harassment is left unaddressed due to fear of deportation or job loss, embarrassment or shame, and barriers like language and available resources.(14)(15)

“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

Health Care

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. Only 36% of farmworkers report having health insurance. (4) Over half of the farmworkers surveyed in the National Agricultural Workers Survey cited cost as the major difficulty to accessing health care. (4) 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. Since 1962, federally-funded Migrant Health and Community Centers have served farmworkers. However, only 20 percent of insured workers and 40 percent of uninsured workers utilize these services. (4) 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

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. 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.

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. This is at the heart of MHP Salud’s mission, as migrant farmworkers were some of the first communities to adopt Promotor(a) programs created by MHP Salud.

“[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, University of Michigan & Author, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today (12)

About MHP Salud

MHP Salud has over thirty years of experience implementing CHW programs and training organizations looking to start and/or strengthen their own CHW programs. For more information about MHP Salud, our services, and how we can help you, please email us at info@mhpsalud.org

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A farmworker labors in the fields
A community health worker looks over crops.