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How much would it cost consumers to give farmworkers a significant raise?

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The increased media coverage of the plight of the more than 2 million farmworkers who pick and help produce our food—and whom the Trump administration has deemed to be “essential” workers for the U.S. economy and infrastructure during the coronavirus pandemic—has highlighted the difficult and often dangerous conditions farmworkers face on the job, as well as their central importance to U.S. food supply chains. For example, photographs and videos of farmworkers picking crops under the smoke- and fire-filled skies of California have been widely shared across the internet, and some data suggest that the number of farmworkers who have tested positive for COVID-19 is rivaled only by meat-processing workers. In addition, around half of farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants and 10% are temporary migrant workers with “nonimmigrant” H-2A visas; those farmworkers have limited labor rights in practice and are vulnerable to wage theft and other abuses due to their immigration status.

Despite the key role they play and the challenges they face, farmworkers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the entire U.S. labor market. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that it would not collect the data on farmworker earnings that are used to determine minimum wages for H-2A workers, which could further reduce farmworker earnings.

This raises the question: How much would it cost to give farmworkers a significant raise in pay, even if it was paid for entirely by consumers? The answer is, not that much. About the price of a couple of 12-packs of beer, a large pizza, or a nice bottle of wine.

The latest data on consumer expenditures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides useful information about consumer spending on fresh fruits and vegetables, which, in conjunction with other data, allow us to calculate roughly how much it would cost to raise wages for farmworkers. (For a detailed analysis of these data, see this blog post at Rural Migration News.) But to calculate this, first we have to see how much a typical household spends on fruits and vegetables every year and the share that goes to farm owners and their farmworker employees.

The BLS data show that expenditures by households (referred to in the data as “consumer units”) in 2019 was $320 on fresh fruits and $295 on fresh vegetables, amounting to $615 a year or $11.80 per week. In addition, households spent an additional $110 on processed fruits and $145 on processed vegetables. Interestingly enough, on average, households spent almost as much on alcoholic beverages ($580) as they did on fresh fruits and vegetables ($615).


Data
 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service show that, on average, farmers receive less than 20% of every retail dollar spent on food, but a slightly higher share of what consumers spend for fresh fruits and vegetables. Figure A shows this share over time for fresh fruits and vegetables: Between 2000 and 2015, farmers received an average 30% of the average retail price of fresh fruits and 26% of the average retail price of fresh vegetables (2015 is the most recent year for which data are available). This means that average consumer expenditures on these items include $173 a year for farmers (0.30 x 320 = $96 + 0.26 x 295 = $77).

Farmers received an average 30% of the retail price of fresh fruit and 26% for fresh vegetables between 2000 and 2015

Farm share of fruit and vegetable retail sales, 2000–2015
DateFruitsVegetables
200026%26%
200128%28%
200229%26%
200328%26%
200425%23%
200528%25%
200630%26%
200730%24%
200827%26%
200928%25%
201029%27%
201133%25%
201236%23%
201335%27%
201435%25%
201538%27%

ChartData

Note: Data for 2015 are the most recent data available from United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Price Spreads from Farm to Consumer [Excel]. Share Tweet Embed Download image

According to studies published by the University of California, Davis, farm labor costs are about a third of farm revenue for fresh fruits and vegetables, meaning that farmworker wages and benefits for fresh fruits and vegetables cost the average household $57 per year (0.33 x $173 = $57). (However, in reality, farm labor costs are less than $57 per year per household because over half of the fresh fruits and one-third of fresh vegetables purchased in the United States are imported.)

To illustrate, that means that farm owners and farmworkers together receive only about one-third of retail spending on fruits and vegetables even though most, and in some cases all, of the work it takes to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables for retail sale takes place on farms (the exact share of the price farmers receive varies slightly by crop). For example, strawberries are picked directly into the containers in which they are sold, and iceberg lettuce is wrapped in the field. Consumers who pay $3 for a pound of strawberries are paying about $1 to the farmer, who pays one-third of that amount to farmworkers, 33 cents. For one pound of iceberg lettuce, which costs about $1.20 on average, farmers receive 40 cents and farmworkers get 13 of those 40 cents.

So, what would it cost to raise the wages of farmworkers? One of the few big wage increases for farmworkers occurred after the Bracero guestworker program ended in 1964. Under the rules of the program, Mexican Braceros were guaranteed a minimum wage of $1.40 an hour at a time when U.S. farmworkers were not covered by the minimum wage. Some farmworkers who picked table grapes were paid $1.40 an hour while working alongside Braceros in 1964, and then were offered $1.25 in 1965, prompting a strike. César Chávez became the leader of the strike and won a 40% wage increase in the first United Farm Workers table grape contract in 1966, raising grape workers’ wages to $1.75 an hour.

What would happen if there were a similar 40% wage increase today and the entire wage increase were passed on to consumers? The average hourly earnings of U.S. field and livestock workers were $14 an hour in 2019; a 40% increase would raise their wages to $19.60 an hour.

For a typical household or consumer unit, a 40% increase in farm labor costs translates into a 4% increase in the retail price of fresh fruits and vegetables (0.30 farm share of retail prices x 0.33 farm labor share of farm revenue = 10%; if farm labor costs rise 40%, retail spending rises 4%). If average farmworker earnings rose by 40%, and the increase were passed on entirely to consumers, average spending on fresh fruits and vegetables for a typical household would rise by $25 per year (4% of $615 = $24.60).

Many farm labor analysts consider a typical year of work for seasonal farmworkers to be about 1,000 hours. A 40% wage increase for seasonal farmworkers would raise their average earnings from $14,000 for 1,000 hours of work to $19,600. Many farmworkers have children at home, so for them, going from earning $14,000 to $19,600 per year would mean going from earning about half of the federal poverty line for a family of four ($25,750 in 2019) to earning about three-fourths of the poverty line. For a farmworker employed year-round for 2,000 hours, earnings would increase from $28,000 per year to $39,200, allowing them to earn far above the poverty line.

Raising wages for farmworkers by 40% could improve the quality of life for farmworkers without significantly increasing household spending on fruits and vegetables. If there were productivity improvements as farmers responded to higher labor costs, households could pay even less than the additional $25 per year for fresh fruits and vegetables.

If average farmworker earnings were doubled (rose by 100%) through increased spending on fresh fruits and vegetables, a typical household would see costs rise by $61.50 per year (10% of $615). That extra $61.50 per year would increase the wages of seasonal farmworkers to $28,000 for 1,000 hours of work, taking them above the poverty line for a family of four.

This blog originally appeared at Economic Policy Institute on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Daniel Costa is an attorney who first joined the Economic Policy Institute in 2010 and was EPI’s director of immigration law and policy research from 2013 to early 2018; he returned to this role in 2019 after serving as the California Attorney General’s senior advisor on immigration and labor.

Philip Martin is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis. He edits Rural Migration News, has served on several federal commissions, and testifies frequently before Congress. He is an award-winning author who works for UN agencies around the world on labor and migration issues. His latest book is Merchants of Labor: Recruiters and International Labor Migration, a pioneering analysis of recruiters in low-skilled labor markets explaining the prominent role of labor intermediaries, from Oxford University Press.


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Foreign Farm Workers Already Face Abusive Conditions. Now Trump Wants to Cut Their Wages.

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Pedro, a laborer from Chiapas, Mexico, worked 13 hours a day picking blueberries on a farm in Clinton, North Carolina. He had no time off, except when it rained.

“We had no Sundays,” Pedro (a pseudonym to protect his identity after he breached his visa agreement) says in Spanish. Working from May to June under the H-2A visa program for guest farmworkers, he saved only $1,500.

According to Pedro, his work conditions and payment violated the contract he signed when he was recruited by a middleman in Mexico. Still, he could not quit his job. The H-2A program requires guest farmworkers to work only for the employer or association that hires them. 

Pedro was entitled to a $12.67 per hour wage with no overtime, according to the H-2A provisions for North Carolina. However, Pedro says he never received more than $425 a week, or about $4.60 per hour.

“They took away our passport as soon as we arrived,” Pedro explains. His employer tried to dissuade Pedro and his workmates from quitting the job. Still, he ran away, leaving his passport behind. 

“Never in my life [have I] worked this hard, not in Mexico City or back in the fields in Chiapas,” Pedro says. Undocumented and with no official identification, Pedro now works at a construction site in Georgia. “All the other guys stayed in the farm,” he says. “They are afraid of being deported. They don’t want to get in trouble.”

Pedro’s story is all too common. The wage provisions in the H-2A program are “routinely” violated, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Farmworker Justice, and, as a recent Center for American Progress report put it, the lack of labor protections for foreign farmworkers like Pedro are already “particularly dangerous.” The H-2A program has led to so much abuse of workers that many liken it to modern-day slavery.

Now, things could get even grimmer, as the Trump administration is proposing to reduce the statutory pay rate for H-2A workers, just months ahead of the presidential elections. 

Workers’ wages are already “extremely low by any measure, even when compared with similarly situated nonfarm workers and workers with the lowest levels of education,” an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report found in April.

Wage cuts

North Carolina is among the top recruiters of H-2A guest workers in the United States. The state, like the rest of the country, has grown increasingly dependent on this labor force. Nationwide, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of H-2A visas approved since 2005, climbing to 258,000 in 2019. Most of these workers are Mexicans or Mexican-Americans. 

The growing reliance on H-2A visa farmworkers is often linked to a shortage of local labor, even among the undocumented population that comprises at least half of the U.S. agricultural workforce. The reality could be more problematic.

H-2A visa holders “are seen by employers as very productive. Employers often say they are better workers than the locals, but it has nothing to do with their performance,” according to Bruce Goldstein, president of the farmworkers’ rights group Farmworker Justice. “It has to do with the fact that the H-2A visa workers are not free.”

Even undocumented workers, who are not necessarily tied contractually to their employers in the same way as H-2A workers, have more legal recourses to obtain compensation if they claim workplace abuse, according to Goldstein. H-2A workers are excluded from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), the main labor law that protects farmworkers. That’s why, he says, H-2A guest workers are “very desirable by employers.”

To satisfy the agriculture industry’s desire for guest workers, the Trump administration, contradicting its anti-immigration stance, relaxed the rules around H-2A hiring and exempted farmworkers from a broad ban on foreign labor during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, the U.S. Department of Labor is considering publishing changes that would recalculate guest workers’ wages. According to Goldstein and to publicly posted information, the changes could come as early as August

Instead of using a labor market survey, the proposal would allow farms to hire workers at an “arbitrarily lower wage rate,” according to Farmworker Justice. In Florida, for example, the $11.71 per hour wage would be cut by $3.15. 

Though Congress could stop these changes, the Republican-led Senate makes this a remote possibility. Another option is taking the administration to court, although the outcome would be far from certain, Goldstein explains.  

“The only rational explanation for lowering the wages of H-2A farmworkers right now is corporate greed and unquestioning subservience to agribusiness on the part of the Trump administration,” according to the EPI report. 

If implemented, the wage cut would come even as farm owners received as much as $23.5 billion in federal aid due to the pandemic.

The new guidelines would mean that workers deemed “essential” and expected to keep working amid the pandemic, would risk their lives for even less money and no mandate for employers to provide them with Covid-19 protections.

Unfree labor

Violations of the H-2A visa holders’ rights are “rampant and systemic,” according to a 2015 Farmworker Justice report. The Department of Labor “frequently approves illegal job terms in the H-2A workers’ contracts,” its findings show.

Five years after the report, the guest workers’ conditions remain unchanged, according to Goldstein. They are similar to the ones under the Bracero Program—through which millions of Mexican farmworkers labored in the US from 1942 to 1964—which was ultimately terminated because of its notorious abuses, including wage theft, according to the report.

Even when employers comply with the contract obligations, H-2A farm laborers are among the nation’s lowest-paid workers. The Covid-19 pandemic has made their jobs even more dangerous

Farm owners are not mandated by the federal government to provide protective equipment or enforce social distancing in often overcrowded and unsanitary housing facilities, despite the risks to foreign workers’ health, according to Anna Jensen, executive director of the nonprofit North Carolina Farmworkers Project. (State guidelines vary across the country.)

It’s not unusual that laborers are only given one option to buy food, regularly overpriced, or that workers cannot receive visitors, says Jensen. It’s also common that the employers do not reimburse H-2A workers for traveling to the U.S., she adds, a practice that is very often illegal.

The violations often start in the hiring process. Two of the former deputy directors of the North Carolina Growers Association, the largest recruiter of H-2A farmworkers in the state, pleaded guilty in 2015 of fraud related to the program. Another infamousNorth Carolinian farmworker recruiter, Craig Stanford Eury Jr., also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

Many H-2A workers, who aspire to return to the U.S. farms in the following seasons, do not mention their mistreatment for fear of being blacklisted by employers. But even if they wanted to, filing complaints “is really difficult,” Jensen says.

The North Carolina Department of Labor operates a complaint hotline, open only from 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, making it “not very accessible” for many migrant workers, according to Jensen. Twelve to 14-hour workdays, six or seven days a week, make filing a claim virtually impossible for guest farmworkers.

“The H-2A is an inherently abusive program,” Goldstein says. It practically assures employers that even workers who do not stand the poor treatment will not complain, even when their passports are taken away, which could be considered an act of slavery or peonage, according to Goldstein. 

If the Trump administration follows through with its plans, workers like Pedro could be forced to labor under these conditions while taking home even less money than they already make.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York.


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Migrant farmworkers are headed north from Florida, afraid of COVID-19 but with little choice

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Florida is hitting one daily high in positive coronavirus tests after another, and now some of the people in the hardest-hit communities are heading out for other states. Not wealthy snowbirds, but migrant farmworkers, who follow growing seasons north for the summer.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which fights for better wages and working conditions for farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, and beyond, has been sounding the alarm for months. The conditions the workers face, “the result of generations of grinding poverty and neglect, will act like a superconductor for the transmission of the coronavirus,” CIW co-founder Greg Asbed wrote in The New York Times in early April. “And if something isn’t done—now—to address their unique vulnerability, the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery in a matter of weeks, if not days.“ That was April. The Florida Department of Health didn’t even start seriously testing these communities until early May.

While the Coalition of Immokalee Workers did what it could by spreading information and working with the growers in its Fair Food Program to help protect workers with things like hand-washing stations and grocery delivery (Doctors Without Borders has been helping with response), it hasn’t been enough to undo the neglect and irresponsible leadership at the government level.

“You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public if you have an outbreak,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week, perhaps seeking to illustrate not only how irresponsible he is, but how vicious and dehumanizing he is as well.

As a result of that failure to lead, farming communities in Florida have alarming rates of COVID-19. Collier County, where Immokalee is, has a positive test rate about double the state level, and, the Times reports, “Lake Worth, a suburban Palm Beach County community of about 39,000 that has a large population of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, has 1,367 confirmed cases, slightly more than St. Petersburg, a city six times larger.”

The danger of the virus and the economic pressure to follow the jobs—low-paying and often abusive though they may be—is weighing heavily on workers. 

”We’re afraid,” Angelina Velásquez, a single mother, told the Times. “But where am I supposed to go? There is no work here.” Other workers are also making the very difficult decision to stay put. “I’m trying to take care of myself—for my wife, for my baby,” one said.

These migrant workers are in a no-win situation they didn’t create. And while it’s a systemic problem, the people who lead and benefit from that system are treating the workers as essentially disposable. This time, that may lead to the coronavirus spreading even further.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Undocumented Farmworkers Are Refusing Covid Tests for Fear of Losing Their Jobs

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As states reopen for business, the coronavirus is exploding among America’s 2.5 million farmworkers, imperiling efforts to contain the spread of the disease and keep food on the shelves just as peak harvest gets underway.

The figures are stark. The number of Covid-19 cases tripled in Lanier County, Ga., after one day of testing farmworkers. All 200 workers on a single farm in Evensville, Tenn., tested positive. Yakima County, Wash., the site of recent farmworker strikes at apple-packing facilities, now boasts the highest per capita infection rate on the West Coast. Among migrant workers in Immokalee, Fla.—who just finished picking tomatoes and are on their way north to harvest other crops—1,000 people are infected.

The growing numbers reflect the lack of safety guidelines for workers who labor shoulder to shoulder in the fields, travel side by side in vans, and sleep by the dozens in bunks and barracks. On June 2, the CDC and OSHA announced recommendations to help protect agricultural workers, following in the footsteps of WashingtonOregon and California. But there is still no nationally coordinated, mandatory response or tracking of the disease among farmworkers. 

The spike in cases is, in part, a result of increased testing. But that points to a new danger emerging that could make outbreaks even harder to contain: Some farmworkers are refusing to be tested for Covid-19.

Eva Galvez is a physician at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, a clinic that serves 52,000 mostly Latino patients in the agricultural regions that cradle Portland, Ore. When the clinic discovered in April that Latinos were testing positive for Covid-19 at twenty times the rate of other patients, Galvez pinpointed farmworker communities as one of the hotspots. So she worked with the Oregon Law Center to secure statewide hygiene and social distancing rules. (The rules are set to expire October 24.) Provisions include  enhancing safety in employer-provided housing, which In These Times has found is fueling outbreaks among farmworkers nationwide. 

But Galvez has other worries now. “Although our clinic has plenty of capacity to test, many people won’t want to be tested,” she says. “Because if they’re positive they can’t go to work.”

“The virus is a scarlet letter,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste (PCUN). The 7,000-member farmworker union is based in Marion County, Ore., which ranks third in the state for coronavirus cases per capita.

“Not only is there no paid leave [if you can’t work], but no job,” Lopez says. “That tells farmworkers they don’t have an incentive to tell people that they are feeling sick. The biggest fear is not necessarily the virus itself; it’s [not] being able to provide for family.” 

It is an undeniable crisis. But America is reaping what it has sown. Decades of anti-immigrant policies will make the coronavirus extraordinarily difficult to contain for a vulnerable population which has been forced deep in the shadows. 

As workers in an industry with few unions, a lack of basic worker protections, and a workforce that is estimated to be at least 48% undocumented immigrants, farmworkers have many reasons to fear losing their jobs. Most lack health insurance, sick leave, unemployment insurance, and legal status, and they support extended families here and abroad on poverty wages. Testing and social distancing guidelines may help prevent illness, but cannot prevent job loss. Personal protection is no substitute for social protections.

Trump administration policies have exacerbated the situation. Irene de Barraicua of Líderes Campesinas, a California-based farmworker organization for women, says some farmworkers are not seeking health care because of the “public charge” rule that threatens to deny green cards to those who rely on public services. H2A workers, who comprise over a quarter million workers whose temporary visas are tied to their employers, could be deported if they lose their jobs. Even the “essential worker” letters that some farmers provided to undocumented workers to show ICE in the hope of preventing arrests during the pandemic have backfired, Irene says.Workers interpreted the letter as a sign that raids would increase.

Now the coronavirus has upended agricultural production in ways that further threaten jobs. 

The Salinas Valley in California is nicknamed “America’s Salad Bowl” for its 1.4 million acres of farmland that grow everything from artichokes to zucchini. But this year lettuce, strawberriescauliflower, and spinach are rotting in fields as agribusinesses unable to pivot from institutional to consumer sales cut their losses by cutting workers.

Sinthia, 40, whose last name is being withheld to protect herself, her family and her job, is from Guanajuato, Mexico, and supports two children, her mother, a quadraplegic sister, and a brother who is deaf, mute and blind. Before Covid-19, Sinthia, who is a member of Líderes Campesinas, packed boxes of broccoli for up to 62 hours a week in Monterey County. Now her hours have been sliced in half. The restaurants and schools that purchased produce from her employer, PGM Packing, are shuttered due to the coronavirus. “There is no market, no place to sell, no orders,” Sinthia says.

One hundred miles to the southeast, it is the workforce that has been halved at a vineyard in Kern County, where Paola, 30, works. Twenty of 40 workers were fired in order to meet social distancing guidelines. “There is more pressure to get the work done now,” Paola says. A former teacher from Sinaloa, Mexico, Paola says her pay is the same but her expenses have increased. Her two school-aged children eat all their meals at home now and she has to support her recently unemployed parents. Out of fear of infecting them, Paola quit her second, night-shift job at a pistachio packing facility when a co-worker tested positive. “It was worrisome, scary, stressful,” Paola says.

“It’s a very desperate situation. They don’t have food. Many are being laid off,” says de Barraicua . “Farmers are deciding to let their crops rot. They’re also letting the workers rot.”

Farmworkers also fear they could be stigmatized by co-workers and that bosses could fire their entire crew, which often includes family and friends from their hometown. 

“We are hearing from advocates that workers would enter ‘death pacts’ where if they become sick they keep it to themselves because the entire camp will shut down,” says Lori Johnson, managing attorney at the farmworker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina. 

Rebeca Velazquez is a former farmworker and an organizer with Mujeres Luchadores Progresistas, an organization for women farmworkers based in Woodburn, Ore. One member, she says, was having a coughing fit at work when the owner of the farm walked by and told her to leave. Her supervisor said she needed to get tested for Covid-19. Two days later he told her not to bother: the entire crew of 30 workers had been laid off because of her. Another woman, Rebeca says, was shunned by co-workers upon returning to the workplace after being very ill with Covid-19. She left to work elsewhere and is keeping her illness a secret out of fear of discrimination.

Luis Jimenez, 38, a dairy worker in Avon, New York, says workers are in a bind. They have been told if they get sick and don’t say anything they will get fired. But if they do say something they may still lose their job. “The [bosses] don’t have a plan if workers get infected,” says Luis. “No plan to quarantine, no plan to feed them, no plan to take them to the hospital.” 

An explosion in cases among vulnerable farmworkers could overwhelm rural healthcare facilities and threaten the national food supply. The thin plastic line now separating workers in the fields is not enough to halt a pandemic or cure a diseased system. Increased protections for workers—including paid sick leave, unemployment compensation, and affordable housing and healthcare—are essential if the spread of Covid-19 is to be curbed.

“We don’t want to be called essential.” Sinthia says. “Show us with proof that we are essential. We need better working conditions, better living conditions, a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Fawcett has reported for Truthout, The Nation and The Progressive.

About the Author: Arun Gupta is author of Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (forthcoming from The New Press).


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The Food Industry’s Next Covid-19 Victims: Migrant Farmworkers

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Outbreaks have begun at farms around the country, thanks in large part to crowded employer-provided housing.

AVON, N.Y.—Luis Jimenez, 35, works 66 hours a week tending hundreds of calves at a dairy in upstate New York. He sends $800 home to his parents and eight siblings in Oaxaca, Mexico, every two weeks. “We want to build a house,” he says by phone. “I want my brothers and sisters to go to college.” A calf lows loudly in the background.

Jimenez is president of Alianza Agricola, an advocacy group led by migrant farmworkers. He says dozens of undocumented farmworkers in his organization are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. “If one guy gets infected, it’s easy to pass to the others because they live in the same house and come in the same car when they go to work,” he says.

The most widespread outbreak in the food system appears to be among meatpacking workers, with 15,800 documented cases linked to 193 plants, as of May 21. Wired magazine says Covid-19 thrives in the plants because of long hours, crowded workstations, “aggressive ventilation systems” and cold temperatures. But outbreaks on farms are increasing, and they disproportionately affect migrant farmworkers—at least 48% of whom are undocumented.

In These Times identified at least 349 coronavirus cases at 13 farm and agricultural sites in four states. According to farmworkers, medical personnel, advocates, lawyers and media reports, the reason lies in shared migrant housing.

Jimenez and other farmworkers live in so-called congregate living settings, also known as labor camps. Growers usually provide housing for migrants, who may travel thousands of miles for jobs. Jimenez says, on one dairy farm, “Six guys live in a small room, in three bunk beds.” It’s not a house, he says. “It’s a room attached to the farm office.”

Coronavirus outbreaks in upstate New York have hit a dairy, a nursery and a 32-acre greenhouse. At the greenhouse, run by Green Empire Farms, half of its 340 workers who tend tomatoes and strawberries tested positive, one of the state’s biggest outbreaks. According to local health officials, the grower-provided housing had four workers to a room and two to a bed in motels.

Farmworkers “are scared they will get infected and die,” Jimenez says. “We don’t have health insurance. We don’t have access to medical service.”

Woodburn is the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in Oregon—and headquarters to Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste, a 7,000-member farmworker union. “Our members work with dozens, sometimes hundreds [of workers], out in the fields, shoulder to shoulder,” says executive director Reyna Lopez, whose parents were migrant farmworkers. “They sometimes live 25 to a house. When one gets it, it spreads like wildfire.”

In central California’s Monterey County, home to the fertile Salinas Valley (with 1.4 million acres of farmland), The Mercury News reports that “unsanitary, overcrowded conditions” in congregate housing are “the perfect recipe for an outbreak.” Farmworkers account for 40% of Monterey County’s 308 confirmed cases as of May 12.

North Carolina has seen outbreaks on five farms with congregate housing. Lori Johnson, managing attorney at the farmworker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina, says migrant farmworkers “are sharing bathrooms, they are sharing kitchens, the number of bathrooms is low.” Under state law, agribusinesses can cram workers into dorms with as little as 50 square feet per person, one shower for every 10 people and one toilet for every 15.

“The likeliness of everyone in a camp contracting Covid-19 is very high,” says Amy Elkins, an outreach worker for advocacy group NC Farmworkers Project. “The majority of our workers live in barracks with up to 120 workers sharing approximately four toilets and four showers.”

In Salem County, N.J., 59 migrant workers tested positive on one farm, where up to 100 male farmworkers reportedly live in dorms. At an orchard with employer-provided housing in Douglas County, Wash., half of the 71 farmworkers tested positive.

Early indications suggest more outbreaks among farmworkers go unreported. Former dairy worker Wilmer Jimenez, 26, organizes workers on dozens of farms in western New York with the Rural and Migrant Ministry. “The health department confirmed three farm outbreaks. … But I spoke to a lot of other farmworkers who were sick,” he says. In Yakima County, Wash., The Seattle Times reports 70 “farm and fruit-packing workers” have tested positive, but the Yakima Health District estimates about 400 total cases among agriculture workers. In May, workers at six fruit processing facilities in the county went on strike after coworkers fell ill with Covid-19, citing more than 200 health and safety violations.

With 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers traveling the United States in the coming months, overcrowded housing may take a serious toll.

“We are some of the most essential workers in the country,” says Sinthia, an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, and one of 60,000 farmworkers who harvest the Salinas Valley during the summer peak. (Sinthia requested anonymity to protect herself, her family and her job.) “Now we have the emotional strain of having to go to work … but always thinking about what will happen with this virus.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Fawcett has reported for Truthout, The Nation and The Progressive.

About the Author: Arun Gupta is author of Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (forthcoming from The New Press).


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Trump deems farmworkers ‘essential’ but not safety rules for them. That could threaten the food supply.

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The Trump administration has deemed the millions of people who are cutting lettuce, picking cherries, packing peaches and otherwise getting food from farm to table to be “essential workers” but is doing little to keep them healthy during the pandemic.

The lack of federal action has left state and industry leaders scrambling to shield their farmworkers from the coronavirus. As harvest season ramps up, farmers across several major produce states have installed more hand-washing stations, instructed workers to keep their distance and provided face masks — but those efforts have been inconsistent and largely voluntary.

Farmworkers have long lived in the shadows of the American economy, an itinerant community that includes low-income citizens, about 250,000 legal guest workers from Mexico and Central America and hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who might travel from farm to farm with the changing harvest seasons. Now, labor advocates are warning that continuing to ignore this vulnerable population not only threatens lives but endangers the food supply.

“We’re very concerned that the worst is yet to come,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group. “With the limited protections that are available, we’re afraid that there’s going to be a substantial increase in Covid-19 cases among farmworkers.”

Goldstein and others have watched a crisis unfold in meatpacking plants, with dozens of facilities shuttered due to outbreaks that have sickened thousands and killed at least 20. But labor conditions on farms are less actively regulated than meat plants, in part because there are far more farms to police and very small farming operations are exempt from certain safety rules.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommended guidelines that cover a range of critical employment sectors, including farm labor. But the Trump administration has not made the guidelines mandatory, as the Department of Labor is empowered to do on an emergency basis. And the CDC has not released recommendations specific to field workers like it did for meatpacking employees as that industry fell into chaos in recent weeks.

Since March, advocates like the United Farm Workers have been urging federal agencies and states to make existing Covid-19 recommendations enforceable and to go further, ensuring benefits like paid sick leave, access to health care and a major revamp of housing standards that would allow for social distancing.

The CDC referred inquiries about workplace requirements to the Labor Department, which said in a statement, “Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time.”

Labor officials have said they have all the enforcement tools necessary to ensure worker safety. Employees can file complaints with the agency if they believe employers are violating the law, kicking off an investigation that can last months.

In addition, officials have said, the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to enforce existing standards such as its safety rules regarding respiratory protection and bloodborne pathogens. But safety advocates have complained that those standards don’t address the risks posed by infectious illnesses like Covid-19, and that undocumented workers won’t feel comfortable making complaints.

American fruit and vegetable growers, who are heavily reliant on migrant and immigrant labor, are taking note of what’s happening in meatpacking and processing plants as they try to avoid a similar catastrophe.

“We have a vested interest in the health and well-being of our workers,” said Chuck Obern, owner of C&B Farms in Clewiston, Fla., who hires more than 200 people each season to tend to a large number of labor-intensive crops, including kale, bok choy and a variety of herbs.

When Obern first learned about the coronavirus spreading in the U.S., his operation started communicating with workers about CDC’s advice on hand-washing and social distancing. He also started sanitizing the bus that transports his crew from field to field every day, a common point where workers are often not able to keep their distance from one another. Obern, like most growers, doesn’t think regulations are needed because the vast majority of farmers will act proactively on their own.

“We would be stupid to not care and not do everything we can to keep our workers as healthy as possible,” Obern said, noting that most farm work is highly skilled and difficult to master. “If Covid did come in and run through our crew, who would pick our crops?”

Relying on growers to voluntarily take precautions doesn’t satisfy advocates for farmworkers, who prefer to see consistent, enforceable standards that all farm operations are required to meet.

“There’s no clear rules that apply to agriculture around social distancing,” said Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, an independent union representing berry workers in northwest Washington state. “It’s been almost two months and there’s been nothing done to protect farmworkers.”

Farms suffer outbreaks

The threat of widespread outbreaks like those that have struck meat plants is not a hypothetical concern. There are already outbreaks involving farmworkers in several states. In New York, one of the largest coronavirus clusters in the state is a greenhouse farm where 169 out of 340 workers have tested positive. In Washington, one large orchard recently revealed that more than 50 of the 70 workers it had tested for Covid-19 tested positive, including many who were asymptomatic. Both the New York and Washington farms began testing workers after some showed symptoms. In North Carolina, a strawberry grower temporarily closed after eight workers tested positive. In Monterey County, Calif., a major berry growing area, nearly one in four coronavirus cases is an agricultural worker, according to local officials.

Most farmworkers live in close quarters, often sleeping in dormitory-style rooms with several bunk beds. They travel from field to field on tightly-packed buses and often stick together for errands like buying groceries or going to the bank.

“It makes it impossible to observe recommendations of social distancing,” said Gerardo Reyes Chavez, an experienced farm worker and organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Immokalee, Fla., an area known as the nation’s tomato capital.

It can also be difficult to maintain CDC’s recommendation of six feet of distance in the fields, depending on which crop is being harvested. Workers who pick tomatoes, for example, usually pick fruit into their own individual buckets and then run their haul to a common collection point, with speed being important since they are paid by the pound.

“You cannot be timing with everyone to see when they are bringing their bucket,” Chavez said. “They are all running.”

“It feels almost laughable,” he said, because the nature of the work does not allow social distancing.

It can be even harder for workers to keep their distance in packing operations, where it’s not uncommon for them to be placed elbow-to-elbow sorting and arranging fresh produce to be shipped out.

Labor advocates are always trying to get policymakers — and consumers — to care more about working conditions on farms, but they say there’s a new layer of urgency with Covid-19 cases now on the rise in rural areas.

“What we are going to see is a food crisis unfolding on top of a pandemic, which is the worst combination,” Chavez said.

A neglected workforce

The lack of standards for farm-worker safety reflects a long history of neglect of the workforce and the country’s inability to come to grips with its reliance on undocumented labor.

About 2.5 million farm workers are employed by farmers and ranchers in the U.S. — and the government estimates that about half are undocumented. About three-quarters are immigrants and most come from Mexico, according to data gathered by the Agriculture Department. They also make very little money: The average total income for an individual farm worker ranges from $15,000 to $17,499.

In recent years, a growing number of agriculture laborers have been H-2A foreign guest workers who have been granted temporary visas to work in seasonal jobs, such as berry or tomato picking. Farmers have increasingly struggled with finding enough workers to bring in harvests — especially as the Trump administration has cracked down on undocumented immigrants — and the industry has relied on the H-2A visa program to ease the persistent labor shortage on farms. In 2019, 242,762 H-2A visas were issued by the Labor Department, an increase of roughly 67 percent since 2008. The vast majority are from Mexico.

When the coronavirus was first spreading throughout the U.S., farmers were deeply worried about not being able to hire H-2A workers because embassies where visa application interviews take place were shut down across the world.

In order to keep the flow of foreign farmworkers steady, the federal government in March eased application requirements and also allowed farmers to hire from the pool of foreign workers currently in the U.S. And the USDA and DOL will publish information about H-2A workers with expiring contracts that may be allowed to transfer to other agriculture employers.

“Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “President Trump knows that these workers are critical to maintaining our food supply and our farmers and ranchers are counting on their ability to work.”

But while the departments that oversee the H-2A program have made it easier for farmers to hire help, the OSHA worker safety watchdog has taken no action to protect the workers by requiring that producers implement emergency safety measures.

Meanwhile, though farmers and ranchers have been major beneficiaries of billions of dollars in aid for lost markets, farmworkers on the front lines have been almost completely left out of any of the coronavirus aid packages.

Major industry groups favor voluntary standards, though some have lobbied the government to help the industry procure personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

In a recent letter to House and Senate leadership, a large coalition of produce industry groups pushed back against accusations that growers haven’t done enough to protect workers, calling them “unfounded.”

“With every stage of the emerging Covid-19 crisis, our industry has worked hard to embrace all public health advice for social distancing, personal and facility hygiene, face coverings and more,” the groups wrote.

But they also expressed some worry about procuring enough PPE for their labor force, noting that “farmers have some reserves of these supplies but as this crisis lingers, we are concerned about the ability to secure supplies in the future.”

Some of the largest produce growers in the country have dramatically changed their operations in recent weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, recognizing it as an existential threat.

But these companies have more resources than most, in some cases going above and beyond CDC guidance. Farmworker advocates at every level are urging state and federal policymakers to be more aggressive and impose enforceable standards to ensure operations of all sizes are keeping their workforces healthy.

“We’re hoping that some agricultural employers that have not yet woken up to the reality are going to realize that their business is in danger if their workers get ill,” Goldstein said.

A patchwork response

Even the most progressive states are struggling to figure out how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among this vulnerable class of workers.

In Washington, which is a major producer of tree fruit like apples and cherries, farmworker unions and advocates sued the state last month to press for mandatory Covid-19 protections.

State officials initially produced fact sheets with suggestions for how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on farms and in packing houses, but advocates criticized the documents as confusing and unenforceable. Labor groups want the guidelines to be legally required, so if workers raise concerns they have clear requirements to point to.

“The agencies aren’t big enough nor do they have resources to be out there protecting workers,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a firm representing farmworker groups in their litigation.

Even though Gov. Jay Inslee has been sympathetic to the farmworkers’concerns, there are no easy answers. It’s not just workplaces but housing, churches, buses and everything in between that present a possible risk for spreading the coronavirus in the agriculture industry.

Since the lawsuit, the state’s labor and health departments have proposed some emergency rules for agriculture aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19, but they have not yet been finalized.

The proposals include a temporary ban on the use of bunk beds in guest worker housing to allow for more distance between laborers, something that agriculture industry groups have strongly pushed back on, arguing that it’s expensive and unworkable.

“They’ve at least taken action here,” Morrison said. “They care, but the feds haven’t done anything.”

The Wenatchee Valley, a large fruit growing hub, is already hosting thousands of H-2A guest workers to help manage its extensive orchards and other farms, but within weeks as many as 20,000 more workers are expected to arrive as the harvest kicks off in earnest, which means worker housing is soon expected to become even more densely populated.

“You have to do something,” said Morrison. “It can’t just be business as usual.”

In Oregon, state agencies have imposed sweeping new requirements on farms, including a temporary ban on the use of bunk beds to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

California, which supplies much of the country’s vegetables, has been the most active in extending assistance to farmworkers, who have been given two weeks of paid sick leave from an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom. State lawmakers are currently debating legislation that would provide laborers with hazard pay, child care help and temporary housing to prevent crowding.

Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation, said that for the most part, farmers in the state have been working hard to ensure there are limited outbreaks, like taking steps to improve housing circumstances.

Some farmers with employees that have tested positive have rented hotel rooms for them to recover in isolation where they receive medical checkups and meals delivered, he said. Other producers are exploring renting additional housing so that workers are not living in such close quarters.

But he said the real trouble starts when shifts end. Labor organizers have had difficulty convincing workers to comply with distancing and sanitizing recommendations, in part because the workers have been hearing mixed messages from the U.S. and Mexican governments about the seriousness of the pandemic.

“In all these little rural communities, life is going on as normal,” he said, which he’s very concerned about, because numerous farmworkers testing positive would create “chaos” for the food system — potentially leading to higher prices and shortages at grocery stores.

‘Our well-being is tied together’

The recent havoc in the meat sector stands as a cautionary tale, farm industry leaders say.

The meat business has been upended. Nearly 50 percent of the nation’s pork production has dropped off due to dozens of major processing plants shutting down. Beef and chicken processing is also way down as plants shutter or slow down output as more workers fall ill. Industry experts say those closures, which have led to meat shortages, could have been avoided if the federal government had a plan in place before the virus spread.

“An outbreak can have devastating consequences on the average consumer’s life in the United States,” Hernandez said. At the supermarket, shortages could emerge very quickly from disruptions to the farm economy because workers have only a short window to harvest, package and ship perishable produce.

Without consistent requirements or standards to protect frontline workers, the extent to which growers are enacting Covid-19 protections depends on the leadership and resources of each business.

Larger produce companies have posted videos online to tout their prevention programs. In California’s Salinas Valley, known as America’s Salad Bowl, Taylor Farms, one of the largest leafy greens growers in the country, said it’s taking the temperatures of employees before they start their shifts. The company said it also redesigned how its lettuce harvest crews work so laborers can maintain a distance instead of working in close proximity like they normally would.

In Florida, protections vary considerably operation to operation. At behemoths like Lipman Produce, for example, one of the country’s largest growers of tomatoes, field workers have been spaced out and had their breaks staggered to avoid congregating. There are now more buses transporting workers so they can maintain social distancing as they’re shuttled between harvest locations. The company has even started providing food in some cases so workers can avoid the grocery store.

But not all growers have gone to such lengths, and farmworker advocates have been vocal in calling for enforceable standards and far more resources.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, one of the best-organized farm worker groups in the country, for example, has repeatedly asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to set up a field hospital in Immokalee since that community does not have one.

State officials have so far not complied, arguing that hospitals in nearby cities are currently able to handle cases in the area and that other preventative measures have been taken. The state did eventually respond to the group’s request for more testing in the area. Last week, the Florida Department of Health and the Florida National Guard opened up a testing site in Immokalee. People began lining up two hours before the site opened, according to local press reports. Results are not yet available.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is asking state officials to provide any positive workers with space for isolation, health care and contact tracing to stem the spread in the community.

Farmworker advocates said they will continue to urge policymakers to pay much more attention to front line field workers. They argue that these individuals should be seen as just as essential as nurses or delivery workers, who have been much more broadly recognized for their contributions during the pandemic.

“That’s one thing that many people don’t realize: Our well-being is tied together,” said Chavez, a farmworker leader with CIW. “If we don’t have food, then there is no way in which anything else can function.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Helena Bottemiller Evich is a senior food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining POLITICO, Helena spent four years reporting on food politics and policy at Food Safety News, where she covered Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About the Author: Liz Crampton is an agriculture and food policy reporter for POLITICO Pro. Her coverage focuses on conservation, pesticides and agribusiness. Before joining POLITICO, Liz covered antitrust enforcement for Bloomberg BNA, reporting on mergers and investigations by the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission. She launched a weekly blog, Fair Play, that explored hot topics on the beat.


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Climate change is taking a severe toll on Florida farmworkers, new study shows

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Climate change is taking a heavy toll on farmworkers in Florida, where new research indicates excessive heat stress is increasingly becoming a public health problem with severe human rights and economic implications for the state.

A new report released Tuesday by the non-profit organization Public Citizen, along with the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) and a researcher at Emory University, corroborates what advocates have argued for years: that climate change is impacting farmworkers in Florida.

An analysis of temperature data for all of the state’s 67 counties between May 1 and September 30, 2018, found that workers across Florida were exposed to dangerous levels of heat — temperatures above 82.4°F for moderate work and 78.8°F and 77°F for heavy and very heavy work respectively. Long-term exposure to high temperatures can spark fatigue and nausea, along with heat stroke, dehydration, and over a prolonged period, organ failure.

This temperature assessment was then combined with a study from Emory which had 250 Florida workers wear special equipment while working in order to study their reactions to heat. Blood and urine samples were also collected as part of the study, which ultimately found that four out of five workers were exceeding 100.4°F in body temperature on at least one day during the study, increasing their susceptibility to heat illness.

Entitled “Unworkable,” the final report serves as a dire warning in a state where heat-related hospitalizations are already among the highest in the country. Outdoor workers across a number of sectors, including farming and construction, are already disproportionately vulnerable to high temperatures and shifting climate, something they say global warming will only worsen.

“The price we pay for our food exacts a price too high for the [people] who harvest it,” said Jeannie Economos, a pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator with FWAF.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire assessment that found that the world only has around 12 years left before crossing over a dangerous global warming threshold. The panel indicated such a move could be catastrophic. Meanwhile, climate scientists have long worried that warming trends are disproportionately harming vulnerable communities, including laborers like farmworkers.

On a call with reporters on Tuesday, Economos and other advocates and experts spoke about the increasing risks climate change is posing to Florida’s farmworkers. 

Advocates hope the report on Florida farmworkers released this week will open up new conversations about the impacts of climate change. In addition to imperiling human rights, experts stressed on Tuesday that warming weather is also becoming a public health crisis.

“[It is] important that we recognize that climate change is affecting our health now,” said Dr. Cheryl Holder, the interim president of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action.

Doctors in states like Florida are increasingly seeing a spike in workers suffering from heat-related illnesses, sometimes when it’s too late to prevent life-altering problems. Typically low-income, and oftentimes undocumented, farmworkers have been known to put off seeking treatment for their symptoms. This can lead to kidney failure following prolonged periods of heat exposure and dehydration, at which point they typically need dialysis.

“If someone ends up on dialysis in this country regardless of your income status, you will be covered, and that’s quite a lot of dollars that we will be paying [in Florida],” said Holder, nodding to the economic implications, while also emphasizing the groups most likely to suffer amid warming temperatures.

“The most vulnerable [to climate change] are children, elderly, [and] poor people,” she said.

Farmworkers themselves are aware of what is happening, Economos said. “You talk to farmworkers and they know it’s getting hotter; they feel it, they’re worried,” she explained.

This week’s report follows a July plea from 130 organizations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take action and provide protections for farm and construction workers.

At that time, David Arkush, managing director for Public Citizen’s climate program, told ThinkProgress that efforts to protect outdoor workers have long been a point of concern for advocates, but that increasingly dire climate warnings have injected such efforts with a new sense of urgency.

“Looking at the string of heat records, looking at the projections for the future… we think that we need to protect workers as temperatures rise,” said Arkush. “Even in the best case scenario, even if we manage to halt all greenhouse gases tomorrow, the problem of heat stress is only getting worse. But also we think that the problem of heat stress is a great way to raise public awareness in the United States about climate change.”

No laws, in Florida or nationally, currently protect farmworkers from heat stress. Advocates have called on OSHA to offer work breaks in the shade coupled with hydration opportunities.

But even those asks have their downsides. At the time of the July plea to OSHA, advocates told ThinkProgress they had concerns that workers would need more than just breaks and water to prevent heat exposure impacts. Many earn their income by piece — according to how much they pick, collect, or harvest — as opposed to hourly, meaning that any breaks (including to use the bathroom after drinking water) directly hit their income.

Issues like labor and immigration have long dominated the community, with many farmworkers engaging in activism over the years in an effort to protect themselves. Now they are organizing around climate change, but many have found the endeavor frustrating.

In August, ThinkProgress reported from Florida on the disillusionment farmworkers feel with lawmakers in the state, many of whom, they say, are slow to act on climate change. Global warming has emerged as a leading issue in the state’s midterm election cycle, which has been dominated by environmental issues even as a number of conservative candidates — including gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis — have attempted to downplay climate change while emphasizing their green bonafides.

That approach is becoming increasingly unsustainable in low-lying Florida, as sea-level rise and hurricanes become ever-more pressing issues. On Tuesday, advocates reiterated that action to help farmworkers is needed, urgently, along with an effort to mitigate the crisis they are facing.

“This is an issue, we need to look at all aspects of this,” said Economos. “But most importantly we need to protect people…[and] to recognize climate change.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 31, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. Crunden is a reporter at ThinkProgress focused on environmental and world issues, as well as immigration and social justice in the U.S. South and Appalachia.


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Facing rising temperatures and pollution, farmworkers are being left behind by Florida lawmakers

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APOPKA, FLORIDA — An election is happening on Tuesday, but Florida’s farmworkers seem largely underwhelmed.

“I don’t think they care, to tell the truth, I really don’t think they care,” says Linda Lee as she sits in front of her small house near the sprawling Lake Apopka, just northwest of Orlando.

A former farmworker and vocal activist, the 66-year-old grandmother is hardly an apathetic presence. What happens in the state’s capital, Tallahassee — and in the nation’s further north in Washington D.C. — impacts Lee’s family and life. But years of silence from lawmakers have taught farmworkers in this area that if they want things to change, they’ll have to be the ones to drive the conversation.

For decades, farmworkers in the Sunshine State have waged war — against pollution and pesticides, against hardline immigration laws, against low wages. Now, amid warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns, they are increasingly turning their attention to climate change. And they plan to address the issue with or without the willing cooperation of lawmakers.

Orlando, the metropolis neighboring Apopka, is home to the sprawling tourist attraction Disney World. Where Orlando offers glitter and glam for millions of visitors every year, the area surrounding Lake Apopka is a study in contrasts. The area is traditionally home to farming country, with an emphasis on the citrus so often associated with Florida.

That claim to fame has a tragic coda. Pesticides associated with agriculture have contributed to making Lake Apopka one of the state’s leading cautionary tales. Pollution in the lake is overwhelming. Once a fisherman’s paradise, the area is now infamous for the deformities alligators and other animals have developed thanks to exposure to insecticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

What has happened to Lake Apopka’s wildlife is well-known, but the trauma haunting the area’s residents has largely been glossed over.

Exposure to pesticides has plagued Apopka’s farmworkers for generations, something people like Linda Lee know well. Lee lost both a daughter and a granddaughter to the inflammatory disease lupus, something she believes is likely the result of their proximity to pesticides in the area.

Their deaths have haunted her, but she remains committed to fighting for her community and for herself. These days, that means broadening the conversations farmworkers have about issues like pesticides, or the hardline anti-immigration policies that directly impact undocumented workers.

“We can’t stop God, for one thing,” Lee says, referring to climate change. “But I think that people, especially the people sitting up in Washington, they need to do more.”

Farmworkers have long been among the most vulnerable people in the United States, largely cut out of labor protections and provided few rights under the law. Most are Black and Latinx, many are immigrants, and virtually all are low-income. Their vulnerable status has often seen them left out of conversations surrounding issues like climate change.

That’s something people like Jeannie Economos want to change. Economos works with the Farmworker Association of Florida, or FWAF, an organization that has fought to protect the state’s farmworkers and advocate for them.

Much of her work with FWAF has been focused on “health and safety” concerns relating to pesticides, Economos says, but that’s changing.

“For the past few years,” she continues, “with the changing climate and hotter temperatures, we’ve been more concerned about [the] impact of heat stress.”

In July, FWAF joined a coalition of 130 organizations calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require employers to protect workers from the heat. Mandatory rest breaks, access to shade, and frequent hydration are among the demands included in a petition sent to the agency.

According to the petition’s analysis, heat has killed more than 780 workers across the country between 1992 and 2016, and seriously injured nearly 70,000. With climate change, heat stress is likely to get worse and put more people at risk.

Economos says joining the OSHA petition was a “no-brainer” for FWAF, but she emphasized that for local activists, the effort is only one part of a larger fight.

“We’re really concerned about the effects of both climate change and heat, in many ways, in Florida,” she says. “We’re concerned about the acute and immediate impacts of heat, the long-term impact of heat-exposure and chronic dehydration, [that it could] shorten a person’s work years and possible their life.”

But the sun isn’t the only problem. Climate change is also warming waters off of Florida’s coast, something that scientists say is exacerbating the intensity of hurricanes. And when those hurricanes hit, they destroy property along with agriculture, a dual blow for farmworkers.

“Hurricane Irma did a lot of damage to the crops in Florida,” Economos says, pointing to the major storm that hit the state last fall. “A lot [of areas] had damage, a lot of rental homes were impacted. And farmworkers, living in trailers, even if [the trailers] were damaged, they had to pay rent. The crop was also damaged. They had no work and they had to pay rent.”

Talking about climate change doesn’t mean advocates are abandoning their focus on other issues. But global warming is becoming a major focus of groups like FWAF. And they’re not alone — in the midst of a heated election year, climate issues have taken center-stage in Florida, with sea-level rise and a toxic algae bloom crisis emerging as major themes, along with long-standing points of contention like offshore drilling.

Whatever way the wind blows on Tuesday during Florida’s primary elections, Apopka area residents like Lee say they are ready to hold lawmakers accountable to the farmworkers they have long ignored.

“When they get in office, they close and lock their doors. You call them on the telephone, [their assistants say] they’re in Washington, they’re in Tallahassee, they’re never where you need them to be until it’s time to vote,” says Lee.

She smirks. “And it’s coming time to vote.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. Crunden is a reporter at ThinkProgress focused on environmental and world issues, as well as immigration and social justice in the U.S. South and Appalachia. Texpat. She/her, they/them, or no pronouns. Get in touch: [email protected]


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Environmental groups sue EPA for failing to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure

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The delay also prevents the agency from setting an age requirement prohibiting young farmworkers from applying such pesticides.

The lawsuit argues that the Trump administration’s decision to postpone the effective date for implementation of the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule could lead to adverse harmful health issues for farmworkers and other people. That revised CPA rule–originally published on January 4 with an implementation date of March 6–would have, in part, imposed strict standards that require pesticide applicators to be at least 18 years old, be able to read and write, and establish an annual applicator safety training. Currently, there is no minimum age limit for the roughly one million certified applicators nationwide.

The lawsuit also states that the EPA failed to provide the public “adequate notice” to comment on rules to delay the effective date of implementation; failed to consider the adverse effects the delay would cause to farmworkers and their families regularly exposed to restricted use pesticides; and failed to consult with other government agencies to review environmental health consequences.

The CPA training would provide in-language lessons for people on the potential dangers of pesticide exposure, how to use equipment properly, how to prevent environmental contamination like runoff and drift, and how to report pesticide safety violations to enforcement agencies. The rule would also require training for aerial spray applications, so applicators would lessen the impact of the off-target movement of pesticides on plants, animals, and bystanders. A 2008 longitudinal government study found anywhere between 37 percent and 68 percent of acute pesticide-related illnesses are caused by pesticide drift into local communities.

Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed a decision to ban the restricted-use insecticide chlorpyrifos primarily used to systemically kill pests on agricultural crops. At the time, Pruitt’s agency rejected calls to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, claiming “the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved.”

Pruitt’s agency also put industry economic interests ahead of farmworker health safety, arguing that the continued use of chlorpyrifos would provide “regulatory certainty” for thousands of farms reliant on the pesticide and that more research was needed. His decision superseded the scientific recommendation made by the Obama administration supporting a gradual ban of chlorpyrifos. Past scientific research found a correlation between the pesticide and human health problems for farmworkers and children.

A 2012 Columbia University study found links between chlorpyrifos exposure and brain development and cognition issues in children and fetuses, even at exposure levels below the EPA threshold for toxicity. The EPA also found adverse risks among threatened and endangered species due to the pesticide.

The latest lawsuit comes days after seven states and several health and labor organizations directly challenged Pruitt’s decision, arguing that the EPA violated the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which requires the protection of infants and children from harm by pesticides in food, water, and exposure to indoor pesticides.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the advocacy groups Farmworker Association of Florida, United Farm Workers, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and Pesticide Action Network North America.

Health and labor organizations, represented by the advocacy groups EarthJustice and Farmworker Justice, have strongly pressured the EPA to act on implementing the rule.

“EPA’s mission is to protect all Americans from significant risks to human health and yet it’s delaying life-saving information and training for the workers who handle the most toxic pesticides in the country,” Eve C. Gartner, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement. “This delay jeopardizes everyone’s health and safety.”

In December 2016, the EPA said the rule could prevent upwards of 1,000 acute illnesses every year. Farmworkers–especially the two million immigrant farmworker labor force?–?are at the greatest risk of health problems because they’re most directly exposed to insecticides. Applicators mix and apply pesticides and can be exposed because of spills, splashes, defective, missing, or inadequate protective equipment, direct spray, or drift, according to Farmworker Justice. Farmworker families are also at risk because farmworkers bring home pesticides in the form of residue on their hair, skin, and clothing, or when pesticides drift into homes and schools near fields.

Immigrant farmworkers in particular are the least likely to receive health treatments or to file complaints because of fear of retaliation by employers. In one case, a woman whose fingernails turned black and skin peeled off her hands and face after pesticide exposure in Florida went to the doctor and didn’t file a complaint because she feared retaliation on her and her undocumented husband, the Palm Beach Post reported in 2003. In a 10-year period, less than eight percent of 4,609 violations of pesticide regulations in Florida resulted in fines, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And in May, several sick farmworkers in California left the scene when chlorpyrifos drifted into their field because they were likely afraid to confront medical members who could turn them into federal immigration authorities.

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress on June 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Esther Yu Hsi Lee is an immigration reporter at ThinkProgress interested in migration and refugees. Contact her at [email protected]


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Overtime for farmworkers passes California legislature, heads to governor’s desk

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LauraClawson

The California legislature has passed a bill that would give farmworkers the same overtime protections as other workers. Now the question is whether Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not taken a position on the proposal, will sign the expansion from the state’s current law, which requires employers to pay time-and-a-half after farmworkers put in 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week. Other workers get, and farmworkers stand to get, overtime pay after eight hours in a day or 40 in a week.

 
Getting this bill passed required serious legislative maneuvering by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez:

The Assembly rejected the proposal in June, when eight Democrats opposed it and another six refused to vote. In what Gonzalez has described as an unprecedented move to revive the bill, she worked around the Legislature’s rules and reinserted the proposal in another bill, angering Republicans who objected to the breach in procedure.

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Gonzalez waged a social media campaign to pressure her Democratic colleagues to back AB1066; agreed to compromises to win votes, including giving small farms an extra three years to pay more overtime; and led a squad of Democratic allies in a 24-hour fast paying homage to the weeks long fast that legendary farmworker activist Cesar Chavez staged when the “Salad Bowl” strike of 1970 initially failed.

 

 

Federal law excludes agricultural workers from overtime protections, so California is already ahead—but these workers deserve the same protections and rights as everyone else.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on August 24, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.


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