White paper makes case that farm workers are most vulnerable members of U.S. workforce

March 13, 2013

A white paper on American agriculture confirms the dire state of employment conditions and health care for many of the 1.8 million hired laborers who plant, tend and harvest crops and care for livestock.

The Kresge Foundation-sponsored report titled, “Health-related Inequities Among Hired Farm Workers and the Resurgence of Labor-intensive Agriculture,” documents disparities in occupational health, access to health care and health status, and legally protected workplace rights for hired farm laborers. Report author Don Villarejo describes these workers “as among the nation’s most vulnerable employees.”

“Hired crop farm workers are predominately low-income, ethnic minority, mostly recent immigrants often lacking authorization for U.S. employment. They have low educational attainment, limited English proficiency, are ineligible for most needs-based government programs and frequently lack any social support,” writes Villarejo, who founded the California Institute for Rural Studies in 1977 and served as its director until he retired in 1999.

The white paper:

  • Summarizes health-related disparities between hired farm workers and other workers.
  • Examines occupational and environmental risks they encounter.
  • Provides an overview of production and hiring trends in U.S. agriculture.
  • Identifies characteristics of the hired farm workforce.
  • Reviews regulatory policies that pertain to farm labor.
  • Assesses the effects of the Affordable Care Act on hired farm workers.
  • Discusses approaches to reduce or eliminate health-related disparities among hired farm workers.

Kresge’s Health Program, which commissioned the white paper, is committed to reducing health disparities by promoting conditions and environments that lead to positive health outcomes for all Americans. The Health Program portfolio includes investments in efforts to improve food system policies and practices, from farm to table.

Villarejo reports that 75 percent of hired farm workers lack health insurance, the highest proportion of any major occupational category. Language and cultural differences, high annual turnover in the farm labor force, and concerns of both employers and workers regarding immigration status make it difficult for researchers to assess farm worker health across the United States.

However, hired farm workers are five times more likely to have an occupational fatality than workers in all industries combined. Many also don’t benefit from the workplace rights or protection that federal and state laws afford to almost all other workers.

At the same time, Villarejo writes, American agriculture is more dependent on hired farm workers than in the past because of a decline in family farms and increased U.S. production of high-value, labor-intensive crops such as vegetables, melons, fruit, nuts and ornamental plants. These specialty crops require hand labor to grow and harvest and tend to command higher prices per acre than grain or forage crops. Annual average U.S. vegetable and melon production more than doubled from 10.9 million tons per year between 1986 and 1988 to 23.7 million tons per year during 2006 to 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Statistics.

Real wage rates for farm laborers, which had been flat for 20 years, have increased recently as a result of increases in minimum wage rates at the federal level and in several states. However, nearly one-fourth of crop farm worker families live in poverty. Family earned income for hired farm workers averaged $17,500 to $19,999 per year in 2007-2009, according to National Agricultural Worker Survey statistics cited in the report.

Although many hired crop farm worker families meet the income test for needs-based federal and state assistance programs, such as Medicaid, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and food stamps, less than 1 percent of hired crop farm worker families receive payments from welfare programs, according to the report. Many who meet the income test fail to qualify because they are not authorized to work in the United States. About half of hired crop farm workers and one-third of hired livestock workers are undocumented, Villarejo notes.

Seasonal workers, small farms and unauthorized immigrants are not likely to benefit from the Affordable Care Act or health insurance subsidies because hired farm workers are excluded from employer and individual insurance mandates, and undocumented workers are ineligible for Medicaid, even following the 2014 expansion of the program to adults earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

Health disparities could be reduced among hired farm workers under existing U.S. law, according to the Kresge report. Here are a few actions that could be taken:

  • Persuade eligible farm laborers and their families to take advantage of Medicaid; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; food stamps; and the federal earned income tax credit.
  • Add more field inspectors to the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  • Create an independent public oversight review board focused on agriculture.
  • Provide information to farm laborers about their rights and responsibilities under U.S. law.
  • Expand and strengthen the public health workforce that serves hired farm workers and farm families.

Villarejo cites other steps to eliminate disparities in the workplace that would require policy changes. They include:

  • Raise the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour.
  • Change the immigration law as it affects agriculture.
  • Give agricultural and domestic workers the right to engage in collective action to improve wages and work conditions under the National Labor Relations Act.
  • Apply provisions of existing federal labor standards for retail, wholesale trade, transportation, construction and manufacturing industries to hired farm workers.

The report also cites several efforts to make health care more accessible to hired farm workers. A few large farms, including Reiter Affiliated Companies of California and Stemilt Growers Inc. in Washington, have responded to health disparities by providing company-funded medical clinics for employees. In 2010, the Western Growers Assurance Trust opened the new Cedar Health and Wellness Center in Salinas, California, which serves up to 80 patients a day. Patients pay $5 per visit for bilingual, confidential and cost effective health care.

Kresge’s David Fukuzawa, who directs the Health Program, says Kresge is concerned about vulnerable populations and healthy food. “You can’t have healthy food without a healthy food system, and that includes the people who produce it,” he says.

“Farm workers, many of whom live and work under deplorable conditions, often are here illegally and as a result are vulnerable to exploitation. We wanted to obtain industry-wide data to get a better sense of what is happening. Our hope is to expand our grantmaking to address the health needs of this vulnerable population,” Fukuzawa says.

Villarejo, who worked as a United Farm Workers organizer with Cesar Chavez, taught physics at the University of California, Los Angeles and Davis, in the 1960s and 1970s.

He is a consultant for numerous public and private agencies, including the U.S. Department of Labor, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Migrant Legal Action Program, California State Assembly, California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, California Department of Industrial Relations, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Locals 601 and 890.

Villarejo received the 2000 National Service Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health for “exemplary commitment, dedication and service to the nation’s migrant farm workers.” He is co-author of “Suffering in Silence, A Report on the Health of California’s Agricultural Workers,” published by The California Endowment in 2000.

Read the executive summary

Read the report