The Farmworkers’ Health Crisis
To date, there are approximately three million farmworkers employed throughout the United States. They feed the world through their labor, bringing fruits, vegetables, and other crops to homes across the nation. But despite how critical their work is to our well-being, farmworkers often labor under substandard conditions, earn poverty wages, and face a myriad of health and other issues due to their living and employment conditions.
These issues have come to prominence following the Half Moon Bay shootings, in which seven farmworkers were killed and an eighth was critically injured at California Terra Garden and Concord Farms. In the wake of this incident, two California state agencies investigating the Half Moon Bay farms—the Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the Labor Commissioner’s Office—have unmasked that workers and their families “lived in trailers on the property, cooked outdoors in makeshift kitchens, used portable toilets, and had their rent deducted from their paychecks.” A San Mateo County supervisor has described the living conditions as “deplorable [and] heartbreaking.” Unfortunately, according to Director of Operations for Líderes Campesinas Irene de Barraicua, these living conditions are not an isolated incident, but rather “very typical images . . . for California.”
To learn more about the farmworker health crisis, the UC Merced Community and Labor Center recently conducted a new landmark study—the largest ever conducted on the health and wellbeing of the nation’s most disadvantaged workforce—entitled Farmworker Health in California: Health in a Time of Contagion, Drought, and Climate Change. The study analyzed data collected from 1,242 agricultural workers across five major California regions between August 2021 and June 2022, with a special focus on agricultural worker health and well-being, healthcare access, local and state policies, and health and training needs. The study concluded that farmworkers are facing serious health challenges on a daily basis. Major findings include between one-third and one-half of farmworkers reported having at least one chronic condition, 49 percent reported being without health insurance, and, when it came to mental health, 14 percent shared that they felt depressed or hopeless. Furthermore, 62 percent of respondents reported difficulty paying for food or bills since the pandemic, 42 percent reported very low or low food security, and more than one in three respondents experienced problems keeping a house cool or warm. Researchers also found that the median of California farmworkers’ wages was $21,915—among the lowest of any occupational group.
Outside California, farmworkers across the United States struggle with the arduous nature of the work, difficulties accessing the health system, and constant exposure to the potentially toxic substances in the agrochemicals commonly applied in agribusiness. Alongside these hazards, workers also experience health problems such as cervicalgia, lumbago, and other musculoskeletal conditions. When farmworkers are undocumented, those challenges are only exacerbated.
From these facts alone, it is clear: something must be done when it comes to the health status of farmworkers—ironically, the very people who play a key role in ensuring our proper nutrition and good health. To that end, instead of denying the problem, like the Half Moon Bay farm owners who have disputed that living conditions were substandard despite evidence to the contrary, we must acknowledge the problem and work towards a solution, like the Half Moon Bay community members who have galvanized the tragedy as another opportunity to fight for change.
In addition to the on-the-ground work by organizations like Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga’s Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, which advocates for farmworkers and their families’ rights, studies like Farmworker Health in California are fundamental to public engagement and policy development in this area. Another important first step is improving accurate health data collection among farmworkers, as suggested by Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell Law School Beth Lyon, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine Dr. MacKenzi Preston, and Chief of the Bioinformatics Unit at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Faten Taki. This team of scholars, therefore, hopes to develop “a novel health toolkit.” Through data collected from deportation defense lawyers and pediatricians working with migrant children—many of whom work in agricultural sectors where they may be exposed to occupational hazards or human trafficking—the team could “estimate the prevalence of health disparities” and “develop tailored initiatives that ensure access to basic services.” In turn, these findings, like those of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, would promote data-driven policies to reduce health disparities among farmworkers.
At the national level, we must invest in public resources and set up safety nets for this largely underserved and overlooked community. For example, public resources could raise industry standards as states invest in organizations that prioritize improving farmworkers’ health, safety, education, and training. Economic safety nets, like the state-funded unemployment benefit system, could help those living at or near poverty levels, unable to cover the bare necessities. Similarly, closing loopholes in farmworkers’ access to the state-funded healthcare system and exploring additional avenues for providing care could offer targeted help to those who are undocumented, who lack employer-based coverage, or who earn too much to be eligible for Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program.
We must push the farmworker health crisis as a national agenda—and these and other policy recommendations are, at the very least, a step in the right direct to change the conditions for farmworkers across our country and at home.
Sasha Brigante is a second-year student at Cornell Law School, where, in addition to her involvement with the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic, she also serves as President of Cornell’s Cuban American Bar Association and Co-Director of Cornell’s International Refugee Assistance Project.
Suggested Citation: Sasha Brigante, The Farmworkers’ Health Crisis, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (February 27, 2023), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/the-farmworkers-health-crisis.