Picture of Tucker Matta

Tucker Matta

Farmworker health challenges go far beyond COVID-19

The severe health risks facing migrant farmworkers in no way began with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers have suffered disproportionate health risks, including routine exposure to hazardous pesticides, heat stress, on-the-job injuries, and inadequate access to safe and healthy food, housing and healthcare.

The severe health risks facing migrant farmworkers in no way began with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers have suffered disproportionate health risks, including routine exposure to hazardous pesticides, heat stress, on-the-job injuries, and inadequate access to safe and healthy food, housing and healthcare. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a novel study of farmworker health has exposed the various ways in which this new health risk exacerbates the existing vulnerabilities in farmworker communities. Across California farms, we see trends that place a majority-migrant workforce in jeopardy — including a severe lack of access to healthcare, fear of employer retaliation, and ineffective workplace safety measures. A closer look into the dismal reality of farmworker protections speaks to the urgent need to adopt proposed policy solutions that recognize the value and humanity of the workers who sustain our lives.

Longstanding systemic flaws

Even prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, farmworkers have faced abysmal conditions when it comes to their health and safety on the job. In the U.S., between 50 and 75% of the 2.5 million laborers are Latinx, and are routinely exploited as a result of immigration status, language barriers, and systemic racism — suffering wage discrimination and high rates of sexual assault and workplace violence. In addition to these factors, 60% of the total farmworker population is estimated to live in poverty, with less than 20% receiving employer-based health coverage. Not only are medical resources extremely rare for farmworkers, but a number of barriers are in place that cut them off from the few services that do exist. Legal and corporate obstacles add to the fear that exists amongst farmworkers of employer retaliation if they were to challenge illegal practices or demand adequate health services.

Farmworkers excluded from many worker protections

In one of the country’s most hazardous occupations, the responsibility to enforce farmworker health and safety falls in part to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA). Conducting both workplace inspections for hazardous conditions and responding to complaints raised by farmworkers, OSHA plays a central role in ensuring that the protections promised by federal law remain intact. The investigative body under OSHA, however, will not conduct inspections on farms with fewer than 11 employees – representing an estimated 88% of all farms with hired labor in the U.S. (2011 Inventory). When faced with the health risks inherent to the agricultural industry, the precarious position occupied by migrant workers makes the process of demanding improvements even more difficult. 

In addition to inadequate OSHA protections, farmworkers are excluded from important protections provided to other workers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as well as numerous state-specific regulations. The federal Worker Protection Standard (WPS) provides basic safety standards and regulations designed to protect both field workers and pesticide applicators from exposure to hazardous pesticides. While important improvements were made to the WPS in 2015, the rules remain inadequate, and lack of enforcement persists. 

Pesticide use enforcement fails

In California, despite the numerous policies and taxpayer dollars spent toward pesticide regulation and enforcement, 2015 and 2016 saw much higher applications of hazardous pesticides than any year since 1998. Drawing a parallel to the ineffectiveness of OSHA’s investigative body when it comes to defending farmworker health, a study by UCLA on County Agricultural Commissioners (CAC) investigated the extent to which 56 commissioners covering 58 California counties fulfilled their mandate to protect farmworker and environmental health. The CACs have the authority to withhold permits for the use of hazardous pesticides until alternative, safer pest control methods have been considered and cumulative exposure (exposure to multiple chemicals, as defined by the study) has been evaluated.

The study’s review of cumulative exposure to three volatile fumigant pesticides (Chloropicrin, Telone and Metam Sodium) found a shocking trend among CACs across California; of 62 known cases of cumulative applications, the few in which any evaluation was performed showed that the growers or their pesticide control advisors performed the review. According to interviews with CAC staff, the commissioners were required only to reinforce decisions made by the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) on cumulative effects. On the level of individual growers, pesticide application forms must certify that alternatives have been evaluated and mitigation measures have been adopted, before passing to the CAC for review. Three interviews, however, confirmed that no significant interactions took place with CAC staff to review the certifications in the selected case studies. That is, CACs handed their responsibility to review dangerous pesticide use over to the growers themselves, who are free to let workplace standards slip to the detriment of farmworkers. 

The added threat of COVID-19

In response to the pandemic, the preliminary findings of a COVID-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) have brought to light how this new health threat exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in farmworker communities. Survey data indicate that over half of all participating farmworkers reported barriers to accessing healthcare even if they were ill, including lack of insurance, high costs and lack of sick leave provided by the employer. Only a small pool of employers were found to provide masks and face coverings, and among the non-compliant, farm labor contractors were least likely to provide life-saving protective gear. 

With respect to critical safety-net programs for essential workers, the report found that farmworkers were systematically excluded and faced challenges such as a lack of childcare, food insecurity, and lack of access to financial assistance programs. A lack of financial support services intensifies the threat posed by loss of work in the COVID-19 era, with nearly half of respondents reporting decreased farm work time and significant drops in income. Separate interviews showed that undocumented workers are unable to access the most basic services– that is, they are not protected by labor and safety standards despite representing the vast majority of U.S. farm labor.

A call for fundamental reform

Keeping in mind the sinister reality of inadequate pesticide-related health regulation exposed by the research team at UCLA, it is essential to consider that CACs are not entirely responsible for the current, flawed system. Commissioners cannot, for example, properly evaluate cumulative exposure in fields from adjacent counties despite the fact that the pesticide permits (CalAgPermits) are used statewide; their mandate restricts action to their respective county borders. Cases of cumulative exposure have resulted in grave health consequences across California and the nation as a whole – and the blame may very well fall on the structure of pesticide regulation as much as it does on the commissioners themselves.

A chief opportunity, however, has arisen in the era of COVID-19 in the shape of unprecedented attention afforded to the essential workforce. While demands for greater workplace protections and safety net programs are critical to all essential sectors, protections for farmworkers in need of the most basic resources are more sorely needed than ever – and amidst momentum in favor of systemic change, the opportunity exists to pressure policymakers to take direct action on the severe threat posed by COVID-19. 

For more information regarding proposed policy solutions, visit and consider supporting this petition calling on Governor Newsom and the California state legislature to allocate resources and take bold action to keep farmworkers, their families, and their communities safe and healthy.

Picture of Tucker Matta

Tucker Matta

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