They pick the oranges that we eat to stave off a cold and the tomatoes in our sandwiches and salads. But their occupation is less likely to have health care coverage than any other major category.
Seventy-five percent of farm workers in the United States don’t have health insurance, making them “by every measure … a vulnerable population,” according to a study written by The Kresge Foundation’s Health Program, which aims to reduce health disparities.
The report, released in March, came as Congress was in the thick of debating immigration reform legislation. In particular, the status of “guest workers,” a broad heading that includes migrant farm workers, was a key sticking point in discussions over the recently-released immigration bill blueprint.
The resolution came in the form of the creation of a new “W visa” program for low-skilled jobs that would let workers switch jobs and eventually petition for a green card, said Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank that focuses on how public policy affects low-income people.
But like the current visa program that brought many agricultural workers to the United States, Costa doesn’t expect there will be a requirement to provide health care.
“There is a general decline in employer provided health care across the country,” he said. Farm workers will likely only be given health insurance “if the employer provides it.”
The study goes through a laundry list of health care disparities that the mostly Mexican and Central American migrant farm workers face. The report focuses on “hired farm workers,” which the United States Department of Agriculture defines as workers who do not own the farm but are hired as field crop workers, nursery workers, livestock workers, farmworker supervisors, and hired farm managers.
They are often inadequately informed about how to protect themselves from pesticide poisoning and suffer from high rates of musculoskeletal disorders., In addition, they are also especially susceptible to heat stroke.
Because many farm workers are undocumented and not eligible for health care and employers don’t always make workers aware of what insurance is available, they may not get adequate care for illnesses not related to farm work, like cancer, high blood pressure, anemia and diabetes.
They’re also five times more likely to die on the job than “workers in all civilian industries combined.”
The study compiled data from a collection of local studies that included medical examinations and looked at the trends apparent in the studies to bring together a national perspective from them “because such national data does not exist,” according to the study.
The Census of Agriculture, taken by the United States Department of Agriculture every five years, put the number of hired farm workers at 56,444 as of 2007.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with a group of farm workers and advocates last summer, and found workers with concerns similar to those found in the study about working in the heat and being isolated from resources.
According to a July 2012 earlier Reporter story:
These temporary agriculture workers are vulnerable to abuse because they are under the radar. No one really knows they're here picking fruits and vegetables or working in the corn fields. These workers live in isolated areas, without knowing where they are.
Employers transport them from their country of origin to the fields. They're completely dependent on their bosses for food and shelter. They are supposed to be paid $11 an hour, and have their living costs covered.
The report notes that heat stroke and a higher risk of pesticide poisoning does not affect all farm workers equally. The study shows that the rate of injury among hired farm workers is almost twice as high as a non-hired laborer.
In addition, few workers know much about their rights to workers’ compensation insurance, the study shows. In California, only 40 percent of undocumented male farm workers knew of the compensation program, even though they were covered under it.
For this reason they may not seek treatment even when it is available; and even when they can get it, a wide number of factors could influence whether workers sought it out – English proficiency, immigration status, and gender.
Altogether – the workers’ immigration status, the work itself, their lack of knowledge about U.S. laws and employers’ failure to watch out for their well-being create a “perfect storm” of health risks, the authors wrote.
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