Today, migrant farmworkers still suffer mortality and morbidity rates greater than the vast majority of the American population, due in part to the combination of poverty, limited access to health care, and hazardous working conditions. Farmwork is listed as the second most dangerous occupation in the United States behind mining.
A migrant farmworker is defined as an individual who is required to be absent from a permanent place of residence for the purpose of seeking employment in agricultural work. Seasonal farmworkers are individuals who are employed in farmwork but do not move from their permanent residence to seek farmwork; they may also have other sources of employment.
Most farmworkers earn annual incomes below the poverty level and half earn below $7,500 per year. These are proud people who choose to do backbreaking labor than depend upon charity or welfare. Rarely do they have access to occupational rehabilitation or disability benefits; however, many are eligible for Medicaid, food stamps, and WIC if they live in one area long enough to secure these benefits. Many who have paid into Social Security are unable to prove their claim for payments. While undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive most forms of public assistance, they do have protected rights with regard to wages, health and safety standards and workers compensation.
Migrant workers are predominantly Latino, although many are African-Americans, Haitian, Anglo or Asian. While the farmworker population is racially and culturally diverse, 48% of migrant and seasonal farmworkers are U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents of the United States. (NAWS, 2000) The U.S. Department of Labor permits some foreign workers to enter the country to perform farmwork when there are not enough available or qualified workers to satisfy the demand for labor. This temporary foreign certification program is called the H2A program.
The U.S. Public Health Service estimates a total of 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States. This includes families with children, single men, and some older men and women. Migrant farmworkers travel far from their permanent homes, many times without their families. Almost half have less than a ninth grade education, and many speak little or no English. Migrant farmworkers usually have their permanent residence, or homebase, in the South: primarily California, Texas, Florida, Mexico and Puerto Rico. From there they move across the nation as each new crop is ready for labor.
Housing is often a problematic issue for farmworkers, in part because the laws that regulate housing in some states are precise (for example, the limit for number of persons per square foot of living space). Many times the workers may live in a van or car until they can find a house or trailer to rent where there are no occupancy limits.
Migrant farmworkers continue to be one of the most impoverished and underserved populations in the United States. However, there are a number of committed and creative health care providers who have dedicated themselves to caring for this population. Scattered across the country and in Puerto Rico, hundreds of clinicians with decades of training and experience are working to help farmworkers become equal partners in health care.