The Migrant / Seasonal Farmworker
Definitions and Overview
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 remunerated employment in agricultural work. “Migrant farmworkers” are also called “migratory agricultural workers” or “mobile workers”. Seasonal farmworkers are individuals who are employed in temporary farmwork but do not move from their permanent residence to seek farmwork; they may also have other sources of employment.
There is an estimated 2.4 million hired farmworkers in the US, including migrant, seasonal, year-round, and guest program workers.1,2,3
What’s in a name?
The term “migrant farmworker” includes people working temporarily or seasonally in farm fields, orchards, canneries, plant nurseries, fish/seafood packing plants, and more. Guest workers who temporarily live in the US through the federal H2A program to work on farms are also migrant farmworkers. Other examples of mobile populations beyond migrant farmworkers in the US include people in construction, meatpacking, landscaping, day laborers, and disaster response demolition and clean-up. Migrant Clinicians Network advocates for the health needs of all members of the mobile poor, including migrant farmworkers. “Migrant farmworker” and “migratory agricultural worker” are synonymous.
Accurately assessing demographic information for migrant and seasonal farmworkers is challenging; a mobile lifestyle, limited English proficiency, fear over citizenship status, and other barriers stymie the collection of accurate information. The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), most recently conducted from 2013 to 2014, gives us a some information based on the 4,235 farmworker interviews conducted (which included migrant and seasonal farmworkers, but excluded guest workers).5 NAWS found that about half of workers surveyed lacked work authorization. The study also found that on average, foreign-born farmworkers interviewed first came to the US 18 years before being interviewed. Only 16 percent were migrants, defined by NAWS as people who reported jobs that were at least 75 miles apart or who reported moving more than 75 miles to obtain a farm job the previous year. Much of the workforce was seasonal; 84 percent of farmworkers reported having less than full-year farm employment the previous year.
Learn more about the health needs of this special population on our Migrant Health page. You can also search for relevant resources and clinical tools by keyword in our Resources & Toolbox. Our Archived Webinars feature several free recorded webinars specific to the needs of migrant and seasonal farmworkers.
Worker-related Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities
Today, migrant farmworkers still suffer mortality and morbidity rates greater than the majority of the American population, due in part to the combination of poverty, limited access to health care, hazardous working conditions, and the lack of regulations. Agriculture remains one of the most hazardous occupations in the US. In 2015, the fatality rate for agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting dropped to 22.8 fatalities per 100,000 workers, but still remained strikingly higher than the overall industry fatality rate of 3.4/100,000. Hispanic workers are more likely than other ethnic groups to be involved in a fatal occupational injury, and recent years’ data have shown increases in fatal work injuries involving Latino workers.4 Farmworkers experience a range of occupational health injuries and illnesses including musculoskeletal strains, lacerations, falls, trauma, exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, heat and cold extremes, and exposure to sun, irritants, and allergens. (Please visit our Environmental and Occupational Health page for more on work injuries in mobile populations.)
Many migrant farmworkers have their permanent residence in the US, moving from one location to another during the warmer months, and returning to their homebase in the winter. Every year, roughly 50,000 to 100,000 additional workers are given temporary foreign certification through the federal H2A program, which brings temporary workers into the US for a specified amount of time, after which they return to their country of origin.3 Still others attempt an unauthorized crossing of the US-Mexico border every year, in order to secure seasonal work and return to their home country after the completion of work.
Health Care Access
All migrant farmworkers who are lawfully present in the US, including H2A workers, may receive coverage under the Affordable Care Act and are in fact mandated to have minimal essential coverage. Legal farmworkers whose annual income is below 138% of the federal poverty line may receive health care through Medicaid; those above 138% may be eligible for subsidized insurance due to their low incomes.7 Because of their temporary status, their employers are not required to provide health insurance by the ACA. Workers who are unauthorized cannot receive health insurance through the ACA, and may have difficulty in purchasing private health insurance in the US. (In some states, unauthorized pregnant women and children may obtain health care services; see our Women’s Health page for more on prenatal and child health care.) The impact of the ACA on migrant farmworkers’ access to health care remains unclear. Recent farmworker focus groups conducted by Farmworker Justice indicated that farmworkers continue to be unable to access health insurance due to immigration status, affordability, or exemptions for seasonal work under the employer mandates. Many eligible migrant workers found the enrollment process lengthy and complicated, the application itself a barrier for non-citizen applicants. For those who are enrolled in health insurance, high co-pays and deductibles, and lack of familiarity with the US health care system may discourage some agricultural workers from using their health insurance, according to the focus groups.10 Additionally, migratory status can interfere with the ability to remain in care. Read more about the health care barriers of migrant workers on our Migrant Health Overview page. Learn more about MCN’s position on health care access and health justice on our Advancing Health Justice page.
Many community health centers across the country receive funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Migrant Health Center Program, specifically to care for migrant and seasonal farmworkers. In recent years, HRSA-funded health centers have served almost a million agricultural workers and their families.
The following slideshows illuminate the daily lives of migrant farmworkers associated with the Maine Migrant Health Program, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that provides primary care to farmworkers in Maine through mobile medical units and outreach. The slideshows, entitled “Farmworkers Feed us All,” feature photos by Earl Dotter and audio recordings by Tennessee Watson. Please visit the Maine Migrant Health Program for more information on their programs.
1 Martin P, Taylor JE. Ripe with change: Evolving farm labor markets in the United States, Mexico, and Central America. Washington DC: Migration Policy Institute. February 2013. Available at https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/RMSG-Agriculture.pdf. Accessed June 18, 2020.
2 Farm Labor: Background. Economic Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-labor/background.aspx#Numbers. Accessed May 5, 2017.
3 2012 Census of Agriculture. United States Summary and State Data, Volume 1. United States Department of Agriculture, May 2014. https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_US/usv1.pdf. Accessed May 5, 2017.
4 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) - Current and Revised Data. Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2013. http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshcfoi1.htm. Accessed May 5, 2017.
5 United States Department of Labor. (2016). Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2013-2014. https://www.doleta.gov/agworker/pdf/NAWS_Research_Report_12_Final_508_Compliant.pdf. Accessed May 5, 2017.
6 OFLC Performance Data. United States Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration; 2014. http://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/performancedata.cfm. Accessed May 5, 2017.
7 Schenker M, McCurdy S et al. Improving the health of agricultural workers and their families in California Current status and policy recommendations. http://www.ucghi.universityofcalifornia.edu/docs/ucghi-ag-work-paper-2015.pdf. Accessed June 25, 2015.
8 Dunn, TJ. Blockading the border and human rights: The El Paso operation that remade immigration enforcement. Austin, Tex; University of Texas Press: 2009.
9 Garcia D, Hopewell J, Liebman AK, Mountain K. The migrant clinicians network: connecting practice to need and patients to care. J Agromedicine. 2012;17(1):5-14.
10 Guild A. Affordable Care Act: Assessing agricultural worker access to health care. Streamline. 2015;21(3).