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A New California Farm Worker Bill Might Actually Be Too Good to Be True

For decades, seasonal farm workers in the fields and orchards of the West have faced hazardous working conditions. A new California bill seeks to protect ag workers' health, but might not go far enough.

by Lauren Rothman
Mar 13 2015, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Bread for the World

In 1941, Woody Guthrie immortalized the uncertain and often hazardous working conditions facing itinerant farm workers who flocked to the West Coast each growing season to pick fruit and harvest vegetables in states from California to Arizona. The opening lines of his song "Pastures of Plenty" read:

It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold.

In the 70-plus years since the Dust Bowl Troubadour penned those lyrics, little has changed for the better for the seasonal farm workers who continue to work the West's fields and orchards. Farm workers have the lowest annual family incomes of any US wage and salary workers, according to the National Farm Worker Ministry, earning an average of $7.25 per hour. Those wages add up to about $10,000 per year—more than $1,000 lower than the current $11,170 federal poverty line.

That kind of income leaves little to cover medical expenses, which farm workers, due to the dangerous nature of their work, face more often than the rest of the general population. According to a 2012 report by the Kresge Foundation, from 2008 to 2010 farm workers were five times more likely to have a fatal work-related injury than "workers in all civilian industries combined." They're also more likely to experience musculoskeletal pain and respiratory issues, as well as a host of symptoms associated with exposure to pesticides. From 1998 to 2005, according to the report, farm workers accounted for 71 percent of acute pesticide poisoning, and faced "elevated risks" for "lymphomas and prostate, brain, leukemia, cervix, and stomach cancers."

Ag workers rights groups have long agitated for increased medical protections for seasonal workers, the majority of whom are undocumented immigrants and therefore can't access the low-cost or free healthcare programs available to low-income US citizens. A new California state bill, introduced last month by Democratic Assemblymember Luis Alejo Jr., seeks to address the healthcare needs of the state's farm workers. AB 1170, if approved, would create a Care of Agricultural Workers Fund, a three-year-long pilot program that would pay for "medical, surgical, and hospital treatment for occupational and nonoccupational injuries and illnesses incurred by agricultural workers." Additionally, the bill wouldn't place any additional burdens on California taxpayers—it would be funded by agricultural employers, who would be required to deposit the amount of money they usually spend on workers' compensation into the health care fund instead.

"Agricultural workers are exposed to harsh working conditions in the fields," Alejo states in a press release. "They are exposed to the elements, extreme heat, and extreme cold, and they work in an industry that strains the body. Yet, they don't have access to even the most basic of healthcare services. Healthcare should be a human right, and this measure will give people who work hard, just to put food on the table, the healthcare they deserve."

It all sounds pretty good, right? And yet some farm worker rights organizations aren't quite sure how they feel about the bill. They want to take their time to examine it for any loopholes, and question what will motivate employers to participate in the new system and if the proposed fund will be more effective at covering workers' medical expenses than the workers' comp program now in place.

Jessica Romero, director of communications at Farmworker Justice, a DC-based advocacy group, emailed MUNCHIES the following statement:

"Farmworker advocates have concerns about the bill. Farmworker Justice has concerns that it could remove medical, financial, and labor protections that workers receive under the current workers' compensation system, and that the limited network of providers would limit workers' access to healthcare."

AB 1170 is set to be heard by a California legislative panel at the end of the month. But whatever the outcome of the bill, it's clear that the country's more than three million seasonal farm workers deserve higher pay and better legal protections. In the words of Cesar Chavez, founder of United Farm Workers, they "are involved in the planting and the cultivation and the harvesting of the greatest abundance of food known in this society … The ironic thing and the tragic thing is that after they make this tremendous contribution, they don't have any money or any food left for themselves."