The perils Florida farmworkers face today build upon the perils of the past.
For hundreds of years, workers have toiled under the hot sun in Florida’s fields, harvesting oranges, tomatoes, sugar, green beans and cucumbers. Historically, the slaves, indentured servants and sharecroppers here were Black and brown, subsisting on low wages or no wages at all. They experienced violence, sexual assault and harassment; many were separated from their families and endured a lack of legal protection because of uncertain citizenship status.
Many Florida farmworkers today still face some of the same harsh working conditions, low wages, and lack of legal protections that sharecroppers and slaves experienced decades and centuries ago. Most are from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti. They may not speak up about the extreme heat they experience because they fear reprisals from their employers, or because they are undocumented and fear deportation.
The risks they face are growing with rising temperatures, as our changing climate exacerbates existing hazards.
Over the last century, Florida’s average temperature has risen by approximately one degree Fahrenheit statewide, and more in South Florida, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rate of warming is increasing, as well: the EPA projects that before the end of the century, “temperatures in most of the state are likely to rise above 95 degrees Fahrenheit between 45 and 90 days per year, compared with less than 15 days per year today.”
More days of extreme heat mean an increasing likelihood of heat-related illness. Although a lot of attention is given to emergencies like heat stroke, for people who work outdoors, years of heat exposure and chronic dehydration can take their toll, too.
“If you go and look at older workers and see the number of workers that have kidney failure or are on dialysis, that’s not talked about,” says Jeannie Economos, coordinator of the Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project with the Farmworker Association of Florida. She says farmworkers’ clothing exacerbates their risk of heat stress because they must wear long sleeves, pants, hats and gloves to protect themselves from insects and pesticides, as well as masks to avoid COVID-19.
A 2018 report by the association, in partnership with the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, looked at how often summer temperatures in Florida crossed a threshold the federal government considers dangerous for heavy labor, such as lifting heavy materials or walking fast. In the 10 Florida counties with the largest populations of agricultural and construction workers, temperatures became dangerous for heavy labor on 92 to 97 percent of summer days.
The risk for farmworkers is intensified because, instead of being paid hourly, many farmworkers are paid a “piece rate” — a fixed rate for, for instance, every five-pound box of tomatoes they harvest. This means they have an incentive to keep working rather than take breaks in the shade or to get a drink.
Employers are required to provide water and restrooms, but they may not be located in close proximity to the fields. And, a federal food safety measure that aims to protect consumers from disease transmission prohibits workers from bringing personal water bottles to where they’re planting or harvesting.
“Sometimes workers wear diapers to work so they don’t have to stop work. Sometimes they don’t drink water so they don’t have to take breaks,” Ms. Economos said. “It’s horrible.”
Paul Monaghan, an associate professor of agricultural education and communication at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says the piece rate is a major structural barrier to change.
“There’s an incentive for everyone from the worker to the supervisor to the owners to push yourself as much as you can to earn as much as you can,” he said. In the heat, that can be dangerous or deadly.
Only three states nationwide — California, Minnesota and Washington — have standards to protect workers from heat stress. Florida’s legislature has failed to pass similar legislation multiple times.
At the federal level, agricultural workers have fewer protections than other workers. The National Labor Relations Act, which protects rights to collectively organize and negotiate for protections, exempts agricultural and domestic workers. A heat safety standard that federal health researchers first proposed in 1972 has still not been adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which oversees worker health protections.
In the U.S. Senate, there is hope in a bill that proposes a federal heat standard for workers. More than 130 organizations have signed onto a petition calling for its passage. Provisions include requiring protections like easy water access, regular breaks in cool areas, time limits on heat exposure, and medical care for workers displaying symptoms of heat illness.
Meanwhile, in partnership with Florida State University, the Farmworker Association of Florida offers training where health workers from the farmworkers’ communities educate them about reducing heat risks and pesticide exposure. Dr. Monaghan and his collaborators are teaching individual workers to be hydration coaches, reminding their peers to drink early and often, and providing supplies like water bottles and electrolyte powders. They are also working with employers to raise awareness of best practices to reduce heat risk.
“They’re interested in this,” he said. “Nobody wants to have an accident on their farm.”
Ludovica Martella, a researcher contracted by Miami-Dade County to produce a report on extreme heat, says solutions to heat risk should also address climate change. She recommends a “360 degree approach” that includes enhancing tree canopies, and covered, solar-powered bus stops to facilitate heat-safe transport while also limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Ms. Economos, of the Farmworker Association of Florida, says there’s also a critical need for more awareness about risks farmworkers face among Floridians who depend on them.
“Farmworkers do some of the most important work in the whole country,” she said. “And sometimes I don’t think we should refer to them as ‘farmworkers.’ They’re men, women and children. Three-dimensional people with lives.”