Survey examines farmworkers living work and health conditions

·4 min read

Aug. 6—MOULTRIE, Ga. — A recent survey of farmworkers in Colquitt County conducted by the National Center for Farmworker Health showed a lack of health resources and limited living and working conditions that place the population at risk for COVID-19.

According to the center's website, "The National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH) is a private, not-for-profit corporation located in Buda, Texas, dedicated to improving the health status of farmworker families."

The Colquitt County Farmworker COVID-19 Community Assessment was conducted from March 2022 to May 2022 during Phase 2 of the project in partnership with the Latino Community Fund.

According to the press release, the survey found that almost 79% of farmworkers in Colquitt County reside in overcrowded housing. This finding differs from the national average of 2%.

Sharing a living space with more than nine non-family members is common for farm workers, the center said. Most seasonal agricultural work farm workers depend on their employer for housing and transportation.

Overcrowded living arrangements could increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

"Workers in the United States should be provided with good health and safe working and living conditions, regardless of immigration status and industry," Nic Mandujano, a research associate at NCFH, said.

Employers interviewed in the survey found that cost was a barrier to not being able to provide complete isolation during quarantine or follow social distancing practices in a shared living space.

Some employers attempted to improve housing safety precautions.

"We had to create spaces of housing for those isolation periods, [and] we rented hotel rooms," an agriculture employer staff member said in the survey.

The decrease in agriculture production profits during the pandemic hindered employers from obtaining additional housing units for social distance housing practices, the survey said.

Dr. Bethany Boggess Alcauter, the director of evaluation and National Agricultural Worker Health Program of NCFH, said in an interview Friday that there are issues within the agriculture industry.

"The results and the stories told by farmworkers in Colquitt County reiterate that policies and working conditions must shift to meet the needs of a public health emergency," Alcauter said. "The agriculture industry missed an opportunity to provide worker standards that address worker health and safety concerns during a pandemic."

She explained that farmworkers don't receive health insurance and paid time off. If a farmworker needed time off for illness or to get vaccinated, they couldn't afford to pay a bill or buy food.

"People need to work. Who is going to pay the rent?" a farmworker, who has been working in the fields for 20 years, said in the survey.

Not having access to work accommodations or health access also affects the worker's job security.

Sarah Paulk, a research and evaluation manager at NCFH, said, "Workers that are on special work visas worry about being invited back to work."

Mandujano added, "Many of the farmworkers we spoke to in Georgia expressed having limited access to health services and other social supports due to their living conditions and lack of medical infrastructure."

Alcauter and Paulk said there were major vaccination disparities in Colquitt County.

The survey states, "Almost three out of four (72%) respondents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with an [Food and Drug Administration] or [World Health Organization] approved vaccine. Less than a third of all respondents reported being fully vaccinated and receiving at least one booster dose (28%)."

Those who did not receive the vaccination thought the side effects would affect their work.

A Colquitt County farmworker advocate said, "A lot of [farmworkers] were concerned about not being able to carry the buckets on their shoulders because they thought their arm was going to hurt."

The survey also showed farmworkers feared losing pay or getting fired for taking time off due to sickness.

"Working while sick, whether with COVID or other illnesses, is a common practice for farmworkers for their survival," according to the center's press release.

One key informant stated, "You really didn't have any resources here for farm workers. Yeah, you have the migrant clinic, but it's like one migrant clinic for like all of South Georgia."

Alcauter added, "Working even while sick because you cannot afford to lose wages no longer works. Having one clinic to service multiple counties no longer works. This is a call for a change for farmworkers' communities that can positively impact everyone in the region."

The NCFH offers recommendations to improve working conditions and ensure farmworkers' health:

* More funding to make collaborations between the local Colquitt County public health department, federally qualified health centers, other health providers, farm workers, and agricultural employers.

* Funding from local entities to employers so they can provide high-quality housing.

* Culturally sensitive education about vaccines for their farmworker community.

* Local government support to provide farmworkers financial assistance when they get sick or seek time off to get vaccinated, assistance programs like the state-funded Oregon Worker Relief Fund are strongly recommended.

For more information about the NCFH please visit their website at www.ncfh.org. For more information about the Latino Community Fund please refer to www.lcfgeorgia.org.