In summary

A major UC Merced study and survey detail the harsh conditions many of California’s farmworkers experience at home and work. The issues are under a spotlight following the recent mass shootings at two mushroom farms.

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One of the largest academic studies of California farmworkers is quantifying their difficult workplace and housing conditions at a time when the spotlight on those issues couldn’t be brighter.  

The University of California Merced Community and Labor Center released results of its first California Farmworker Health Study today. The 110-page study surveyed more than 1,200 farmworkers in six languages about not just their health, mental well-being and access to healthcare, but also about details of their housing and their employers’ adherence to workplace laws.

Some of the findings include:

  • About 92% of farmworkers surveyed were renters; about a quarter reported having cockroaches in their homes, about 17% reported rodents, 37% reported their home’s water tasted bad or very bad.
  • Only 57% of workers who had applied pesticides in the past 12 months reported receiving safe pesticide training that they understood.
  • When asked how often a grower or contractor required them to work near pesticides when it was unsafe, 12% said sometimes, 5% said often and 3% said very often.
  • Workers said they had to work “when wildfire smoke made it difficult to breathe” — 13% said sometimes, 8% said often, and 7% very often.  
  • Nearly half, or 43%, of farmworkers said their employers never provided written heat illness prevention plans, even though that is mandated by Cal/OSHA, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health agency.
  • 11% did not have consistent access to clean drinking water at work.
  • Even though most farmworkers work outside, only 16% of those surveyed reported ever being screened for skin cancer.
  • 36% of farmworkers said they would be unwilling to file a report against their employer for noncompliance with workplace health and safety rules; 64% of those workers cited fear of employer retaliation or job loss as a reason.

The report comes at a time of increased scrutiny of farm work and living conditions, in the wake of a mass shooting at two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay. 

State and federal authorities have opened investigations into the farms, and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office promised action after calling workers’ accounts of living in shipping containers and working for $9 an hour deplorable.

The report’s authors say the study makes the case for more targeted public investments in the physical, economic and social wellbeing of farmworkers.

“Agriculture is one of California’s most vital and productive industries, yet many of its workers experience profound challenges in maintaining their health and wellbeing,” said Edward Flores, one of the report’s authors and an associate professor of sociology at UC Merced. 

State leaders are  to discuss the findings of the report today at the UC Merced Community and Labor Center. 

Farmworkers may be able to vote at home in union elections

California lawmakers are looking to pass a bill that would give farmworkers more ways to vote in union elections. Business groups have labeled it a job killer but United Farm Workers, which sponsored the bill, says it’s akin to the state’s new vote-by-mail system.

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Nicole Foy is the Central Valley reporter for the California Divide team. She returned home to the Central Valley in 2022 after several years as an investigative reporter in Texas and Idaho, focusing on...