It’s a very hard time to be a farmworker. Across the nation, these essential workers have faced increased risk of COVID-19 infection and mortality. In California, farmworkers have been among the most impacted—2021 research found that they were four times more likely to test positive than the general population.
Yet, while COVID and other health impacts—including increasing the dangers of heat stress as the climate crisis ramps up—have received national attention, the mental health challenges faced by agricultural workers are less visible. This is particularly problematic because even before the pandemic, agricultural workers nation-wide were vulnerable to very high stress levels, as well as higher than average rates of depression and anxiety. All of that is also linked to poor physical health, substance abuse, and high injury rates.
“Adding to the stresses for agricultural workers, temperatures often average well above 100 degrees during the summer and the air quality is some of the poorest in the state.”
According to our recent study, 40 percent of agricultural workers in Imperial County, a farming community along California’s southern border, experience high enough levels of stress to pose significant mental health risks. Imperial County is home to massive farms that produce more than half the nation’s winter vegetables, and many workers commute daily from Mexico to work in the fields. Despite the successes of the agricultural industry, Imperial County ranks highest in the state for income inequality, unemployment, and children living in poverty and has the highest proportion of non-white residents in California. There are well-documented housing shortages in the county and access to healthcare is limited. Adding to the stresses for agricultural workers, temperatures often average well above 100 degrees during the summer and the air quality is some of the poorest in the state.
As a joint effort between San Diego State University and the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition, our findings point to the intersections between workplace conditions, access to healthcare, and mental well-being among agricultural workers. We conducted 199 surveys and 12 interviews with Latinx agricultural workers who are employed in Imperial County and reside on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. We found similarly high levels of stress in both groups, despite the fact that workers who cross the border daily often start their commutes at 2am. Instead, we found that foreign-born and older agricultural workers were more likely to report elevated stress than their younger and U.S.-born co-workers. This means that regardless of residing on the Mexican or U.S. side of the border, those born outside the U.S. reported higher stress levels.
Many workers reported stresses endemic to agricultural labor, but other stressors may be directly connected to COVID. For example, workers reported high stress from English-language communication and lack of access to clean restrooms and medical care.
Language-related stress was often seen as a barrier to accessing COVID relief, testing, and vaccines; these often required not only English proficiency but also computer literacy. Lack of access to clean restrooms made hand washing difficult on the job. Meanwhile, lack of accessible medical care could mean the difference between life and death.
Essential to harvesting the nation’s food supply, agricultural workers in California have been targeted with an influx of federal, state, and local resources meant to mitigate the impact of COVID over the last two years. These included mobile testing sites, priority for vaccinations, eviction protections, health and sanitation guidelines and resources, and state-sponsored programs such as Governor Gavin Newsom’s Housing for the Harvest program and paid sick leave.
But it’s not clear that these programs helped reduce levels among farmworkers or improved their access to health resources. While many employers in Imperial County followed health and safety guidelines, several larger agricultural processing companies have been fined for negligence in protecting workers. The Housing for the Harvest program was marred with underutilization, and in Imperial County alone, $900,000 of available funding went unspent. Workers in our study were quick to mention poor bathroom quality and how hard it is to maintain a distance from co-workers in the field, in crowded housing, and while commuting to and from work.
In addition to the factors we’ve mentioned, inequity in the location of COVID testing and vaccine sites often leads many agricultural workers to seek health care in Mexico from more accessible and trusted—though pricier—sites. One agricultural worker we spoke to said, “Going to Mexicali was easier for me, since I don’t know how to read or write. They gave my test results to me in six hours.”