Farmworker Health in Environmental Justice Policy

Table of

Adapted from Farmworker Health in Environmental Policy by Olivia St. Pierre.


Farmworkers are a distinct environmental justice community that face a myriad of justice issues while performing an occupation that is essential to the daily operations and security of the United States. Farmworkers lack the labor and environmental protections assured to workers in other industries, experience food insecurity and unsafe housing conditions, and many are likewise without access to affordable and convenient healthcare services. The true gravity of the risks faced by farmworkers is obscured due to systematic racism, fractured immigration policy, and underreporting in public health analysis.

Migrant and seasonal agricultural workers (“farmworkers”) in the United States face systemic mistreatment and a myriad of justice issues while performing the essential occupation3 of harvesting food. While farmworkers make up the backbone of the American food system, they are frequently subject to labor rights violations, poor working and living conditions, significant exposures to pesticides, heat stress exposure, and other undue environmental and occupational hazards. The true gravity of the risks faced by farmworkers is obscured due to systematic racism, fractured immigration policy, and underreporting in public health analysis.

Farmworkers are an Environmental Justice Community. Environmental Justice Communities, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are communities where there is: (1) disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards and (2) increased vulnerability to said hazards. The EPA further defines Overburdened Communities as “Minority, low-income, tribal, or indigenous populations or geographic locations in the United States that potentially experience disproportionate environmental harms and risks. This disproportionality can be a result of greater vulnerability to environmental hazards, lack of opportunity for public participation, or other factors.” While many environmental justice communities are defined in geographical terms, some (such as people with disabilities, farmworkers, and other disadvantaged social groups) are geographically dispersed. Farmworkers dispersed across the United States collectively form an identifiable environmental justice community, facing disproportionate exposure to environmental and chemical hazards, increased occupational vulnerabilities, and a lack of access to process.

Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to cumulative impacts within their occupational roles and in their communities. The EPA describes increased vulnerabilities attributable to an accumulation of negative or lack of positive environmental, health, economic, or social conditions within these populations. When multiple environmental and socioeconomic stressors compound, they often act cumulatively and contribute to persistent environmental health disparities. For farmworkers, socioeconomic stressors interact with the cumulative environmental and occupational harms experienced by this community and have a profound impact on one’s ability to access healthcare resources and public services.

State Law Snapshot: Farmworkers Rights

Few states have frameworks in place to provide environmental justice remedies to farmworkers. California and Washington are the only two states that have expanded pesticide requirements. Only four states offer overtime pay benefits for agricultural workers – California, Colorado, Washington, and New York. Because federal laws have long excluded farmworkers from labor, wage, and hazard protections, and states have liberty to govern labor and pesticide regulations for themselves, it is up to state governments to take the initiative to lead by example and broaden protections for their farmworkers.

State Snapshot: Colorado

  • Farmworker Minimum Wages: $12.65 an hour
  • Overtime Pay: Yes, for hours worked over 60 hours/week through December 31, 2022, and an extra hour of pay on days worked more than 15 consecutive hours.
  • Mandatory Rest Period/Hours Cap: Mandated 10-minute break every two hours on days with “increased risk conditions” (see Appendix A)
  • Health Insurance/Access to Medical Care: No health insurance for undocumented workers, documented workers eligible fo Medicaid under state law and the Affordable Care Act. The state also guarantees a “Right to see Healthcare Providers”.
  • Heat Protection: No formal declaration; mandated breaks, shade, and water must be provided to workers on days with “increased risk conditions”.
  • Pesticide Regulations: Pesticide Act, Title 35, Article 9, C.R.S.
  • Drivers Licenses for Undocumented Workers: Yes.
  • Housing: Must comply with state building codes
  • Farmworker Advocacy Groups: Colorado Farmworkers

While these snapshots give a general overview of farmworker protections and environmental justice in California, Colorado, New York State, and Washington, other states are in the process of reconciling their laws to reflect equitable protections for farmworkers. Farmworker Justice has an interactive map that breaks down farmworker rights under state employment laws that visualizes wage and overtime requirements as well as workers compensation.

Many emerging issues and future trends impact farmworks. One issue famerworks face is shortcomings with data collection. Due to the varying legal status of farmworkers in the U.S., and other barriers to survey such as language access, rural positionality, and distrust towards outsiders, it is difficult to obtain quantitative data that reflects the true demographics of the farmworker population in the U.S. A second issue farmworkers face is barriers to public participation. Most notably, language access and transportation are the most profound barriers that farmworkers encounter, especially undocumented individuals. The third major issue that farmworkers face falls under the umbrella of occupational hazards. Pesticide exposure and their cumulative impacts, heat stress, lack of labor safeguards, and adverse impacts on the social determinants of health are among the most serious cross cutting issues contributing to occupational hazards.