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Health risks to farmworkers increase as workforce ages

Sarah Varney, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

That bag of frozen cauliflower sitting inside your freezer likely sprang to life in a vast field north of Salinas, Calif. A crew of men and women here use a machine to drop seedlings into the black soil. Another group follows behind, stooped over, tapping each new plant.

It is backbreaking, repetitive work. Ten-hour days start in the cold, dark mornings and end in the searing afternoon heat.

More than 90 percent of California's crop workers were born in Mexico. But in recent years, fewer have migrated to the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Researchers point to a number of causes: tighter border controls; higher prices charged by smugglers; well-paying construction jobs and a growing middle-class in Mexico that doesn't want to pick vegetables for Americans.

As a result, the average farmworker is now 45 years old, according to federal government data. Harvesting U.S. crops has been left to an aging population of farmworkers whose health has suffered from decades of hard labor. Older workers have a greater chance of getting injured and of developing chronic illnesses, which can raise the cost of workers' compensation and health insurance.

"The slowdown is happening," said Brent McKinsey, a third-generation farmer and one of the owners of Mission Ranches in Salinas. "You start to see your production drop, but it's difficult to manage because there aren't the younger people wanting to come in and work in this industry."

After a long day hunched over, cutting and bunching mustard leaves, Gonzalo Picazo Lopez, a farmworker, said the pain shooting down his leg is acting up. Lopez has been working in the fields since the 1970s, when he crossed over from Mexico. At 67 years old, he looks timeworn, with silver hair and a white beard. Deep lines mark his face.

 

As Lopez described how he carefully picks the leaves with his right hand and bunches with his left, he opened and closed his fingers with difficulty.

"In 2015 my left hand started to hurt," Lopez said. "I went into work one morning and my hand was cold -- ice cold."

Lopez is a U.S. citizen and has Medicare. He hopes to work for almost another decade, until his wife, who is 61 and picks broccoli, can collect her Social Security.

Chronic pain is a common complaint at Clinica de Salud in Salinas. Nearly all of the patients at this community clinic are farmworkers. Many don't have health insurance and pay what they can for medical care. Those who have immigration papers, rely on Medicaid.

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