Farm Workers Flock to Illinois for Growing Season

Farm Workers Flock to Illinois for Growing Season

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CHICAGO, Ill. -- They come to work in the cornfields and apple orchards, in the humid nurseries and pumpkin harvests. An estimated 35,000 to 38,000 new farm workers migrate to Illinois every year.

According to organizations that provide assistance to these dispersed populations, most agricultural workers are employed in nurseries growing flowers. But they also grow crops such as lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, squash, soybean and asparagus.

The majority of the farm workers are from Mexico, although there are also many Mexican-American families who come from Texas to work in the cornfields of central Illinois.

Like other states, Illinois has numerous agricultural workers without legal status, making them vulnerable to wage theft and unsafe working conditions, according to the organization Interfaith Workers Justice.

The North

Alexandra Sossa, legal rights director for the Farmworker Advocacy Project, drives to the nearby towns of Mendota, Woodstock, Aurora and Waukegan, looking for workers to offer them free legal services.

"The problems they face are, for example, accidents at work, and not being paid minimum wage or overtime. They also face occupational health problems like pesticide poisoning," said Sossa.

“If they get injured on the job unloading wood from a truck, for example, or if they lose a finger, they get fired. Or they don’t get paid travel time. For example, if it takes an hour and a half to drive somewhere, they only get paid from the time they get to work,” she said.

Sossa, who works with immigrants in Lake, McHenry, Cook, Kane and Boone counties, described the case of a man who was working on a horse ranch and living in a small trailer. He slept on a mattress on the floor and had no access to drinking water. He worked between 70 and 80 hours a week cleaning the ranch, feeding the animals and doing farm work. He was paid $200 a week, and two weeks ago, he was laid off with no explanation. Sossa’s organization is now providing him with legal assistance.

$5 an Hour

According to data from the Farmworker Advocacy Project, the Illinois Migrant Council and Community Health Partnership of Illinois (CHP), most of the thousands of new migrant farm workers coming to the state earn between $5 and $8 an hour.

While some of them have an H-2A guest worker visa, many others are undocumented. Some do agricultural work, while others work in landscaping.

The Farmworker Advocacy Project works primarily with undocumented immigrants. "They don’t speak English, they face restrictions based on their immigration status and the majority are Mexicans from Guanajuato, Oaxaca and Michoacán," said Sossa.

“There are two kinds of workers: immigrants who are here from April to November and generally go back to Guanajuato or Michoacan in the winter and the landscapers, who usually work April to November and stay for the winter, shoveling snow for the same companies," explained Sossa.

But unemployment and the current economic situation have generated more competition between undocumented immigrants and those who have work visas. "There’s a fight for these landscaping jobs,” Sossa says. “The companies hire the undocumented immigrant because the worker who has papers wants to earn $12 an hour and the undocumented immigrant just says, ‘Whatever you give me.’”

Acute Needs

The Illinois Migrant Council sends field researchers to rural areas to record the living conditions of immigrants. There are families living in abandoned schools, in trailers and cheap hotels.

As a result of the isolation of these rural communities, language barriers, and working and living conditions, migrant farm workers also experience serious health problems and have less access to clinics, according to CHP.

“We have a lot of patients with acute health care needs who don’t go to clinics because they’re afraid because of their immigration status, and by the time they come see us they’re usually very sick,” said Susan Bauer, director of CHP. The most common diseases are hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and other diseases that are exacerbated by working in rural areas, she said.

With no possibility of health insurance and an average annual salary of $12,000 a year for seasonal work, these workers and their families have few options for medical care.

CHP receives federal funding to provide these services to low-income migrant workers who are uninsured or underinsured, and people on Medicaid or Medicare, Bauer explained.

The clinics, located in cities such as Hoopeston, Mendota and Kankakee, have a sliding scale based on the size and income level of each family. On average patients pay a $15 co-payment for a medical visit.

“We go to the trailer parks and offer HIV tests and exams to detect breast cancer,” said Bauer. Her organization also provides dental health care to the farm workers’ children.

Coast to Coast

Workers in rural areas across the country face the same situation. According to the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, there are an estimated 1.6 million farm workers in the United States – growing fruits, vegetables and flowers, working on dairy farms and cattle ranches. Eighty-five percent of them are immigrants, according to the coalition.

The group estimates that 75 percent of these workers are undocumented and the guest worker program only accounts for 2 percent of the work force that is required.