Aging Hispanic Farmworkers Face Uncertain Future in Washington State

Aging Hispanic Farmworkers Face Uncertain Future in Washington State

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Photo: Isabel Vega, 65, takes a break while picking apples with her daughter Irene, in Wenatchee, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland /The Spokesman-Review)

Part 1. Read Part 2 here.

CHELAN COUNTY, Wash. – Isabel Vega stands on an aluminum ladder and works with an economy of movement that betrays her 65 years. Each snip with her pruning sheers and every swipe of her hand is exact, a precision forged from decades of repetition.

Guest Workers in U.S.:
Opportunity, Exploitation

Mexican workers began coming to the United States during World War II under the Bracero program. From 1942 to 1964, the program allowed over 4 million guest workers to come in from rural, poor areas in Mexico because of agricultural worker shortages in the United States.

In 1964, the H2 Temporary Guest Worker program replaced the Bracero program. The H2A designation covered agricultural workers and H2B covered nonagricultural workers. In 2010, the U.S. Department of State granted 55,921 H2A visas.

When she was 30, Isabel Vega’s younger brother got an H2A work visa to emigrate here from Mexico.

“I remember when he came back from the states, he brought a big box of second-hand clothing. I had never seen wealth like that,” she said.

Eastern Washington farmers and ranchers have long depended on the labor of Hispanic workers. Orchard work in particular requires a large and skilled seasonal workforce to maintain and harvest crops.

“It’s a business,” said Isabel Vega. “There’s a saying, you can’t have the rich without the poor.”

The agricultural business model in the years following World War II came to depend on Hispanic labor, because it was cheaper and logistically made sense: A large group of workers could come into small farming communities and help with harvest. The wages H2A workers make in a six-month period in the United States could total several years of productive harvests in Mexico.

“Part of me, I really want him [Trump] to win, toss all the Mexicans out and we’ll find out if we’re really that important to the U.S. and its economy,” said Isabel Vega.

Social Worker Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega of the Quincy Community Health Center, said the problem with the H2A program - and with undocumented labor - is that workers don’t have the same rights as U.S. citizens. This can lead to exploitation in terms of wages and health care.

--Tyler Tjomsland

As she reaches for an apple, the ladder she stands on suddenly shifts its weight. She counters, forcing her legs against the ladder’s inertia. It complies, settling into the soft soil.

Vega, Hispanic, is part of a population that the U.S. Census Bureau anticipates to more than quadruple by 2050, to 13.8 million from 2.9 million in 2010.

A 2009 AARP study says Hispanics could account for nearly a quarter of the population ages 50-64 by the year 2050. The 2.7 million immigrants, mostly farmworkers, who gained amnesty when President Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, are rapidly aging out of the workforce; their median age is 49.

As a Hispanic farmworker, Vega is also part of a demographic at the forefront of recent political discourse and complicated cultural and medical concerns.

Orchard Work Among Most Dangerous 

Studies show that Hispanic farmworkers are likely to be injured on the job, and as they age, suffer from overuse injuries and long-term illnesses linked to working in the fields.

But few of those who are in the United States legally have investments for retirement and most face looming medical costs.

Undocumented workers who are aging out of the workforce have even fewer options.

“These guys are working for years, living on little and retiring with almost nothing,” said Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega, a social worker at the Quincy Community Health Center, in Quincy, Wash., who’s also Isabel Vega’s daughter-in-law. “By the time they are old, they’re caught between having nothing in the U.S. and having even less in Mexico.”

At barely 5 a.m., the pre-dawn light bathed the orchard’s trees in pastel hues. Drops of lingering dew caught the warm light peeking from behind the mountains.

The air was surprisingly brisk for July.

Some workers brought radios and hung them to their ladders; festive Latin music floated through the apple trees. The day was new and the mood was light. A distant worker’s tenor voice drifted slightly out of time from the song’s chorus.

Vega worked quietly.

“People see beauty here,” Vega said later through a translator. “I see work. But in my life I have worked to live.”

Across the row of trees, her youngest daughter, Irene Vega, 27, stood atop an identical ladder locked into the same repetitive task of clipping branches. Irene Vega chatted with a younger woman working near her.

Statistically, orchard work is some of the most dangerous labor in agriculture.

Pesticides and Panic

On April 8, 2014, in a cherry orchard north of Orondo, Wash., Isabel Vega and 19 other Hispanic farmworkers were tying the branches of cherry trees to trellises to maximize fruit growth. Vega was working on her ladder downwind from the majority of the group when she noticed a strong odor. A knife-twist of panic went through her as she looked up to see her cohorts jumping from their ladders and running toward her.

Her lips went numb, she felt dizzy, nauseated.

Pesticides from two Wenatchee-based Dovex Fruit Co. tractors spraying a neighboring pear orchard had drifted to Vega’s worksite.

“Some of the other workers were throwing up,” Vega said. “We knew we were sprayed; we know the danger, there’s no way you can’t not know when an ambulance shows up.”

Contact with pesticides is often unavoidable in the fields. Vega said she taught her children to

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Photo: Isabel Vega, lifts her grandson Antonio, 1, last fall, at her home in Wenatchee, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/Spokesman-Review)

remove their field clothes before entering their home. She and others often wear bandanas over their noses and mouths while they work.

Following that 2014 pesticide release in Orondo, a representative of the Washington Department of Health told state legislators that DOH had seen a sharp rise in pesticide drift cases.

Chaz Webberly, a physician assistant at the Quincy Community Health Center who works mostly with farmworkers, said pesticides “cause all kinds of havoc” in the body. “In a cumulative sense, those things build up in the body, but it’s hard to predict what they will do down the road,” he said.

Vega and nine of the workers involved in the pesticide-drift case were awarded $180,000 in a settlement from Dovex Fruit Co. in 2015, but Vega worries about the consequences.

“Yes, yes, working and making money are important, but your health to enjoy it with your children are most important,” said Vega, who laughed and added that she eats a mostly vegetarian diet.

In 2007 Vega’s husband, Antonio Vega, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system’s lymph nodes. He died from complications of the illness in 2008. She wonders

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Photo: Isabel Vega waits for a van to take her and her daughter to an Orchard north of Wenatchee, Wash., to work. (Tyler Tjomsland/Spokesman-Review)

about pesticides or “whatever they spray out there,” and if it played any role in her husband’s health.

Other injuries from farmwork include repetitive strain, and eye problems caused by longtime exposure to sun and dust, Webberly said.

Even falling off a ladder can become a complex health issue as bodies age.

“Unless injuries are symptomatic, a lot of people won’t seek treatment,” he said. “It’s frustrating sometimes, because everything revolves around being able to work.”

Consequently, many workers end up aging out of the fields due to injury sooner than they thought they would.

“Many men from our village come to America for opportunities,” said Vega. “They think ‘I’ll come back rich,’ but end up broken skeletons.”

Photojournalist Tyler Tjomsland wrote a single long version of this story for Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by the SCAN Foundation. The second installment of NAM's two-part version will appear tomorrow.