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Farmworkers are getting older. But after retirement, hardships await

February 22, 2017

Workers are staying in the fields longer as the farm labor force shrinks, but for many, retirement is marked by financial insecurity and health challenges.

Rosalie Murphy , The Desert Sun

Photos by Omar Ornelas | Published Feb. 22, 2017

Manuel Robles Arambula was 14 when he caught a train from Jalisco, Mexico to a border town in Arizona. It was the summer of 1948, and the teenager had no trouble finding work in the fields of the Southwest. He earned 40 cents an hour picking beets, then 60 cents per pound picking cotton. Decades passed. He got married, had five children and, in 1968, became a legal resident of the U.S.

Then, when he was in his early 60s, Robles Arambula started to have heart problems.

"I didn't believe I was going to stop working. I lasted a while. But I started getting worse and worse and then, one day, went to the emergency room," he said in Spanish. He had to undergo a heart operation — then, against his doctor's advice, went back to work for a few more years until an accident with a tractor ended his career for good.

At 83, Robles Arambula said, "I still can't get it in my head that I'm not working."

Manuel Robles Arambula at his home in Indio, Calif., in February 2016. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)

The U.S. farm labor force is aging: Fewer people are starting field work as teens, like Robles Arambula did, and older workers are staying in the fields longer, according to data from the Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey. That could push employers to offer new benefits to retain experienced workers, policy experts said, but could also exacerbate health problems that come with field work.

When the time comes to stop working, many seniors face loneliness and must adjust to life on fixed incomes. But few farmworkers have access to pensions and retirement savings. Farmworkers and policy experts said many who started working decades ago cannot claim as much Social Security as they should, because some employers failed to accurately report wages. And after decades of field and packaging work, often with poor access to healthcare, many farmworkers live with illness and injury.

READ MORE: These farmworkers fuel a $120M industry, but sleep in a rural parking lot

"Farmworkers, because of the nature and compensation of their work, are very rarely in a position to comfortably retire," said Megan Beaman, an attorney who often represents farmworkers in labor and immigration cases. "What I see most of the time is, they've been disabled in some way because of work, and what's really going on is they're no longer able to work physically, so they're out of work. You could call it retirement. Or you could call it the end of years."

A changing labor force

Much of the American workforce looks forward to retiring at 65. Many farmworkers don't last that long.

In 2012, only 11.5 percent of farmworkers were 55 or older and only 2.2 percent were still working at 65, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey.

For comparison, in the U.S. labor force at large in 2012, 21 percent of workers were 55 or older and 5 percent were 65 or older, according to Department of Labor statistics.

But ten years prior, in 2002, just 7.8 percent of farmworkers were 55 or older, and only 1.4 percent were still working at 65, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey.

"It used to be that, as older farmworkers would retire or be unable to work, there were always plenty of new farmworkers coming into the U.S. who took their place," said J. Edward Taylor, a University of California, Davis economist who studies the agricultural labor force.

In the last decade, people have all but stopped moving from Mexico to the U.S. to work on farms. "Because of this, our farm work force is aging, it’s becoming smaller, and farmers are having a harder and harder time getting workers at critical times, especially harvest," Taylor said.

For years, Taylor said, teens in rural Mexico prized farm jobs in the U.S. — wages on local farms were extremely low, kids spent just five years in school on average, and most families had eight to ten kids, all of whom sought work. But since the 1980s, the average length of education in Mexico has almost doubled, wages on Mexican farms and in factories have risen, and the country's birth rate is now barely higher than that in the U.S., Taylor said.

Within the U.S., labor has ebbed and flowed, said Blaine Carian, co-owner of Desert Fresh, a citrus and grape grower in Coachella. About 20 years ago, he thought the labor force was aging, but then a new influx of workers arrived. When the construction industry boomed in the early 2000s, many workers left his fields to build houses. When the U.S. housing market crashed, he saw many return to Mexico.

Sources: U.S. total labor force statistics come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012. Farm labor force statistics come from the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2012. Chart: Robert Hopwood, The Desert Sun

Age distributions: U.S. labor force and farm labor force Tap the bars to see the percentage of each labor force that falls into each age category. For example, 5.09 percent of all U.S. workers were 65 and older in 2012, compared to 2.19 percent of agricultural workers. Continue reading the story below

Sources: U.S. total labor force statistics come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012. Farm labor force statistics come from the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2012. Chart: Robert Hopwood, The Desert Sun

 

Age distributions: U.S. labor force and farm labor force Mouse over bars to see the percentage of each labor force that falls into each age category. For example, 5.09 percent of all U.S. workers were 65 and older in 2012, compared to 2.19 percent of agricultural workers.

Migration from the U.S. to Mexico outpaced northward migration to the U.S. between 2009 and 2014, the last period for which data was available, according to the Pew Research Center.

LABOR SHORTAGE: Both farmers and field workers want expanded guest worker program

In the U.S., farmers and farmworker advocates alike regularly call for expanded guest worker programs. And though the federal government increased authorizations of guest worker visas under the Obama administration — the number of farmworkers with H-2A guest worker visas more than tripled from 2012 to 2016 — there were still just 9,300 of these workers in California last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Farmers say they need many more — there are 800,000 to 1.2 million farmworkers in the U.S., depending on the season, according to UC Davis.

"At a certain point there's going to be an immigration plan that invents a true guest worker program," Carian said, which would allow workers from Mexico to follow U.S. harvests for several months and then go home for the rest of the year.

But for now, Taylor said, he sees farmers and labor contractors focusing on retention — helping aging farm laborers work as long as they can.

Jose Valadez, 81, walks in his garden at his home in Coachella. He came to the U.S. as part of the Bracero farm labor program in 1955, worked for decades as a foreman, and bought a house and raised his family in Coachella. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)

Aging in the fields

But aging in the fields isn't easy.

Alexis Guild, senior health policy analyst with Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group, said the physical intensity of farm labor affects workers' health throughout their lives — and the impacts become more pronounced as they age. Many farmworkers have diabetes and hypertension, linked to a lack of access to healthy food; many others battle with prolonged exposure to heat, cold and pesticides, untreated muscle injuries or arthritis.

"Working in the fields for 20 years can take a real toll on your physical health," Guild said. "You can be 50 and having worked for 25 years, you can have the same ailments as someone in a more urban area who is, like, 75, because of the way you've been working and living. It takes a toll at a much younger age than it does for other populations."

Source: The U.S. Department of Labor's annual National Agricultural Workers Survey Chart: Robert Hopwood, The Desert Sun

Average age of agricultural workers The average age of field laborers has been rising steadily since the early 1990s. Continue reading the story below 

Source: The U.S. Department of Labor's annual National Agricultural Workers Survey Chart: Robert Hopwood, The Desert Sun

 

Average age of agricultural workers The average age of field laborers has been rising steadily since the early 1990s. 

Further, Guild said, many farmworkers don't have health insurance or don't regularly see doctors, meaning medical conditions can go untreated.

No agency collects data about why farmworkers leave the workforce, but Carian said he sees many workers leave farm labor well before they retire, seeking jobs in other industries. Advocates said when farmworkers stop working altogether, it's normally prompted by injury.

Elia Maldonado, 57, was just 10 when she started working in the fields. She picked grapes, onions, figs and asparagus in Texas and California, then started packing grapes in Thermal — filling 220 boxes in each eight-and-a-half-hour day. She stopped working in her late 30s, when said she would come home exhausted, legs swollen to twice their usual size.

Jose Valadez, 81, came to the U.S. in 1955 as part of the Bracero program and has lived in the Coachella Valley since. He stopped working at 63, 12 years after his doctor first told him to, after the company he worked for folded. He'd been a foreman there for 18 years, two years short of a pension. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)

Jose Valadez, 81, came to the U.S. in 1955 as part of the Bracero guest worker program and has lived in the Coachella Valley since. He got married, bought a house and had kids. A company he worked for folded in 2000 — he'd been a foreman there for 18 years, two years short of a pension they'd promised — and while he was driving home, he pulled over and found another job.

"I just couldn't stand not working. I couldn't find myself. I was just bored," Valadez said. "I would wake up in the morning and still go. I had to keep working."

READ MORE: Would overtime pay for farmworkers destroy the Coachella Valley's grape industry?

Valadez stopped working at 63, 12 years after his doctor first told him to.

"The saddest thing about being a field worker is when you can't work anymore, you're not useful to anybody," Valadez said. "You want to work, but they look you up and down and say, 'there's no work today, come back tomorrow, come back another day.'"

Retirement: 'I want to feel like I'm useful still'

Valadez said he now lives on Social Security payments — $1,200 per month, about 12 percent below the June 2016 average of $1,348, according to the U.S. Social Security office. His wife died four years ago, and their two children are married with families of their own. Valadez rents the spare rooms in his Coachella house to migrant farmworkers who pass through the valley every summer.

But many farmworkers — especially those who worked in the mid-20th century, before labor was as heavily regulated as it is now — can't prove their employers paid into Social Security and can't collect those payments.

"If you're undocumented, you're not going to get social security," said Beaman, the attorney. "You might find other ways to work... until the end of your life, basically, because there's no other financial security, or work until it's literally impossible and hope your kids or loved ones are able to support you."

Retired farmworkers from the Coachella Valley find it difficult to survive without government housing subsidies. (Feb. 22, 2017) Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun

The United Farm Workers, the union co-founded by Cesar Chavez, launched a pension fund for farmworkers in the 1970s. Today, it has about 10,000 enrollees — but that's only about 1 percent of U.S. farmworkers. And as the UFW's presence in the Coachella Valley has weakened, few local workers have access to that pension plan, Beaman said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 66 percent of workers in private industry in March 2016 had access to employer-sponsored retirement benefits, including pensions and employer-supported 401(k)s, and 49 percent of those workers participated in plans. In the bottom 10 percent of earnings, 33 percent of private-company workers had access to retirement benefits and 14 percent of them enrolled.

Some former farmworkers live in homes they own, like Valadez. Others live with their children, find income-restricted or senior housing or return to their homes, often in Mexico.

"There's no generalization that can be made about what (retired farmworkers) are going to do," Carian said. "Many own homes (in Mexico), own property, have ties to their native land, and they go back home."

Virginia Zazueta Franco, 79, worked in the fields from the time she was a child. Today, she often spends days lonely in her apartment. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)

Virginia Zazueta Franco, 79, lives in Desert Gardens, an income-restricted apartment complex built by the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, a local not-for-profit developer. The complex has 36 units for retired farmworkers and 25 people on the waiting list for those apartments.

She had only a third-grade education when she started working in the fields. While living in Merced, she left her abusive husband, taking their seven kids with her. Most of them ended up working in the fields, too, as the family followed the harvests. Only two of her daughters finished high school.

Virginia Zazueta Franco, 79, worked in the fields since she was a child. She lives alone in Indio, but her apartment is decorated with pictures of her seven children. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)

Just one of her children still lives in Coachella, Zazueta Franco said. Yet the walls of her small, shadowy apartment are covered in family photos — weddings, baptisms, graduations. Three rosaries are nailed to the wall nearby. Her grandchildren don't speak Spanish, and she can understand but not speak English, so they feel distant, unknown to her.

Years ago, Zazueta Franco's children helped her regularize her immigration status and enroll in Social Security. She spends a third of that income on rent, and much of the rest goes toward medication. Pill bottles litter a small table outside her kitchen. Describing her health, she said, "my body is very tired."

READ MORE: Farm labor is California's deadliest outdoor industry, state records show

On the feast of the Epiphany in January, dozens of people gathered at the Coachella Senior Center to share Rosca de Reyes, or king cake. With their voices buoyed by music, each person searched his or her piece for the figurine of baby Jesus — whoever found it was obligated to host a party a month later.

Jose Valadez, the retired foreman, slipped outside to tend the senior center's garden as the celebration waned. He volunteers at the center, making coffee and pulling weeds. It's a short walk from his house.

"I want to feel like I'm useful still," Valadez said. "You are useful even if you're old. I see some of the ones that are younger, that had some health issues, and they can't do it. If you can, you've got to be useful."

Manuel Robles Arambula lost the tip of his finger in a tractor accident about two decades ago. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)

Rosalie Murphy covers real estate and business at The Desert Sun. Reach her at rosalie.murphy@desertsun.com or on Twitter @rozmurph.

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