Retirement Without a Net: The Plight of America’s Aging Farmworkers - The World News

Retirement Without a Net: The Plight of America’s Aging Farmworkers

Esperanza Sanchez spends eight hours a day, Sunday to Friday, crouched down to the ground, trimming and picking leafy greens and packing them into boxes.

She pauses only if a dizzy spell throws her off balance, which she chalks up to high blood pressure, something she learned about last year when a raging headache prompted her to visit a doctor for the first time in recent memory.

“I feel tired,” she said, seated at her mobile home’s kitchen table after a day’s work. “I feel like stopping, but how can I?”

At 72, Ms. Sanchez is the oldest on her crew working in California’s Coachella Valley. She is among tens of thousands of undocumented farm workers who have spent decades working in the United States — doing the kind of sweaty, backbreaking work that powers much of the country’s farming industry — but are ineligible for Social Security, Medicare or the other forms of retirement relief that would allow them to stop working.

Some have children or grandchildren to help provide for them in their old age. In California, Oregon and Washington, undocumented farmworkers are entitled to health care and overtime. But most states do not offer them any benefits.

For decades, retirement was not an issue: Farmworkers sneaked across the Mexico-U.S. border for the harvest and then returned home until it was time to start all over again the next season. But this kind of circular migration became increasingly risky and expensive, as successive U.S. presidents, beginning in the 1990s, erected barriers and deployed technology and agents along the border to curb illegal entries.

At that point, many field hands crossed the border and stayed for good — aging with each successive crop.

In interviews over the past year, in California, Oregon, Georgia and Florida, many workers said they had no plan for retirement and no idea how they would live if they were to stop working.

In nearly every case, they had paid income taxes and filed tax returns. Some expressed concern about being able to afford health care as they age; decades of exposure to pesticides, extreme heat and grueling physical labor had taken a toll on some workers.

More than 40 percent of the nation’s crop workers now have no legal immigration status, the Department of Agriculture estimated. Farmers say they routinely resort to hiring workers with no legal work authorization because they cannot find Americans willing to do such backbreaking work. But low wages, which agriculture industry leaders say are necessary to keep U.S.-grown produce competitive, are another factor. Farmworkers in 2020 earned an average of $14.62 an hour, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and some earned less.

The government has tried solutions such as the H-2A visa program to bring seasonal farmworkers into the country. But those workers, who often come back year after year, also do not qualify for retirement benefits. In some cases, undocumented farmworkers and their employers have paid Social Security and other federal taxes for decades.

The average age of foreign-born field workers is now 41, according to the census, a figure that has scaled upward in recent years with the decline in new young immigrants willing to work in the fields.

Half of the farmworkers interviewed for the National Agricultural Workers Survey, released last year by the Labor Department, had spent 11 to 30 years on farms, and nearly one in five had done so for more than three decades.

They were earning an average of $20,000 a year.

Ms. Sanchez, who crossed the border illegally from Mexico 27 years ago, earns $620 for a five-day workweek. After deductions — for Social Security and other benefits she is not eligible to receive — she takes home $566.99. She reports for a sixth shift on Sunday.

But now she has started to wonder how long she can keep going. Her right eye has started to twitch and ache.

“As long as I can take it, I’ll keep working,” she said.

In another part of the Coachella Valley, Margarito Rojas has been working for decades, since he first began crossing the Mexico-U.S. border to help nurture the dates, bell peppers and lemons that thrive just a half-hour drive from the glamorous desert oasis of Palm Springs.

“I’d spend six months at a time working and then go back,” Mr. Rojas recalled.

But his years of seasonal migration ended when the U.S. government erected barriers along the California border; hiring smugglers to help him through every year was dangerous and expensive. In 2006, he came and stayed, supporting from afar the seven children he had left behind.

Working under the blinding, buttery sun, one day he met Teresa Flores, a fellow Mexican farmworker, with whom he has shared for many years a tidy, if dilapidated, one-bedroom trailer.

In California, thanks to a new law, the couple are entitled to health care, in spite of their unlawful status. They were also eligible for a one-time payment of $600 from the federal government for working through the pandemic.

But they never got the payment: On an outing into town, they drove right past a nonprofit, Todec, where a banner advertised that checks were being disbursed. Ms. Flores, now 66, is illiterate, and Mr. Rojas reads only a little. They kept going.

Bedtime is around 8, and they rise before the sun. After a breakfast of coffee and a “concha,” a shell-shaped Mexican pastry, they head to the pepper fields, earning $15.50 an hour.

“We’re old. We work anyway,” Mr. Rojas said, cracking a toothless grin. “The supervisors know our work.”

“The youngsters don’t always show up, or they’re on their phones,” Ms. Flores said softly, as if she were revealing a naughty secret.

They had one concern: After California enacted a law last year requiring overtime pay for agricultural workers, their bosses began restricting the couple’s hours, Mr. Rojas said. “It was better when we could work more than 40 hours a week.”

When Juana Castro arrived in rural Georgia in the 1990s, there were few immigrants and plenty of work — in the cabbage, cucumber and melon patches, as well as on pecan and peanut plantations.

The Mexican community in the southeast corner of Georgia expanded rapidly, and Ms. Castro, an old-timer, was much sought after. For fellow immigrant workers who lacked medical insurance, she offered healing services: massages and blessings.

“Monday to Friday, I work in the fields; Saturday and Sunday, I cure,” said Ms. Castro, who is now 80.

On a recent afternoon, men and women arrived, many of them straight from the fields, and waited their turn on Ms. Castro’s porch.

She dabbed lotion and oils on sprained ankles, backaches and dislocated knees, and then pressed gently on pain points. She prayed over people worried about marital strife, a risky pregnancy, an errant teenage daughter.

“See: a few cures, and $80,” she said an hour later, breaking into a satisfied smile.

The supplemental income came in handy after Ms. Castro slipped off a ladder while stringing Christmas lights outside her house last year. The medical care, including X-rays and a cast for a fractured wrist, set her back about $3,000.

Months earlier, she had fallen gravely ill — fever, chills, vomiting and diarrhea. A doctor diagnosed a kidney infection, prescribed medication and, within days, she was back in the fields.

She can still fill 40 buckets with blueberries in a day’s work, earning about $120.

“You can’t stop, because you have to pay your billes,” Ms. Castro said, using Spanglish for bills.

She has never had a break, but she has built a life, she said, and among her grandchildren are doctors and engineers in training.

“In the bank, I keep enough to pay for my funeral,” she said — $10,000, to be precise. “I think I’ll be in the fields to the day I die.”

Agustin Rojas and Guillermina Gonzalez crossed the border in 2002 with their two young daughters and made their way to northern Florida, where there was work in the tomato orchards.

A contact helped them acquire a Social Security card, necessary to get hired. “We assumed it was an invented number,” Ms. Gonzalez, 63, said, “but it had our real names on it.”

Between tomato seasons, Mr. Rojas, now 74, did landscaping in Tallahassee. The couple started saving to build a house back in Mexico for the day they would return.

But in 2008, their world imploded.

Mr. Rojas crashed his car into a tree. He survived, but his left leg, crushed during the collision, had to be amputated below the knee. Since then, he has been using a donated prosthetic and crutches, which give him limited mobility.

Overnight, his wife became the family’s main breadwinner.

Mr. Rojas affixes his prosthetic to his thigh each morning and drives to the tomato fields, but he usually whiles away the hours in his pickup truck while his wife weeds, thins and ties tomato plants to stakes, handling machetes and shovels.

“My companions say, ‘You’re already old. Why are you working?’” said Ms. Gonzalez, adding that she was the oldest one on the crew.

She earns $11.50 an hour.

“God knows I’m not lazy,” she said, tears pooling in her eyes.

“I am willing to work, but my body aches. I’m not young anymore,” she said.

After the husband of one daughter was deported, she and her two little girls moved in with the couple, and because she was legally eligible to work, she helped cover the rent for their single-wide mobile home: $400, plus utilities.

They receive food handouts at a church. For medical care, they visit a community clinic across the border in Georgia, where they pay a reduced rate for consultations and medicine.

That used to be enough. But as Mr. Rojas has aged, he has felt intensifying pain in his back and hips; the prosthetic no longer properly fits.

“What I most wish for is a green card. I’d receive some retirement benefits, Medicare,” he said, fidgeting to find a comfortable position on the sofa.

Angela Guzman last saw her mother and father in Mexico 23 years ago, and she is waiting for the day when the United States will grant her the legal status that she needs to be able to visit them and then return to Oregon.

”I’m ready,” said Ms. Guzman, 63, who works in vineyards and blueberry orchards in Oregon. “I pray to God for my papers.”

Ms. Guzman’s husband was deported several years ago and died in Mexico. They could not bear children, she said. She dotes on Hit, her caramel-colored Chihuahua.

Low-income people in Oregon, no matter their immigration status, qualify for state health coverage.

A growth was removed from Ms. Guzman’s arm a few years ago. She takes medication for high blood pressure and gastritis.

Most days, she is out the door before sunrise with her gray lunchbox. During the blueberry picking season, there is often work seven days a week.

Her parents depend on her to support them. She has about $6,000 in the bank, for an emergency, she said, but what happens when she is no longer able to work?

“I do love the United States. Hard work pays off here: You manage to eat and buy what you need,” she said. But after all her years of work, she wonders when she will be able to rest.

“I have worked so hard, hard, hard,” she said. “So hard.”

Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.

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