It’s the open secret of American agriculture: The nation depends on foreign-born workers to produce its food. Seasonal, arduous, and traditionally low-paying jobs may be the backbone of the American food supply, but they’ve long fallen to laborers without American citizenship. Now, as critical labor shortages stall production across the industry, that reliance has become painfully clear. At wineries and dairies, on strawberry fields and shrimp boats, many employers have found the once-steady stream of available workers has all but dried up.
As fishing vessels stay docked, and crops are left out to rot, a question remains: Why? Especially considering that desperate agricultural employers often pay well above the minimum wage, what’s causing these positions to go unfilled? Media reports have suggested that charged rhetoric and an increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids have been factors. But the Trump administration’s hardline stance on immigration can’t fully explain why fewer laborers from Mexico are coming to work the fields since that longer-term trend began in 2005.
Now, a pair of new reports— one from the perspective of employees and the other from the perspective of employers — point to an overlooked (and far more mundane) culprit behind a growing labor crisis: lack of childcare. Seasonal farm labor is tough work for anyone. But for parents with young children, the situation can be simply untenable.
The studies, funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency responsible for reducing occupational hazards in the workplace, and published in The Journal of Agromedicine, highlight a dire need for childcare in American agriculture. One report, which drew on a survey of 132 farmworker parents, found a full 97 percent reported that childcare was difficult or very difficult to obtain. Participants reported having no dedicated child support, relying on a range of informal options—from hired babysitters to friends and in-laws—to watch children in order to go to work. Most of those surveyed reported missing shifts because of child care issues, and most reported that they would work more if they had access to childcare—particularly female respondents. Eighty-two percent of women surveyed said they would even accept significantly lower pay if free childcare was offered as a benefit.
This isn’t news to farm employers, who have started to catch on. Employers interviewed for the studies said that offering childcare is an attractive idea: It can boost employee morale and help retain skilled workers, which would reduce costs involved with recruiting, training, and onboarding. And as the worker shortage has worsened, desperate employers have started to explore the option of providing childcare, says Marsha Salzwedel, youth safety specialist at the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wisconsin, and a co-author of the studies.
“Employers are telling us that anything they can do to make themselves more attractive to employees, they’re interested in doing,” she says.
Karissa Kruse, executive director of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, a regional advocacy organization in California, says the group is hearing about the need for childcare from both Sonoma wine industry employers and employees. But she sees several barriers to widespread adoption. First, many farmworkers make too much money to be eligible for subsidies but not enough to pay for quality childcare on their own. Like many workers in the United States, they have to do the math on whether it makes more sense for both parents to work, or for one to stay home and look after their children. Evidence suggests that’s already happening. Only 28 percent of agricultural workers are female, a number that might increase dramatically if child care was more broadly accessible.
That’s easier said than done, Kruse says, because of one key hurdle: Conventional daycare doesn’t align with farm schedules. Vineyard workers in Sonoma, for example, will start at 5 a.m. and finish by mid-afternoon. If it’s raining or the weather is bad, they might not work that day. “Our current child care system doesn’t accommodate that at all,” she says.
Duff Bevill founded Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg, California in 1979. He says his company has experienced an acute labor shortage for the past five years, and it’s getting worse—Beville is consistently 30 to 40 percent short on labor. The company already offers benefits, but the workforce is aging and there aren’t enough local laborers.
Bevill says he looked into setting up some sort of childcare for his workers but says it’s “just a nightmare,” to do. He’d be more open to a community effort between other local farmers. “There’s no individual farmers who are going to do it,” he says.
A few options exist already—like National Migrant & Seasonal Head Start (NMSHS), part of the federal Head Start program, which was established in 1969 to provide care and pre-school to the children of migrant workers. Right now, it has 29 grantees that run about 60 programs servicing approximately 30,000 children. One long-standing grantee: the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project (ECMHSP), founded in 1974, which runs 38 centers attended by about 3,200 children of farmworkers in Florida, Alabama, Virginia, and North and South Carolina, as well as additional partnerships in other locations.
Vianey Lopez works seasonally in Florida’s tomato fields. She used to pay a babysitter to take care of her two young sons, but when a new ECMHSP center opened in Jennings, Florida, last July, she was happy to send them there. (Her older son has since started kindergarten). Caring for children while at work is a big concern amongst her co-workers, she says, and the Jennings center gave them peace of mind. “Parents were happy they’re going to send their kids somewhere where they are going to be educated and don’t have to worry about if they’re getting fed or treated properly,” she says. She is now the president of the center’s parent committee.
The center was founded through a collaborative partnership developed by ECMHSP, federal funders, and growers. It was built on land leased indefinitely for a dollar a year from a local landowner thanks to an introduction by Procacci Brothers Sales Corp., one of the biggest produce distributors in the country, which farms land in the area. The company wanted to offer childcare to help out its workforce, says Lou Struble, director of business development and special projects, and also because it’s been affected by the labor shortage, too. No workers means produce gets left in the field to rot.
“I’m 100 percent positive that the workers have childcare as one of their big concerns,” Struble says, and it influences their choice of where to work.” This is supported by Salzwedel’s research—89 percent of farmworker parents said they’d choose to work in an area with daycare options. “For them to have a location like East Coast Migrant Head Start makes their decision a lot easier and increases the probability we’ll find workers to farm our land.”
But MSHS programs can’t cover child care needs for all farm workers for several reasons. Eligibility is based on household income levels and poverty guidelines. The Health and Human Services 2018 income level for a family of four is $25,100. For some families, this could mean deciding to work less in order to fall under the income ceiling and maintain eligibility. The latest National Agricultural Workers Survey reports that crop workers make less than $18,000 a year, and 41 percent of migrant families earned below the federal poverty level (compared with 28 percent of settled workers).
Then there’s the fact that workers must actually be seasonal to qualify for MSHS. That’s significant, as, according to a report from the University of California’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, agricultural workers in the U.S. are migrating about 60 percent less often than they did in late 1990s. One child care provider told Salzwedel’s group that these workers are not migrating because they feel it’s easier to fly under the radar if they remain in one location. But those who choose year-round jobs may lose MSHS eligibility.
And, of course, there are fears related to relying on government programs generally, especially with new reports of ICE agents arresting undocumented individuals during interviews for federal food assistance. Norma Flores López, ECMHSP’s governance and collaboration development manager, says many undocumented migrant families are too frightened of deportation to engage with some programs.
“Many families now are terrified and won’t use any government service because they don’t feel safe handing over their information,” she says. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, about 50 percent of America’s farm laborers are undocumented.
When families don’t feel they can safely rely on existing resources, and don’t have other solutions that meet their needs, what’s the inevitable result? Some parents end up bringing their children to work. Most of the parents surveyed for Salzwedel’s studies say they don’t take their children into fields and facilities with them. But other evidence indicates that this happens more often than people like to acknowledge, and some of those children end up working themselves.
Melanie Forti, director of health and safety programs and Children In The Fields campaign director at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, a migrant and seasonal farmworker advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., says that while there are no statistics on farm laborers under age 12, field visits and conversations with farmworkers indicate it’s a significant problem. (Laws on farm worker minimum ages vary by state; in some, it’s as young as 10.) While on the job, they can be exposed to machinery, pesticides, extreme weather, and are at risk of injury.
But the problem of children in the fields is bigger than just availability of daycare, says Forti. It can confer an economic advantage for parents, a kind of coping mechanism that makes up for low wages. Many farmworkers get paid by container or piece—and the faster they work, the more money they make. Extra hands mean more money. “If you have fair pay for them you won’t have the necessity of bringing children to work,” says Forti.
Flores López spent her childhood working with her family in the fields. Her parents were migrant farmers from Mexico. They would take her and her siblings to work so they could keep an eye on them. That eventually transitioned to doing small tasks, like fetching water and buckets by the time she was nine years old. At age 12, she was working (legally) 10- to 12-hour days, seven days a week. It was a twofold problem—the lack of affordable childcare was compounded by the need for extra pairs of hands to earn more money.
This, Flores López says, is a pretty typical scenario. It’s not that these parents think taking their children to work is a good idea—often it’s just the only option. “They’re trying to keep their children as safe as they can and being left with very limited choices. Many times they feel it’s the best way but it’s not,” she says. “There’s definitely a huge need to provide a safe place to leave children.”
All this means there’s also a need for new funding models, including state-level financing, community-based grants, or public-private partnerships. Flores López says they’re looking at new sources of funding and encouraging growers to partner with MSHS. Other ideas include a cooperative model comprised of local growers, says AFOP’s Forti. “Ideally, if there are 10 growers they can come together and provide a child care center for their workers,” she says. “It could provide job opportunities and that way they don’t have to depend on government funding.”
The idea of modeling childcare after health insurance—a subsidized cost for which employers pay the majority and employees pick up the rest—was of interest to several growers Salzwedel spoke with. She found they’d be more willing to subsidize day care if, like health insurance, it was a deductible expense. But the tax laws don’t currently allow for this method, and so existing regulations would need to be changed.
Salzwedel and her colleagues are in the process of creating a guide for agricultural employers who are interested in providing childcare, from learning about setting up a facility to funding ideas.
The bottom line, Salzwedel says, is that if the farm worker shortage continues, there will be one of two outcomes: Food will continue to rot in the field with no one to pick it, or else fewer crops will be planted and the U.S. will eat more imported food. Neither is a good option for American agriculture.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Procacci Brothers Sales Corp. funded the development of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Program (ECMSHP) center in Jennings, Florida. The funds came from ECMSHP, though Procacci Brothers helped the program find the land, and has donated to the organization in the past.