Farm Work and Covid-19
The United States has reported over 1.6 million cases of Covid-19.[i] Within this outbreak, children associated with the US agriculture sector, including both child farm workers and children related to farm workers, are uniquely vulnerable. Underlying inequities in the agricultural sector persisted before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has created an urgent need to address them.
The entire agriculture supply chain has faced heightened pressure during the pandemic, due to consumer “panic-buying,” the closure of restaurants, volatile market prices, and disruptions in supply chain logistics from new safety measures.[ii] Farm workers, the base of these supply chains, have been placed on the list of “essential workers.”[iii]
Because of their essential status and the context of their livelihoods, farm workers are encountering new vulnerabilities during this pandemic that could have societal effects. Social distancing and self-isolation, two of the main precautions recommended by the Center of Disease Control and the World Health Organization, are almost impossible for farm workers. Some agricultural workers live on farm properties, in temporary dormitory-style accommodation with up to 40 other workers, sharing bathroom, kitchen, and sleeping areas.[iv] Others are transported to farms in cramped vans and trucks. Those not in dorms live with their families, usually in close quarters and sometimes with extended families.[v] Some crops, like lettuce, require workers to stand in close proximity to be harvested.[vi] Neither the dorms nor private houses have the capacity to accommodate self-isolation to recuperate if one does get sick. Once one person catches the virus, it is only a matter of time before it spreads throughout the entire group of workers and their families.[vii]
Precautions have been taken by farms to slow the spread of Covid-19, including limiting the number of workers at one time, switching to buses for transport, encouraging protective gear like masks and gloves, and adding hand-washing stations.[viii] However, there seems to be a wide variation in how seriously farms are taking the steps to protect their workers.[ix] For example, some farm workers in Washington have reported bringing their own soap from home.[x]
There are also structural issues that put farm workers in a precarious situation during the pandemic. Those hired on farms have a poverty rate more than two times the country’s average for wage and salary workers,[xi] meaning that farm workers live pay-check to pay-check.[xii] Many farm workers also lack access to sick leave.[xiii] Missing work could mean being unable to pay rent or buy food, leading many to come to work even if they are sick.[xiv] Workers who are undocumented or under the H-2A visa program, which authorizes noncitizen agricultural laborers to work in the US, are not covered under the Affordable Care Act, so it is unlikely they have health insurance.[xv] Therefore, these workers cannot go to the hospital if they get sick because of the large bills that will follow. Because many farm workers are undocumented, they do not feel comfortable speaking out or advocating for themselves, in fear of being reported to authorities.
Children, Farm Work, and Covid-19
Human Rights Watch conservatively estimated that hundreds of thousands of children below the age of 18 worked in the agricultural sector in the US before the Covid-19 outbreak. Children begin working on farms as young as 6 years. Often their employment is unrecorded and the conditions exploitative and demanding.[xvi] Research shows that child labor is associated with financial shocks experienced by families, such as illness, disability, or a parent’s loss of employment; all three of which are prevalent in this pandemic.[xvii] Therefore, it is highly likely that the rate of child farm labor has increased in the last 3 months.
Children in the workforce are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the primary regulator for child labor in the US. The FLSA operates under an outdated assumption that children work on family-owned farms.[xviii] It mandates a minimum work age of 16 years, with some exceptions for 14- and 15-year-olds in specific jobs and with heavy restrictions.[xix] However, in the agriculture sector, there is no minimum age for working on small farms, as long as there is parental consent, which isn’t needed after age 14.[xx]
The high poverty rate is one of the primary drivers of child labor on farms, a way for children to provide financial help to their families. However, children are often paid less than the adults. In many cases, both adults and children make less than minimum wage, because pay is often based on a piece rate system, where workers are paid by the quantity they pick.[xxi] When working on farms with their parents, children’s output is often counted towards their parent’s total, meaning that one salary covers two or more workers.[xxii] This extreme poverty forces farm workers to continue working, even in the face of a global pandemic. One consequence of Covid-19 is that caregivers may lose or be temporarily laid off from their jobs due to sickness or business closures, resulting in financial instability for the entire family. Therefore, children may have to step up to fill the gap in family income by working on farms.
Both the sickness itself and the indirect consequences, such as losing jobs, causes a great deal of stress for everyone during the pandemic. When adults are stressed, children may be subjected to abuse or view domestic abuse, but have little access to people who might report or mitigate it.
In non-agricultural sectors, the FLSA mandates the number of hours that school-age children can work, but doesn’t have similar stipulations for school-age agricultural workers. This lack of mandate for children agricultural workers means that work often takes precedence over school.[xxiii] Approximately 33% of children who work in agriculture do not graduate high school.[xxiv] This is further compounded by the Covid-19 outbreak, which has forced schools to close indefinitely. Furthermore, children working on farms may not have the resources to continue their education in alternative ways, such as online or through parent-led home-schooling. This lack of in-person school time also means there is no accountability mechanism for child labor and children are able to work on farms without teachers or administrators knowing.
Resilience and Moving Forward
While many of these needs reflect endemic problems, the Covid-19 pandemic creates an urgency to address these problems as soon as possible. In order to support children’s resilience during this pandemic, family and children’s access to services and education, as well as sufficient financial support become key. The wellbeing of farm workers and child farm workers is necessary to navigate through the Covid-19 pandemic and perhaps to emerge a more equitable society.
First, online resources for families of farm laborers are necessary for children’s resilience. Schools help foster a sense of belonging and achievement for children and can act as a “protective shield” from troubles at home.[xxv] Without such places, children lose opportunities to enhance their self-esteem and healthy mental condition. Resilience should be built by continuing to provide educational opportunities for child farm workers, albeit in different formats than we are used to. This includes providing the resources for internet connection, as well as connecting children to educational services once online.
Covid-19 also minimizes caregivers’ ability to seek social, mental, and other support services in their communities. Those connections directly affect caregiver’s ability to provide a safe home environment, eventually contributing to the development of resilience for their children.[xxvi] Therefore, priority should also be given to finding innovative ways for parents and caregivers to access support resources.
One characteristic that has been found to bolster resilience in children is a sense of caregiving, themselves. This is why many children begin working on farms in the first place, to take care of their families. One avenue for building resilience is to encourage children’s support of each other, whether that be siblings, relatives, or friends. This is especially pertinent during this pandemic when all of a child’s social structure is now reliant on who they live with. This can be in the form of communal learning or simply acknowledgement by teachers or counselors, if children have contact with them, of the work children put into taking care of others.
Secondly, sufficient financial support should be given to families of farm workers. Poverty is a main driver of both child farm work and risky behavior that spreads Covid-19. Before the pandemic, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Bob Goodlatte were spearheading the bipartisan Agricultural Worker Program Act, a much-needed update to the reality of the agricultural sector, including paths to citizenship for undocumented agricultural workers.
Additionally, in March, the Trump administration signed The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), a two trillion-dollar stimulus package meant to help households affected by the pandemic. Part of this plan included more than $23 billion for the agriculture industry, with $9.5 billion of that fund going to support farmers.[xxvii] However, according to United Farm Workers, this bill leaves many farmworkers out and does not do enough for the ones who are included.[xxviii] Undocumented farmworkers are not included in the bill, despite being deemed essential. Some farmworkers have reported not seeing any of the CARES money going into improving work conditions, such as providing paid sick leave.[xxix]
Any future iterations of the Agriculture Worker Program Act and any upcoming stimulus packages need to specifically include financial support for farm workers and child farm workers, including those who are undocumented. Lifting the financial burden on these households is crucial during this pandemic, to both slow the spread of Covid-19 and bolster resilience within the entire community.
Written by: Emily Santos F20 and Koto Takashima F20
[i] Meg Wagner, Elise Hammond and Mike Hayes, “Coronavirus pandemic in the US,” CNN, April 30, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/us/live-news/us-coronavirus-update-04-30-20/index.html
[ii] Jeff Caldwell, “How Covid-19 Is Impacting Various Points in the US Food & Ag Supply Chain,” AgFunderNews, April 16, 2020, https://agfundernews.com/how-covid-19-is-impacting-various-points-in-the-food-ag-supply-chain.html.
[iii] Miriam Jordan, “Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic,” New York Times, April 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/us/coronavirus-undocumented-immigrant-farmworkers-agriculture.html.
[iv] Michael Haedicke, “How Coronavirus Threatens the Seasonal Farmworkers at the Heart of the American Food Supply,” The Conversation, April 3, 2020, https://theconversation.com/how-coronavirus-threatens-the-seasonal-farmworkers-at-the-heart-of-the-american-food-supply-135252.
[v] Anrea Castillo, “Farmworkers Face Coronavirus Risk: ‘You Can’t Pick Strawberries over Zoom,’” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-04-01/california-farmworkers-coronavirus.
[vi] Catherine E. Shoichet, “The Farmworkers Putting Food on America’s Tables Are Facing Their Own Coronavirus Crisis,” CNN, April 11, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/11/us/farmworkers-coronavirus/index.html.
[vii] Liora Engel-Smith, “For Migrant Workers in NC, Coronavirus May Be Hard to Avoid,” North Carolina Health News, March 13, 2020, https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2020/03/13/for-migrant-workers-in-nc-coronavirus-may-be-hard-to-avoid/.
[viii] Kate Cimini, “California Farmworkers Face New Perils from Mask Shortage as Growers Try to Roll out Other Protections,” The Californian, March 26, 2020, https://www.thecalifornian.com/story/news/2020/03/26/california-farmworkers-need-face-masks-but-cant-find-them-amid-covid-19-fear-coronavirus/4957564002/.
[ix] Gosia Wozniacka, “Farmworkers Are in the Coronavirus Crosshairs,” Civil Eats, March 25, 2020, https://civileats.com/2020/03/25/farmworkers-are-in-the-coronavirus-crosshairs/.
[x] Catherine E. Shoichet, “The Farmworkers Putting Food on America’s Tables Are Facing Their Own Coronavirus Crisis,” CNN, April 11, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/11/us/farmworkers-coronavirus/index.html.
[xi] “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” Human Rights Watch, July 2, 2019,
[xii] Miriam Jordan, “Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic,” New York Times, April 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/us/coronavirus-undocumented-immigrant-farmworkers-agriculture.html.
[xiii] “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” Human Rights Watch, July 2, 2019,
[xiv] Greg Asbed, “What Happens If America’s 2.5 Million Farmworkers Get Sick?,” New York Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/opinion/coronavirus-farm-workers.html.
[xv] Michael Haedicke, “How Coronavirus Threatens the Seasonal Farmworkers at the Heart of the American Food Supply,” The Conversation, April 3, 2020, https://theconversation.com/how-coronavirus-threatens-the-seasonal-farmworkers-at-the-heart-of-the-american-food-supply-135252.
[xvi] “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” Human Rights Watch, July 2, 2019, 71
[xvii] “COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on Children,” Human Rights Watch, April 9, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/09/covid-19s-devastating-impact-children#.
[xviii] “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” 71.
[xix] Ibid, 6.
[xx] Ibid, 20.
[xxi] Ibid, 27.
[xxii] Ibid, 28.
[xxiii] “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” 11.
[xxiv] Ibid, 33.
[xxvi] T. S. Betancourt and K. T Khan, “The Mental Health of Children Affected by Armed Conflict: Protective Processes and Pathways to Resilience,” International Review of Psychiatry, 2008 (20): 317–328.
[xxvii] Eric Lipton and Sharon LaFraniere, “For Farmers, Stimulus Bill Means Subsidies Continue to Flow,” New York Times, March 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/us/politics/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-farmers.html.