California farmworkers have serious health challenges, study finds

California farmworkers face harsh working conditions, limited healthcare access, and widespread chronic health issues, according to a new community-based study.

Researchers from UC Merced Community and Labor Center surveyed more than 1,200 farmworkers in six different languages between August 2021 and January 2022, about their physical health, mental health, COVID-19, social and economic rights, and working conditions.

The Farmworker Health Study was initiated nearly two years before a shooting at two farms in Half Moon Bay left seven people dead. The day after the tragedy, state and local leaders were calling for an investigation into the working and living environment.

This study, funded by the California Dept. of Public Health, highlights the health and well-being of farmworkers, exposing the serious challenges many say they deal with daily.

"There’s ongoing poverty because of low wages," UC Merced Director of Farmworker Research Cindy Quezada said. "There’s a broken safety net, poor health, and a lack of good healthcare access and hazards at work."

Researchers formed a community advisory board of 26 farmworker organizations, which helped gather the data and survey responses.

Of those surveyed, 49% reported not having health insurance. Only 43% reported visiting a doctor’s clinic in the past year. And 36% rated their health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor.’

The study suggests many farmworkers feel nervous or anxious, uncontrollably worries, depressed or hopeless.

"They can’t take care of their mental or physical health because they have to work. That is the reality," mental health clinician Wendy Rubio with nonprofit ALAS said. "If this stress and this lack of sleep is accumulating, that is going to affect our mental health and something so small can become so big."

Rubio said she thinks that is what happened at two mushroom farms where a suspected gunman and former worker opened fire. Officials said the suspect was disgruntled.

SEE ALSO: Half Moon Bay farmworkers describe horror of mass shooting

Since then, there has been a focus by politicians and advocacy groups on the disparities and injustices among the people who grow food in California.

"It’s inhumane," said Ann Lopez, executive director of Center for Farmworker Families. "I think we need a safety net in this state for farmworkers and we certainly need to give them a living wage."

Advocates say farmworkers can’t afford to take a day off and many live in poverty, unable to put food on the table.

SEE ALSO: California farmworkers endure harsh conditions, wildfires and the coronavirus

Researchers found nearly one in five reported they weren’t paid the wages they earned. 43% reported their employer never provided a heat-illness prevention plan as the law requires.

Additionally, there are other permits and policies to keep farmworkers safe and healthy that Lopez said are ignored.

"The laws that are on the books aren’t even enforced," she said. "It’s time to wake up. This would not happen in other industries."

More than a third surveyed said they’re unwilling to file a report against an employer. Most said they fear if they did, they’d face retaliation or job loss.

In response to the findings, researchers said it’s a call to action for public engagement and policy development to improve farmworkers’ health and access to services.

"I’m sick and tired of receiving calls from farmworkers in the fields talking about the horrendous things they’re experiencing," Lopez said. "We need transformation. The entire industrial farming system is a failed system."

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @BrooksKTVU