Aging Farmworkers Face Challenges with Retirement

Nov 2, 2017

While much of the American workforce looks forwards to retiring around 65, many seasonal farmworkers have no choice but to keep working well past that age.

KAWC’s Stephanie Sanchez has more.

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Enrique Ramirez Oliva lives in a small house in San Luis Rio Colorado.

He is 73-year old and has decades of experience as a farmworker.

Ramirez Oliva is a legal permanent resident of the U.S. and he knows the work he does matters.

“Even the President of The United States has fruits and vegetables sitting on his table that were produced by a Mexican worker," Ramirez Oliva said in Spanish.

According to the United States Department of Labor, the average age of farmworkers in America is 38 years old. Workers older than 45 make up about 20 percent of the 2 to 3 million farmworkers in the country.

The average life expectancy is 49 years old. Living longer means working longer.

"I started in 1962. Now it’s 2017 and I still feel like a battle horse," he said.

Ramirez Oliva has worked with every crop, from cutting lettuce to picking melons.

As an older worker, his supervisors assign him to weed out invasive plants that can affect the crop during planting.

In general, farm work is considered a very hazardous job – in the top ten for the most dangerous jobs, according to some research. Workers are exposed to extreme weather temperatures, pesticides and injury.

Recent studies indicate that older workers are five times more likely than younger workers to be killed on the job.

Ramirez Oliva hasn’t been injured on the job but he has seen accidents in the fields and he’s watched many of his coworkers arrive exhausted for work.   

"We get about 4 to 5 hours of sleep but depending how far we’ve traveled, we can sleep on the bus for about an hour," he said. "That’s the best we can do to endure the work."

Amanda Aguirre is president of Regional Center for Border Health, a clinic that treats a large percentage of farmworker families. Aguirre said health issues among farmworkers worsen the longer they stay on the job.

"We see a lot of chronic care issues like diabetes, hypertension, issues with weight," Aguirre said. "Then the physical....the occupational issues like bending themselves, picking up the lettuce all day long."

"The arm movements are also an issue...elbows, hands, fingers, cuts that got infected and if they have diabetes that makes it very difficult to heal," she said.

Aguirre said some farmworkers have health insurance for the length of the farm season. But the uninsured population in Yuma County reaches up to 15 percent.

Women are the most vulnerable.

“We found that women over 50 years old.... 50 percent or more of them were uninsured. They‘re not yet into Medicare eligibility," Aguirre said. "They're in between, until you get to the age of 65 that you can qualify for Medicare." 

"The women were totally uninsured," she said. "They've retired from the fields and staying home but totally uninsured.”

For most however, there is little choice but to keep working. 52-year old Maria Sandoval of San Luis, Arizona has been working in the fields since 1992.

As she waited for a bus to take her to the fields in the early morning hours, she said retirement would mean a life of financial hardship and poor access to healthcare.

"I think I’ll be working till the day I die because we need to put food on the table," Sandoval said in Spanish. "We have no other choice but to keep going.”

Few of the farmworkers here have access to pensions and retirement savings. There are no 401K plans in fieldwork. 54-year old Ignacio Cervantes sees nothing but work ahead.

"I think I’ll work until I’m too old" Cervantes said.  "Where else am I going to work?"

For those who are American citizens or legal permanent residents, there is social security.

73 year old Ramirez Oliva said he plans to work for two more seasons and move back to his place of birth Nochistlan de Mejia, Zacatecas, Mexico.

That’s where he and his wife who is also a farmworker plan to live off their Social Security.

"Our goal is to pay off all my debts," Ramirez Oliva said in Spanish. "We have a house there and we plan to invest in it and live as God wishes.”

Right now, they make minimum wage which is $10 an hour. The industry is becoming more aware of the need to maintain the health of their farmworkers.

Like re-assigning Ramirez Oliva to weed patrol, companies have added morning stretches and calisthenics to start the day.

They’ve added break schedules and workers say their bosses take any injury on the job seriously. Even small cuts can shut down a filed for the days, say some workers.

Amanda Aguirre at RCBH said that’s good because these workers provide a vital service to feed the world.

“They are the labor that does that for all of us," Aguirre said. "We have to be very blessed that families are still choosing to work. But we got to take better care of them, they deserve that.”

This report was produced with the support of New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the John A. Hartford Foundation.

Enrique Ramirez Oliva and his wife live in San Luis Rio Colorado. They plan to retire after two more seasons and return to Nochistlan de Mejia, Zacatecas, Mexico.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez

73-year old Enrique Ramirez Oliva has been working as a farmworker since 1962 when he first came to the United States. His favorite pastime when he first arrived to America was hitting the dance floors.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez