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For several decades, migrant and seasonally employed, hired farm laborers were identified as a “special population” in need of programs of government and/or philanthropic assistance. Thus, Migrant Health, Migrant Education, Migrant Job-Training, Migrant Legal Services, and, more recently, Migrant Head Start, were developed to respond to the needs of workers who often traveled great distances, often with their entire families, in search of farm work. In the first years of these programs, only U.S.-born “migrant” workers were eligible to be served. Subsequently, it was recognized that those workers who were employed on a “seasonal” basis in agriculture had very similar characteristics and needs, and the requirement of being U.S.-born was dropped from eligibility standards.

The composition of the hired farm labor force has dramatically changed since those early years of the “migrant” programs. For this reason, it is important to be clear about the population of interest in this chapter. The term “farmworker” can refer to three groups: farmers, unpaid family workers (usually members of the farm family), and hired workers. This paper is concerned with hired farmworkers, defined as persons who are employed on a farm to perform tasks that directly result in the production of an agricultural commodity intended for sale. Postharvest processing tasks are excluded from this definition. Note also that the nature of the employer is not specified in this definition. Individuals performing farm tasks might be working for a farmer, labor contractor, packer/shipper, or another type of labor market intermediary.

There is a marked absence of reliable data on the number of such workers, either today or at any time in the past. Thus, epidemiology in this population is severely restricted by the lack of reliable denominator data. In 1992, the authoritative federal Commission on Agricultural Workers (CAW) estimated the number of persons employed as hired farm laborers in the United States at 2.5 million individuals.1 Most jobs filled by farm laborers are short term so that the corresponding employment figure (sometimes described as full-time-equivalents or FTE), equal to the annual average of monthly employment, is much lower, perhaps numerically half or less of the CAW estimate. In contrast, the self-employment of farmers and unpaid family members is estimated to be about 2.0 million.2 Thus, directly hired farmworker and agricultural service (contract) worker employment was an estimated 37% of the national total of farm employment in 1992.

The relative importance of hired farm laborers in U.S. agriculture has increased in recent years. For example, in California, where virtually all hired farmworker employment and/or payroll is reported to both the state Labor and Employment Agency, and to the Workers Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau, the proportion of the total amount of all work on farms that was performed by farmers and unpaid family members dropped from 40% in 1950 to just 15% in 2001.3 Correspondingly, the share performed by hired workers increased from 60% to ...

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