Another spring break had come and gone for Norma Flores Lopez. Like her friends, she came back tanned and glowing from her week in the sun. Unlike them, she reeked of onions no matter how furiously she scrubbed at her skin. Like her classmates, she wasn’t exactly looking forward to returning to the middle school grind; unlike them, this wasn’t solely the result of eighth-grade angst. It was her hands, too swollen to hold a pencil.
Lopez had spent her vacation with her parents and her four sisters in the onion fields of South Texas. They each put in 70 to 80 hours that week to harvest onions alongside other migrant farm workers, many of them children her age or younger. Lopez, who was 12 at the time, handled sharp onion scissors too big for her pint-sized hands, and they pinched and chafed at her skin every day that she worked in temperatures that, even in March, could climb to more than 80 degrees. Humidity often soared to 80 percent.
By the time school was back in session, taking notes was out of the question, and her inflamed hands made her daily homework assignments an agonizing ordeal. So, Lopez turned to her mother — a woman with a second grade education who could hardly write in Spanish, much less English — to craft the appeal to her teachers, explaining once again why she was unable to do her work, and to please, once again, give her more time. It was embarrassing, but at the age of 12, Lopez was already used to it. The family would move again soon anyway, chasing the crops, and she’d be forced back into the familiar routine of playing catch-up, swollen hands or not. Before starting high school, Lopez had already learned that in the constant balancing act between work and school, helping to support her family often wound up as the higher priority. Sometimes, her education just had to wait.
Lopez is 28 now, but not much has changed for children who work in agriculture. Currently, more than 400,000 children under the age of 18 are employed on America’s farms, often working the same hours, at the same tasks, as their adult counterparts. They work around and even operate dangerous equipment with little or no safety training. They endure repeated exposure to hazardous pesticides as they harvest alongside their parents, who more often than not are migrants, following the crops. These children drop out of school at a rate four times the national average. (US Department of Labor, “The National Agricultural Workers Survey: Public Access Documentation") Without an education, they are often left with few career options besides a lifetime of farmwork.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, child labor laws do not regulate farm work the way they regulate other industries. Children of any age can work on any small farm, needing only the permission of their parents. Once they reach the age of 12, they can be hired at farms of any size, again, either with their parents’ consent, or if the same farm employs their parents. The Department of Labor stops requiring parental consent at age 14, and by 16 will even allow children to engage in work it deems “particularly hazardous.” In all other industries, no one under 18 can legally undertake such high-risk tasks.
The Fair Labor Standards Act, also known as the FLSA, passed Congress in 1938. It revolutionized America’s working environment, introducing a federal minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, and extra compensation for overtime hours. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself said that apart from the Social Security Act of 1935, the FLSA was the most important piece of legislation adopted during the New Deal.
At the time of the FLSA’s passage, farmers comprised between 18 and 20 percent of the U.S. labor force. The work was slow and steady; much of it was done by hand. In 1945, it took 14 hours of labor and two acres of land to produce 100 bushels of corn. At the beginning of the century, some 22 million work animals performed the majority of hard labor on farms. In this time of agriculture’s heyday, it was usually the farmers’ own children whom the FLSA was designed to protect as they helped their parents and learned the family business.
But trying to compare the situation in 1938 to that of today is like comparing tobacco to blueberries. Today, fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports in an economic information bulletin. By 2002, those same 100 bushels of corn could be produced in less than three hours, on less than one acre of land. Five million tractors have replaced the horses and mules of the early 20th century. Farms have grown larger, more mechanized, and more specialized; in 2007, just 6 percent of farms were producing 75 percent of our nation’s food. And 72 percent of their workers, low-paid and low-skilled, are foreign-born.
No other industry enjoys the exemptions the FLSA grants to agriculture. A 12-year-old who would be prohibited from working as a file clerk in an air-conditioned office building can legally work on a farm for an unlimited number of hours outside of school. A 16-year-old who could not operate a forklift in a factory can drive one without legal retribution on any farm in the country.
North Carolina is the nation’s leading producer of tobacco and sweet potatoes. Eddy Ramirez, Jose Montes, Eleazar Molina, and Neftali, Kemberly, and Yesenia Cuello Yillalobos all have worked tobacco for much of their adolescent lives. Ramirez is 14; Montes is 16; Molina, 15; and the Cuello sisters are 17, 19, and 20. All are from North Carolina’s Lenoir County, a swatch of land that relies on agriculture and manufacturing and where the poverty rate is almost 9 percentage points above the national average. Most of the children also have worked in sweet potato or have put in hours farming blueberry, cucumber and other crops in North Carolina and elsewhere.
Out of the six, Yesenia started picking at the most advanced age -- 14; Kemberly was put on the clock at 13 and the other four all started working the fields when they turned 12. The harvesting season in North Carolina starts in the late spring, meaning that it inevitably breaks into the last part of the school year. And it doesn’t end until summer is over. So, like Lopez did more than a decade ago, today’s farm worker kids usually spend their vacations picking our nation’s food, their childhoods surrendered to the fields.
For Neftali and her sisters, the day starts at 4:30 in the morning, when they pull themselves out of bed. They make their food for the day -- wrapping it in aluminum foil in a usually fruitless attempt to keep it warm -- then drive or get driven to the fields. Their mother, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, does not have a driver’s license. Before they were old enough to drive themselves, getting the family to work could be a hassle. They relied on friends and neighbors, often other farm workers, to take them to their jobs on time each day. The Cuello sisters live in a deeply rural part of Lenoir County, and they say it can take them up to an hour to get to the day’s harvest site. But without fail, they’re in the field by 6:00 a.m.
In tobacco, they usually spend the day picking off the “suckers,” tiny growths that shoot off from the main plant, drawing away vital nutrients from the larger, harvestable leaves. At 6:00 a.m., when it’s still dark, Neftali’s feet sink into the soggy ground. But the earth dries quickly once the sun rises, and the heat can become unbearable in temperatures that top 100 degrees. The girls move down the rows as swiftly as they can. In larger tobacco fields, where, Yesenia says, “you can’t even see the end after a while of walking,” a single row can take more than two hours to finish. For Kemberly, a day of working in tobacco boils down to four words: “Tiring, dehydrating, nauseating, and hot.”
The nausea, though occasionally a result of the heat that can permeate any field, is more often a unique side-effect of working in tobacco. Human skin can absorb the plant’s nicotine, especially when the leaves are wet. One study estimates that on a humid day, the average farm worker could absorb nicotine equivalent to the amount in 36 cigarettes — almost two standard packs. The symptoms of “green tobacco sickness,” as this nicotine poisoning is known, include headache, nausea, muscle weakness, and dizziness. Children are more susceptible to the condition than adults. Legally, someone has to be 18 to purchase tobacco, but in North Carolina, they often start harvesting it at the age of 12 or younger.
Breaks are legally required, just as they are in all other industries, but they aren’t always a given in the fields of North Carolina. “Sometimes,” said Ramirez, “we didn’t get no breaks or even get lunch.” He worked all day, he said, from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. If a field isn’t quite picked clean of suckers, workers can be told to stay as late as 8:00 p.m. They usually put in at least a 12-hour shift, but the children say the hours can easily stretch to as many as 14. For agricultural work, the FLSA does not require farmers to pay their employees overtime.
When breaks are given -- never earlier than noon, a full six hours into the shift -- the respite is often contingent on the amount of work already done. One contractor who hired Neftali told her that if she had finished her work by noon, she could take a break. If she didn’t, she’d better wind up her row as fast as she could. If she finished before the break was over, she could take what was left. When she fell behind the others, she said, “sometimes I had very small breaks.”
Tired is the last thing these working children should be. The Child Labor Coalition consistently rates agriculture as one of the country’s most dangerous occupations. In 2006, a 10-year-old Florida boy, working someone else’s field, accidentally ran over his two-year old brother while driving a truck full of oranges. In 2002, a 14-year-old in Ohio died after falling into a cattle feed grinder. In 2004, a 12-year-old was fatally pinned under a hay wagon. According to statistics compiled by Human Rights Watch, from 2005 to 2008, at least 43 children under age 18 died from farmwork-related injuries. Those 43 represent 27 percent of all children nationwide who suffered fatal injuries at work. That number jumped to 75 percent for children under 16 in 2010 alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found.
None of the children interviewed could remember ever receiving any safety or occupational training.
Two years ago, when Molina was 13, he got too close to a soil compactor that was making its way up and down the rows. He doesn’t remember exactly how he fell; he just remembers that all of a sudden, the compactor was coming towards him too fast, and he felt trapped. “I was watching the machine come to take off my leg,” he said. “And everybody was going, ‘Stop, stop!’” The compactor came to a halt but it took him a few seconds to regain enough composure to stand up. “I was in shock,” he said.
Others have not been so lucky. In August 2011, two 17-year old boys each lost a leg in a grain auger. Bryce Gannon was working in a grain elevator in Kremlin, Oklahoma, when his leg became entangled in the auger. His friend, Tyler Zander, tried to help him but became trapped himself.
On July 28, 2010, in Mt. Carroll, Ill., 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread was instructed to “walk the corn” in a grain bin, which means to manually break up the corn kernels that have become crusted together by moisture. Helping him were Alex Pacas, a 19-year-old, and his best friend Will Piper, who was 20. Alex’s aunt, Catherine Rylatt, said there were safety harnesses available but none of the boys were instructed to put them on.
While the boys were walking the corn, a second hole at the bottom was opened up -- to help the corn flow faster. But as the kernels started to flow, they became like quicksand, and Wyatt started to sink. Alex and Will went to help him. “They actually almost had Wyatt out,” said Rylatt, “when they basically fell through the grain themselves.”
Within seconds, the corn had engulfed Wyatt and smothered him to death. Alex and Will struggled to hold their heads above the grain as other workers tried to help them. Rescuers managed to throw Will a grain tube and a bucket that he could place over his head to create an airspace. But for Alex, they were also too late. Will remained pressed up against his best friend’s lifeless body for the six hours it took to extract him.
Wyatt had only been working there for a few weeks when he died, said Rylatt. It was Alex’s second day on the job.
“A few weeks after the fact,” Rylatt said, “they sent my sister a paycheck for Alex’s two days of work. With a little sticky note -- handwritten, a handwritten sticky note -- of his hours. They did not spell his name right.”
Alex was not a minor, but Rylatt knows he died trying to save Wyatt, who she says should probably not have been in there in the first place. “People assume that teenagers can make good decisions, and that’s a wrong assumption,” she said. Agriculture has no “safety culture,” she said, and children often work unsupervised in dangerous environments. “It’s just really sad that in a country as rich as we are, and as ‘progressed’ as we are, that we have these young children working in the fields,” she said.
A friend of Neftali’s, who was 16 at the time, was instructed to check the pesticide levels in a power sprayer while it was spraying the field. If the levels got too low, the machine could explode. While he was bending down to inspect it, the very thing he was trying to prevent happened. The machine exploded in his face. “All the chemicals got in his eyes and everything,” she said. “He didn’t even have goggles.” Even though he was without a license, his uncle ordered him to drive himself home. His eyes burned for days. But too much time off isn’t an option for most young low-income farm workers, and he soon returned to work. He was not offered any compensation for his injury, and it remains unclear a year later if the accident has caused him lasting damage.
As part of their annual migrant stream, the Lopez family traveled to Indiana to pick apples. The ladders that were propped against the little trees were 10- to 12-feet high, and Lopez struggled to balance the heavy buckets of apples as she climbed repeatedly up and down the dwarf trees. She saw her father fall once when an old tree snapped under his weight. He wasn’t being careless or inattentive; it was just an old tree and a long way down, she said. He broke his wrist as he tumbled to the ground. “That could’ve easily been me.”
Ramirez was working in a tobacco or yam field — he can no longer remember which one, as over the years, one field tends to blend into the next — when the woman next to him collapsed. He rushed to help; it took her two or three minutes to come around. When she did, she told him that in order to get to the field by 6:00 a.m., she hadn’t had time to eat breakfast that morning, and she hadn’t been given any water all day.
By law, farmers are supposed to provide water to their workers, but in the experience of these child farmworkers, it is almost never available and when it is, it often looks dubious, likely not potable. Neftali has seen orange water. “They were like, ‘Oh, it’s just a different color,’” she said, her tone incredulous. “But it had all these dirt particles in it, and grass, and we were like, ‘What is this?’” Another time, she was directed to a huge tank of water on the edge of a field, but warned immediately not to drink it. She was told, “‘You can put it on your head to keep cool, but don’t drink it.’” Most child workers prefer to bring their own supply.
And they are very careful not to forget, because in North Carolina especially, heat stroke is a common problem. Neftali swears it gets hotter inside a tobacco field than it does beyond its perimeter, and the nausea the Cuello sisters have felt from that summer heat often makes them want to throw up. Yesenia recalls at least one heat stroke episode. “I just stopped sweating,” she said. “And it actually felt really good, but I didn’t realize that I was experiencing heat stroke. I didn’t realize that that wasn’t really a good thing.” Her mother made her leave soon afterwards, which Yesenia describes as “lucky,” but she worries what could have happened if she had stayed. She was never educated about the dangers of heat stroke by any of her employers, but she has since taken a class on the subject on her own. At least, she said, she now knows the signs.
Bathrooms, too, are a luxury in the fields. If they do exist, they’re often disgusting. “Some people just...do their business in the fields,” said Kemberly, wrinkling her nose. Yesenia adds, “There aren’t bathrooms, but there are a whole bunch of trees.” She snickers. “You get a leaf, you make it happen.”
More than 50 years ago, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring brought the dangers of pesticide use to America’s attention, and facilitated the ban on DDT ten years later. But other pesticides are still very much in use, viewed as a necessary evil to control infestations of bugs and weeds. In fact, U.S. farmers still deploy about 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides each year. Manufacturers of genetically modified plants, known as GMOs, contend that they have reduced pesticide use, but studies indicate otherwise. Pesticide application actually increased by 7 percent from 1996 to 2011 — largely in efforts to combat the spread of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”
Carson’s concern was real. Pesticides have been linked to several birth defects, including spina bifida, cryptorchidism, anencephaly, and neurodevelopmental problems such as ADD and ADHD. Though all Americans are exposed to pesticides on a nearly daily basis (one study concludes that nearly 100 percent of us carry pesticides in our body fat), farm workers are among the most susceptible, particularly pregnant women, who often continue to harvest late into their pregnancies. Children, whose bodies are still developing, are more vulnerable still. Pound for pound, they drink more water, eat more food, and breathe more air than their adult counterparts, making their pesticide exposure that much more profound.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets the standards for pesticide handling in agriculture. By law, there are protocols that govern the amount of time between the application of pesticides to a field and when its workers can return to it. Human Rights Watch reports that these Restricted Entry Intervals, or REIs, were calculated based on a man who weighs 154 pounds, with no adjustments made for smaller workers. In a published report, HRW charged that these REIs “do not take children’s special vulnerabilities into account.”
An EPA spokesperson confirmed that while the REIs were calculated based on adult standards, children were accounted for in the following way: “The studies available to the EPA indicate that juvenile workers generally get the same or less exposure than adults,” the spokesman said in an email. “In other words, evaluating exposure using an adult body weight protects all workers.” But despite the EPA’s careful calculations and good intentions, according to these working children, the REIs are usually just ignored. In agriculture, time is money.
One recent summer day, Molina was working with a group, moving systematically through a field. They had just finished a neighboring plot, and Molina glanced up from his work and noticed that the farmer had moved in and was already spraying it with pesticides. The farmer finished by the time Molina and his crew were about halfway done with their field. “So he came in and started doing the half we’d already finished,” Molina said. “When he caught up to us, he told us, ‘Just wait over there while I finish spraying.’ And he finished spraying the whole field and he sent us back in right after.”
The leaves of the plants were still wet when they started up again. Molina half-laughs at the end of recounting his story. It doesn’t strike him as that unusual.
Lopez, too, became used to the daily pesticide grind. Planes periodically flew by, spraying pesticides onto the fields nearby. In the heat, she said, “we would almost welcome that mist, just feeling how refreshing it was.” As a 13-year-old, she didn’t really quite understand what was misting her sweaty skin. It took her father’s intervention for her to realize that the planes were not there to save her from heatstroke.
They were in Indiana, she said, another stop on their migrant path. “My father was the archetype of the cool, collected Mexican,” she said. “Just very stoic. Doesn’t say many words.” But the family had gotten split off from the larger group of pickers and had been sent back to an already completed field to gather up the hooks used to cut the corn. They heard a plane approaching. Assuming it was headed for a different field, they ignored it. It was only when Lopez heard her father start to scream at them -- “at the top of his lungs, just to drop everything and run out of the field” -- did she realize that the plane was coming right towards where they stood, arms full of corn shucking hooks.
They threw the hooks on the ground and ran. Corn has sharp leaves -- “they’ll slice you right on your face,” Lopez said, so they shielded themselves with their arms as they ran. They had barely made it out of the field before the plane started spraying. Her father was livid. He called the contractor to pick them up; when the man arrived, he laughed it off. We made a mistake, was all the man said. Sorry about that. Come and join the rest of us.
“We never got asked, ‘Is everybody okay?’” Lopez said. “‘Do you guys need any medical attention? Do you need to go home to shower or something?’” That’s how farmworkers are, she said. But in the fields, she often felt vulnerable to those kinds of close calls, or worse. Pesticide exposure was a daily worry. Though the effects of long-term pesticide exposure aren’t well-known, the short-term effects -- nausea, dizziness, muscle weakness, and more -- are potent enough to make Lopez fear for her future.
“Even though I haven’t been working in the fields for ten years now, I’m still waiting if maybe something will come up down the road,” she said. “Maybe I’ll develop cancer, maybe I’ll develop Alzheimer’s.”
In June of 2011, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., introduced H.R. 2234, or the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, the CARE act, in short. This bill would have amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to raise the minimum age of agricultural employment to 14, the hazardous task age to 18, and to set restrictions on the number of hours children under 16 can work outside of school hours. In essence, it would have removed the exemptions on agriculture, bringing it into line with other industries the FLSA regulates.
Though the CARE Act had more than 100 cosponsors, it immediately died in committee, and has yet to be reintroduced in the 113th Congress. Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition and a strong supporter of the CARE Act, said he is confident Representative Roybal-Allard has plans to reintroduce the bill, but he is unsure of its prospects in a Republican-controlled Congress. “It’s gonna be tough,” he said. “We had no Republican cosponsors, and even when we had over 100 Democrats on board, we couldn’t get a single Republican to cross the line.”
He does not think the political climate of the current Congress has shifted much in the bill’s favor except for one small self-interested glimmer of hope. “The only thing that’s really changing, I think, is that the Republican Party is more aware than ever that it has to be responsive to the Hispanic constituency,” he said. “And a lot of the kids who are working for wages are Hispanic kids, and if you’re a Republican and you want to show that you care about Hispanics and their children, this would be a great bill.”
Ony Congress can amend the FLSA, but there have been parallel governmental efforts to provide more protection to child farmworkers. In September of 2011, the Labor Department introduced regulations that would re-designate certain tasks as “hazardous,” meaning they couldn’t be performed by anyone under 16. These tasks include driving tractors -- tractor rollovers are the No. 1 cause of farm deaths -- and harvesting tobacco.
Children younger than 16 would have been banned from working more than six feet above the ground instead of the current 20 feet. They would have been prohibited from handling pesticides, and forbidden to wear headphones while operating machinery. Children under 17 would no longer have been allowed to work in grain silos or bins. Under these proposed regulations, children the age of Wyatt Whitebread would not be permitted to walk the corn as he did on the day of his and Alex’s deaths.
But the proposal was met with surprising backlash from rural America. Small family farmers raised concern with the potential impact of such regulations on their ability to put their own children to work. The Labor Department received thousands of comments in response to the proposed regulations, and as a result, withdrew them in April of 2012. In a press release explaining the decision, the department promised not to reintroduce the rules during the Obama administration.
“I don’t think they anticipated the reaction they got,” said Maki. “After they announced the rules, it took awhile for this groundswell to occur against them. So they were kind of taken by surprise.”
The farm lobby, often referred to as “Big Ag” and including such groups as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and the National Milk Producers Federation, rose up as one to defeat what they collectively viewed as an attack on the agrarian lifestyle. The National Milk Producers alone spent $130,502 in the first three months of 2012, listing the defeat of the proposed regulations as one of their primary objectives.
Kristi Boswell is the Farm Bureau’s Director of Congressional Relations. She called the plans “asinine.”
“The proposal prohibited -- could have prohibited -- children from operating a battery-operated screwdriver, a flashlight, a pressure hose,” Boswell said. “It prevented kids from fueling a combine that’s higher than six feet. I grew up on a farm, and I’ll tell you, I fueled combines all the time.” She laughed a little derisively. “It’s not a dangerous task.”
"Our members are parents first,” she said. “And of course safety is always a priority.” But the proposal, she said, “was contrary to common sense.” It would’ve been “devastating” for small family farms, stopping children from assisting with routine chores.
Maki and other supporters of the regulations saw Big Ag’s efforts to defeat the proposal as nothing more than a “misinformation campaign.” The supposed “flashlight restriction” that Boswell mentions, for example, was repeated hundreds of times in the literature created by the farm lobby to stop the regulations from being approved. But Maki insists that it wasn’t a part of the regulations at all.
“There was a phrase in there about prohibiting ‘power-driven equipment,’” he said. “And [the farm lobby] said things like — we saw this over and over again — ‘Well, flashlights are power-driven, ‘cause they have a battery. These rules are so overreaching that they will eliminate the use of flashlights on farms by children.’”
Maki found the logic behind the leap “almost laughable,” but it stopped being funny when that information spread widely and took hold in the agricultural community.
“You have to ask yourself, when you’re presenting these arguments, ‘What is their intention? What is DOL trying to do? Does it make sense that DOL would prohibit the use of flashlights?’ It’s so absurd, it makes zero sense, and there’s nothing in the regs that say kids can’t use flashlights. They just went directly from ‘power-driven equipment’ to ‘flashlights.’ They constructed that leap.”
Maki thinks this type of ambiguity in government regulations is not at all uncommon upon initial release. That’s why there is always a comment period, he said, in the case of regulations that are vague or poorly worded.
The “end of farm chores” rhetoric also struck a nerve with Maki. “That’s just ridiculous,” he said. “Chores imply non-paid work-related tasks, and these regulations were all about paid jobs.” But a blog post on the Daily Caller about the “banning of farm chores” got retweeted about 2000 times in just a couple of hours, Maki said.
The other phrase that Big Ag returned to, over and over, was “destroying the family farm,” said Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch. She is the executive director of its Children’s Rights division. “The rhetoric of the family farm is being used as a red herring to slow down protection,” she said. In the current rules, there is a parental exemption, meaning the Labor Department’s rules do not apply to children working on farms owned or operated by their parents. The proposed regulations maintained this parental exemption, meaning children of any age could perform any task their parents allow. The regulations were aimed at protecting migrant children, Coursen-Neff said. By withdrawing the regulations, “they’re throwing Hispanic kids under the bus.”
Supporters of the regulations were surprised when the Department of Labor abruptly withdrew them, instead of making changes based on the input they received. The withdrawal has prompted Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy group, to start preparing a lawsuit against the Labor Department for not following proper procedures before abandoning the proposals. Public Citizen declined to comment on its plans but Maki of the Child Labor Coalition said he was hopeful the suit can help get at least some of the provisions instated.
“We can’t force them to reissue [the regulations],” he said, “but they will have to address the comments they received, and conclude the process of issuing them.” He said that some parts will end up withdrawn or modified but “we’re hoping that process will lead to getting something done, even if it’s 20 or 50 percent of what they were originally trying to do.”
As a counter-offensive to the DOL’s proposal that Maki called “political grandstanding,” Rep. Tom Latham, R-Ia., introduced H.R. 4157, also known as “Preserving America’s Family Farms Act.” This bill would make it illegal for the Secretary of Labor to issue or reintroduce the proposed regulations. H.R. 4157 passed the House but died in the Senate.
“Our first impression was, ‘Is this even constitutional?’” Maki said. “The DOL has a mandate to protect young workers. Can you really tell them they can’t issue regulations to do this?” Since the bill died halfway through the process, its constitutionality never came onto the table. But Maki speculates that concern about the upcoming Senate elections — and the fact that 44 senators sponsored the bill, some even crossing party lines to do so — influenced the DOL’s final decision to pull the regulations. “I think that that might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.
Even given all the potential perils, for poor migrant parents, the ability to put their young children to work -- legally -- is often critical to their survival as family units. Yesenia, Kemberly, and Neftali have three other siblings, supported by their single mother. With six sets of school supplies to buy each year, the family was having trouble making ends meet. Maybe, they thought, if they worked alongside her, they could help out by buying their own school supplies.
It took a bit of convincing, but finally their mother gave in. She told them that when she took them to a field, they’d see how hard it was, and they’d never go back. But her plan backfired. The Cuello sisters worked that day, and it was hard, just like she said. But they decided that they couldn’t let her do it on her own. “That’s what encouraged us to go back,” Yesenia said. “Because it was so hard for her, we felt the need to go there and help her out.”
Montes and Molina both also started working to help with financial support. “I didn’t like to see my mom working in the tobacco by herself,” Molina said. As for Montes, he said if he hadn’t gone to work at the first legal opportunity at age 12, his mother might not have been able to make payments on their house.
Although the agricultural industry is massive and growing, in the children’s experience, jobs aren’t always easy to come by. Neftali said it often seems as if every job has been taken by the time she starts to look, even for replacement positions when someone who has a job gets hurt. As many fields as there may be, there are that many more available workers. This means once hired, child farmworkers are under intense pressure to avoid mistakes and work with speed.
The Cuello sisters say that everything they know about working in the fields, they learned from their mother, that very first day. They never received any formal training, but someone is always walking behind them and checking their work. A whistle blows at them if they leave anything behind -- a sucker, a blueberry -- and that means they have to go back and repeat the work on that row. Too many whistles, and they can kiss their job goodbye. “They follow you,” said Ramirez. “They pressure you.”
Pay varies from field to field. For some crops the wage is hourly and for others, payment is by the piece. The children interviewed said payment-by-piece is the most pressured work, as only the fastest workers can earn more than minimum wage. Most fall short. Their fear of doing worse than the other workers on the job is not unfounded. Occasionally, the lowest performers get the boot.
“In sweet potato, people were being paid 40 to 45 cents to pick a bucket,” said Neftali. Neftali is tall for her age with a big voice and a head of curly black hair. She gives off an aura of solidity and strength. But even though she had no idea how much a bucket weighs (Yesenia, listening to her sister’s story, estimated around 30 or 40 pounds), she knew it was heavy — almost, she said, impossible for her to carry. “And I saw an 8-year old and a little 9-year old there,” she said. “They were carrying it too.” In blueberries, the pay is around $2.50 for a gallon bucket; most children report that it takes them about 30 minutes to fill one.
Even the hourly wage can fail to reach the legal minimum, the children said, especially when employers try to take advantage of their youth or perceived naivete. A farmer once told Molina, after he had been hired, that he would only be making $6.25 an hour. “And I just looked at him,” Molina said, “and I was like, ‘Dude, you are crazy. I know what minimum wage is.’”
This particular farmer eventually gave in, but some don’t. Low pay comes with the territory, because, as Yesenia puts it, there’s always someone willing to take it. “When we start working,” she said, “it’s known that we aren’t irreplaceable. You have to be there, or you’re fired, or somebody will just take your place.”
Every farmer or contractor is different, and some are stricter than others. Some don’t allow talking. Neftali and Montes didn’t get the severity of the message one time. Even though they had been separated more than once, they continued talking to each other. Montes was fired and Neftali, knowing she was about to be fired, too, preemptively quit. She has been fired more than once, she said, but she isn’t going to stop talking while she works.
“I know it’s about the job sometimes,” she said. “But it’s also about the people that are there. I’d probably go crazy if I couldn’t talk. So we sang songs, we joked around. It could be fun time, but it was work also.”
Even when the children are able to keep from getting fired, the weather can be harsher than any contractor. Most of the time, the kids say, they work in the rain, stopping only when there’s lightning. But if bad weather persists, their livelihoods can be at risk, so they make every effort to store up some savings, “to prepare ourselves for unexpected circumstances,” Yesenia said. But that isn’t always enough, and long bouts of bad weather can wreak havoc on already stretched finances.
Since many farmworker families (about 40 percent, HRW estimates) migrate across America to follow the crops, their children often leave school early or start late, occasionally changing schools multiple times a year. This contributes to their stunningly high dropout rate -- about four times the national average.
When Lopez returned to Texas after spending a season in Indiana, “I would show them the A’s I was getting in all these different classes, where I was studying really hard to be able to keep up with everybody else.” But she was told that while it was fantastic that she got good grades, the differences between the school systems of Indiana and Texas were too great. Her classes didn’t count.
Lopez’s months of work in Indiana could be used to replace one Texas test grade, if that. The remaining assignments all had to be made up, along with the new work she was continuously being assigned. “I had three months to make up three months worth of work and keep up with the regular school work,” she said. “Every year it was a race to catch up with everybody else. I was doing double the work for the first semester.” Sometimes, she said, it seemed easier to drop out -- and many do.
Molina found keeping up so hard he dropped out of high school for a year. “I was doing pretty good in school,” he said. “It was just that I missed a lot of days, and I couldn’t make all the days up. So I just decided to not go no more.” His brother had offered him a job in Tennessee, and, at the time, work seemed like a more viable option than school. But he’s back in school now, he said, because he thinks “working in the fields is not really a career.”
Many more migrant children are obliged to repeat grades. Ramirez, for example, is 14 but still in the seventh grade. The constant moving, he says, and the stress of leaving behind friends, family, and his home have held him back. Once or twice, he thought of quitting school for good and working in the fields full time. But when he tentatively ran the idea past his mother, she angrily ordered him to stay in school until the day he graduates high school. "She didn’t want me to end up just like her, working in the fields,” he said.
The Cuello sisters said their mother has issued the same edict. Kemberly said that even though their mother accepted that her children had to work to help the family cover expenses, “she still would always make us put school first.”
A supportive parent is a plus, but balancing school and work remains challenging. The Cuello sisters said even when they are able to confine their working months to summer vacation, their school work suffers.
“Like, summer classes might have been going on,” said Neftali, “or someone was getting extra help [over the summer] and I couldn’t do it.” She would go back to school in the fall and feel like she was behind all her classmates who had taken summer classes. Her teachers expected her to know the summer curriculum and information others had learned but she had not. “So I had to start all the way over again and I had to be present at the same time to learn the new stuff,” she said. “And that made me like, lost with everything, and I had to struggle even harder.”
She also admits that sometimes she feels that her mother’s lack of an education might have put her at a disadvantage. “If your parent didn’t even graduate from high school or didn’t go to college,” she said, “that is much less that you know because everybody knows -- well, most people know -- that you learn everything from your parents, and if your parents never got that education, you don’t have it.”
The most prominent of governmental efforts to address the needs of migrant children is the Migrant Education Program, or MEP, established in 1966. It allocates funds to each state’s Department of Education to provide these children with summer assistance and after school programs. It also offers supplemental tutoring to help the children make up credits or get assistance with work they missed. Any child who makes a “qualifying move,” meaning any relocation across district lines with the intent to search for work, is eligible for MEP access for three years. North Carolina’s Migrant Ed Program works with local districts and nonprofit organizations to assist children aged three to 21 with education, school uniforms, and even health concerns. Sonja Williams, the director of North Carolina’s program, says NCMEP is even working to take the classes to the fields, to give working youth better access to the resources they need to finish their education. In North Carolina, the dropout rate for these children has been cut in half over the past six years, Williams said.
But keeping track of migrant children can sometimes be challenging, especially if they’re traveling to multiple locations in a given year. “The difficulty is that the Migrant Ed Program might see ‘John Smith’ for a year,” said Roger Rosenthal, executive director of the Migrant Legal Action Program. “But then all of a sudden in April, John Smith disappears and the parents never informed the school that they were moving somewhere else to do agricultural work, and John Smith may never come back to that school. It’s a little bit hard to know what happened to that kid.” There is a database of migrant children, the Migrant Student Information Exchange, designed to address this issue. MEP employees can see if a child who left a school in North Carolina resurfaces in a Florida school or a New Jersey school and alert the state’s Migrant Ed Program and monitor the student’s progress. But when they’re moving to new locations or not enrolling in school right away, they can fall through the cracks.
And not all farmworker families migrate. The Cuellos, for example, have always stayed in the same general area and have never switched schools. For that reason, MEP and all its benefits are not open to them, even though they can feel just as behind as a result of their need to spend their summers working in the fields.
“We can’t really serve them unless they make that move,” said Williams. “That’s what defines our program.” There are some nonprofits working to address the issue, Williams said, but many of them are limited to extracurricular programs, as opposed to in-school support. “It is a challenge. There are students who are very needy who are essentially in the same community as the migratory students, but who we can’t serve because of the definition of our program.”
North Carolina has one of the fastest growing Hispanic populations in the nation, with a growth rate of 111 percent. But in the state, only 48 percent of Latino students manage to graduate in the customary four years, according to a recent study conducted by North Carolina State University. One of the top reasons they gave was “pressure to quit and help the family work.”
In November of 2012, NC Field, an advocacy group for farmworker youth in North Carolina, hosted a conference called Youthspeak at a small Lenoir County community center. Neftali and her friend Samantha stood up to perform a spoken word piece they’d written, describing their experiences in the fields. Neftali was nervous. Her voice shook as she introduced herself, and when she started to speak, she stumbled.
“Why is it...” She trailed off. The room went silent for a moment, all eyes on Neftali. She started again.
“Why is it that we can’t work in industry until we’re young adults But 12 and under can work in the fields And have to deal with a drunken man’s insults It’s not fair And please, don’t give an excuse For the way you put us to use”
On the second attempt, Neftali’s voice was clear. She threw herself into the jazzy rhythm of her poem; her indignation dripped off every word.
“The work you give us at such a young age This ridiculous thing that you call minimum wage It’s another poor excuse to say you understand us That we’re on the same page”
There were fewer than 20 people in the audience, but the applause was tumultuous. Neftali and Samantha grinned with embarrassed pride, then returned to their seats. Through NC Field and its corresponding youth group, Poder Juvenil Campesino (Rural Youth Power), they say that they have gained not only a sense of community but the resolve to cope with their lot.
Neftali, for one, is determined to graduate high school and go on to college, to help ensure her family’s stability. She hopes to maybe attend the University of North Carolina, where she wants to study -- agriculture. “I wanna have my own farm,” she said. “I wanna show a better way of farming, without using pesticides. It’s just a different way of farming, you know? It’s better.”
Yesenia, though she promised herself years ago that she was done working in the fields, finds herself returning each season, to continue to help her mother. But she’s trying to move from a life of farm work to a life of advocacy. At the conference, with tears in her eyes, she was inducted onto the board of NC Field. She’ll be following in the path of Lopez, who has moved from the fields to the non-profit side, running the Children in the Fields Campaign at American Farmworker Opportunity Programs. Her parents and some of her sisters still follow the crops each year and although she herself has moved beyond that life, “this is something that is still very much a big issue in our family.”
Although Ramirez has suffered some setbacks, he now says that he’s “getting better at [his] education.” He wants to graduate high school and join the Army because he knows a lack of education is a one-way ticket to a lifetime in the fields. That prospect terrifies him. “I don’t want to work in the fields no more,” he said.