For nearly 40 years, the Farmworker Association of Florida has helped migrant workers in rural communities across the state navigate disaster preparation, response, and recovery. Many farmworkers are in the state on temporary visas or are undocumented, making it all the more difficult to advocate for equitable treatment after a disaster, said Jeannie Economos, a coordinator with the Farmworkers Association. 

The association aims to build political and social capital among farmworkers as they advocate for better working conditions and legal protections. It also coordinates direct aid after disasters and during the pandemic. 

Southerly spoke with Economos and Sara Mangan, who works for the organization on heat stress advocacy, about how disasters have shaped the organizations’ work, how climate change is impacting workers, and the particular challenges rural farm workers face. Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The organization’s roots in disaster preparedness and response

Jeannie Economos: Our organization has five offices in the state of Florida, and every one of them was created as a result of natural disasters. In 1983, there were major freezes in Central and South Florida. And at that time citrus was the biggest crop in the state. And the freeze [damaged] a lot of the orange trees and put a lot of workers out of work. The growers could get loans and disaster help, but the farmworkers got nothing. They organized themselves to fight back, trying to get disaster unemployment insurance because they were left without work. The co-founder of our organization, Chris Moreno, was himself an orange picker, and he ended up becoming the co-founder and general coordinator when the farm workers ended up establishing a presence in the community. 

We’ve been saying for years that farmworkers are the invisible ones. There’s lots of very remote rural areas and they’re just not on the radar screen of the disaster assistance agencies, FEMA, or Red Cross. They just don’t even know that they’re there. And I say this all the time, and I get tired of hearing myself saying, I am really worried about the areas where there are no farm worker support organizations. Florida is a huge state. We can’t cover the whole state. There’s no assistance for farmworkers in the Panhandle and North Florida. 

In 1986, there were more freezes in Pearson. There was so much need in the community, they said, ‘Please stay here, we need you.’ So we founded an office in that area. 

Then in 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit and devastated Homestead. All kinds of relief efforts went into Homestead. However, farmworkers…weren’t even on the radar of FEMA and the Red Cross. They were completely ignored.  So then we established a presence down in Homestead in the 90s. 

So rock on to 1995, ‘96. There was major flooding on the West Coast in the area of Naples and Fort Myers. And there were a lot of farmworkers that lived in this trailer park type housing in Bonita Springs. They lost their furniture and their clothes and their kids’ books and everything. So we went down to help, and once again the community said, we really want you to stay here. 

Then in 2004 or 2005, the east coast of Florida got hit by a series of hurricanes. In Fellsmere, there were miles and miles of citrus, and they were devastated. We went in to do disaster assistance, helping people get clothes, food, even furniture. And we ended up establishing an office there. We have our hands full with five offices now. 

So it’s not just hurricanes in Florida– there are tornadoes, freezes and floods too. For years, we used to do disaster preparedness trainings. We haven’t had natural disasters in recent years, we haven’t had any hard freezes in six, seven years. So except for COVID—which is a natural disaster as well, in a way. That’s a whole long story in itself. 

The challenges rural farmworker communities face during and after disasters

Sara Mangan: One thing that we’ve seen in a lot of farmworker communities is that they live in substandard housing. After Hurricane Irma passed through south southwest Florida, Immokalee was particularly hard hit. A lot of the farmworkers were living in older mobile homes, and that made them especially vulnerable to the storms. Because they just do not withstand hurricanes and tornadoes. I mean, any house would be devastated by a direct hit by a tornado, but [mobile] homes are much more vulnerable. And another thing that happens is that because there’s a scarcity of housing during still growing seasons, people are paying a lot, sometimes like $1,000 to share a room with five other people in an overcrowded mobile home, and that leaves them vulnerable. 

JE: Sometimes people have very poor transportation. If they’re H-2A workers or guest workers, they don’t have their own transportation in the vast majority of cases. So that leaves people stranded and that makes it hard for them to get out either before or after a disaster. They don’t have money to go to a hotel or evacuate. Sometimes they end up having multiple people, multiple families in a home, even before a natural disaster and then after might even have more people in a home because they help another family member. 

Language, of course, is a barrier. Not all farm workers are Hispanic. There are Haitian farmworkers, and it’s harder to get assistance in Creoloe. And a lot of people come from indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America, and they speak indigenous languages and not Spanish as their first language, much less English. 

SM: There’s also a fear of getting help from the government, even when people are eligible. And sometimes the government doesn’t help when it should. 

JE: It’s illegal for the government to deny emergency assistance. They can deny long term assistance, but they’re supposed to provide emergency service. 

The rising threat of heat stroke and illness 

SM: Farmworkers face heat-related illnesses and death at 20 times the rate of the general working population. And that’s a two-fold issue. They’re already working in extreme temperatures, and they are also experiencing heat generated by the hard work that their bodies are doing. And then on top of that, you have the fact that they put on a lot of clothing to go out and work in the fields because it keeps them protected from pesticides and the sun. So you’ll see farmworkers working in the dead of July at 90% humidity and, you know, 96 degrees outside wearing hoodies and other heavy clothing because the alternative is getting these incredibly toxic chemicals on their skin that makes them sick. 

Many work by piece rate instead of by the hour. So they get paid by productivity, not by time. In order to make ends meet, they have to work very hard and try and take as few breaks as possible. Often supervisors will not let them or will harass them if they take breaks to drink water or find shade to cool off. 

A compounding factor is that a lot of farm workers don’t have air conditioning in their homes. And the really important element of your body being able to heal itself from the stress of the day is being able to cool off at night when you’re sleeping. Living in Florida, where it’s very humid and it’s usually pretty warm at night, that’s impossible without an air conditioner. And so you wake up still suffering from acute stress and dehydration going into the next day.

There’s a book called They Leave Their Kidneys in the Field, and the title of that book comes from a saying in the farmworker community when they describe young men and women dying from kidney disease in their forties, which should not be happening. But the work can be deadly when there aren’t any protections in place. 

So we do see heat stress as big of a natural disaster as a hurricane, but it’s a slower moving one. People don’t see the results for years down the road and they’re incredibly sick.