Farm Workers Unsure How Health Law Helps Them
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. If you ever eat a salad, there is an excellent chance that the vegetables came to your plate courtesy of a worker without health insurance. Many of the nation's fruits and vegetables come from California. Most of California's seasonal farm workers have no health coverage. Now there's a law that requires Americans to get insurance. Sarah Varney of member station KQED asked how that law will affect the people who keep us fed.
SARAH VARNEY: Standing in a freshly plowed field, Daniel Errotabere can read the spring storm clouds and divine the perfect time to plant his pima cotton. The Fresno County farmer knows his tomatoes, garlic and garbanzo beans. But when asked to read the new health care law, he's lost.
Mr. DANIEL ERROTABERE (Farmer): Divide by a fraction of the numerator of which it's the total number of the full-time equivalent employees of the employer in excess of 10 and the denominator which is 15. What is that about?
VARNEY: Errotabere is not alone in his confusion and concern over the law. Farm groups fought the bill. They took particular issue with the requirement that businesses with more than 50 employees either offer insurance or pay a hefty penalty if any of their workers get a government subsidized health plan on the new insurance exchange. But they mostly lost.
Jack King, head of the California Farm Bureau, says that mandate will hit Golden State farmers harder than those in other regions.
Mr. JACK KING (California Farm Bureau): California is somewhat unique in that we have a lot of fruits and vegetables, nut crops, that are very labor intense. That compares with other parts of the country where you have grain farms, you have smaller livestock units, where the family pretty much handles the labor needs.
VARNEY: In fact, California agriculture employs more than 400,000 people a year. Most have no health coverage. But it's unclear just how many of them might be insured under the new law. Illegal immigrants, about a third of farm labor in California according to federal estimates, are barred from buying insurance on state-run exchanges.
On a recent morning, Joel waits for his wife at a Fresno health clinic. They both work in the Central Valley - illegally - as seasonal farm workers. Joel, who didn't want to give his last name, says they don't expect to get any help from the new law.
JOEL: (Through translator) It's a little bit sad, because they don't take into account a lot of the hard work we do. We work from sun up to sun down, and they don't take us into account.
VARNEY: Many farm workers like Joel, whether here illegally or on temporary visas, are considered seasonal employees. And farm lobbyists won an important concession on these types of workers. Businesses that hire employees for less than four months are exempt from having to offer insurance or paying penalties. That exemption applies to about half of all California farm workers.
Further complicating matters, these seasonal workers don't work directly for Central Valley farmers. Instead, they're employed by a middleman, the farm labor contractor who moves hired hands around the state to meet the needs of California's long and varied growing seasons.
For tax, immigration and most labor law purposes, the contractor is considered the employer. James Randles is president of Hall Management Group, one of the largest farm labor contractors in the state.
Mr. JAMES RANDLES (President, Hall Management Group): We share a big part of this and we want to be around tomorrow, but at the rate we're going, a lot of businesses are being choked out.
VARNEY: Randles says even though his workers typically spend less than four months on any one farm, they work for him pretty much year-round. The way he reads the new health care law, his company will have to begin providing health insurance for 800 workers a year. And that could add another 20 percent to what he charges farmers, an expense that would likely continue down the food chain.
Mr. RANDLES: Any kind of cost that needs to be passed onto the growers is hard for farm management, ag personnel or labor contractors to pass it on. Growers resist that. They fight that. They fight it to the bone.
VARNEY: Randles suspects less scrupulous labor contractors will encourage farm workers to swap names and Social Security numbers so as to avoid hitting the four-month mark and triggering any kind of federal health insurance penalty. But Phil Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California Davis, says even the more established firms have ways of avoiding the new federal mandates.
Professor PHIL MARTIN (University of California Davis): The triggering mechanism for the employer fine is supposed to be the employee going to the exchange and getting a subsidized health insurance plan. There are rumors that go among farm workers. One could well be if you get health insurance or unemployment insurance, you're not going to be eligible for amnesty. So that will certainly deter lots of people from trying.
(Soundbite of birds chirping)
VARNEY: It seems almost certain, though, that at least some additional labor costs will get passed onto farmers as a result of the new health care law. Paul Bettencourt grows cotton and almonds in the Central Valley town of Kerman. Bettencourt worries about those extra costs. But he's hopeful that small farms and farm families will benefit from a reformed insurance market and generous tax credits.
Mr. PAUL BETTENCOURT (Farmer): The thing that will help is having the pool so we can buy coverage that's affordable and worthwhile. And if people are eating more fruits and vegetables to be healthy, that could help us a lot. So...
VARNEY: Save on your health care bill, buy my almonds.
Mr. BETTENCOURT: Yeah, buy our almonds. Yeah, a can a week is all we ask.
VARNEY: And while eating more almonds is probably a good idea for most people, whether the health care bill is good for farmers' economic health will take years to know.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.