Farmworkers Face Health Care Obstacles

Monterey County, CA – When he was just 14-years-old, Rogelio Jacinto moved from Mexico to Monterey County.

"I came over here to Castroville," said Jacinto. "I came on Sunday. I think was June four Sunday and I start working on Monday."

Even though that was four decades ago, Jacinto said some things haven't changed: most farmworkers are immigrants, pay is low and health care can seem out of reach.

"The major challenge is cost because like I say as a farmworker, we don't make much money," said Jacinto.

Now retired from the fields, Jacinto never had employer provided health care. According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor, only 23 percent of farmworkers were covered by some sort of health insurance in 2002. So as a young man, Jacinto avoided the doctor or relied on his parents to pay the bill. But then, he became a father.

"I had twin girls and it was kind of expensive for me to take them to a private doctor," he said.

So that's when he found Clinica de Salud in Salinas. The non-profit has a network of nine health clinics across Monterey County. Jacinto can afford it because the clinic charges on a sliding scale based on income and family size. Still, CEO Dr. Max Cuevas said it's a challenge reaching everyone who needs care.

"They're coming into the area to work, yet they don't know where things are located," said Cuevas. "So a big part of what we do is try to provide that information to people so they know where the resources are, so they can access the care."

While only 15 percent of the clinic's patients have employer provided insurance, most of the members of the Grower Shipper Association of Central California do offer some form of health care coverage. The organization's members include some of the area's largest growers including Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville.

"We feel that that keeps all our employees working with us for the season and then they'll come back season after season," said Ocean Mist CEO Joe Pezzini.

His company offers its farmworkers coverage for $5.00 a month. Each family member costs an additional $10.00. Pezzini said 98 percent of his employees buy into the health care program.

"We're growing crops, and we have to cultivate and raise those crops," he said. "We have to get them harvested. We have to get them ready for shipping, so our employees are the most important asset we have."

But for those farmworkers whose employers don't offer coverage, Dr. Cuevas would like to see some solution come out of the national health care debate.

"We have to provide, whether it's direct or indirect, support for these people to be able to access the care that they're going to need," he said. "If they're part of our workforce, then there needs to be a healthy workforce. They need to be part of whatever comes out of that reform."

Until then, Clinica de Salud will continue treating those left out, regardless of legal status or ability to pay.