The United States is a country of immigrants; it has been since its founding over 200 years ago. This concept led to the country adopting the descriptor of “melting pot,” as people from all over the world have come to the US and now live together. The same principle applies to the Evergreen State, especially with respect to farm workers.
According to a 2015 Pew study, statistics show that more than 4 in 10 farm workers in Washington state were undocumented immigrants. This is on top of the large foreign-born force of farm workers in the state who are legally permitted to reside here. According to Idaho Republican Representative Raul Labrador, 90% of dairy workers in Idaho are foreign born, which is a neighboring state with a similar workforce makeup.
These statistics demonstrate how prevalent the foreign-born workforce is in the Washington agricultural sector. With these numbers and demographics, there are some legal challenges for those workers and those employers.
The H-2A is a visa program for foreign workers who work temporary, usually seasonal, agricultural jobs in the United States. The United States Department of Homeland Security manages the program. Many migrant workers from Mexico and other parts of South America come to Washington State to work the apple orchards and in other agricultural jobs. Under the rules of the program, employers must submit certain paperwork and fees, provide suitable housing that is subject to inspection, and other requirements.
The H-2A program, according to many, is suitable for larger farms that can afford to undergo the lengthy approval process and the high costs involved. For smaller farms, the costs and time involved is too high and too burdensome, leaving open the need for undocumented workers. Under this system, many undocumented workers find themselves working agricutlrual jobs in Washington.
In 2014, 20 migrant workers in Washington took ill when a pesticide drift from a neighboring farm caused them to suffer from pesticide poisoning. Symptoms of the poisoning included eye irritation, neurological issues, and gastric issues.
In general, people who suffer from injuries on the job are entitled to worker’s compensation. In addition, they may be entitled to disability insurance programs like Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Undocumented workers are not eligible for those programs.
SSDI and SSI
The Social Security Administration, or SSA, administers two programs for those who are injured and are unable or have limited capacity to earn a living. To be eligible, one must be considered “disabled” under the SSA definition.
SSDI is for those who have a working history, generally for those who have worked 10 out of the past 20 years. The FICA portion of income tax funds the program, which means that eligibility requires that someone “pay into” the program. Undocumented workers who have not paid into the program are not eligible for SSDI.
SSI is for low-income Americans and is not funded by FICA. Only citizens can receive such benefits.
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