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Rural Migrant Health

Migratory and seasonal agricultural workers (MSAWs) and their families face unique health challenges which result in significant health disparities. Challenges faced include:

  • Hazardous work environment
  • Poverty status
  • Inadequate housing
  • Limited availability of clean water and septic systems
  • Inadequate healthcare access
  • Continuity of care issues
  • Lack of insurance
  • Cultural and language barriers

MSAW populations experience serious health problems including diabetes, malnutrition, infectious diseases, pesticide poisoning, and injuries from work related machinery. These critical health issues are exacerbated by the migratory culture of this population group, which makes it difficult to develop a relationship with a healthcare provider, maintain treatment regimens, and track health records.

Frequently Asked Questions


Who are the rural migratory and seasonal agricultural workers (MSAW)?

A migratory agricultural worker, often called “migrant farmworker,” is defined by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) as “an individual whose principal employment is in agriculture on a seasonal basis…and who establishes a temporary home for the purposes of such employment.” HRSA defines a seasonal agricultural worker (seasonal farmworker) as an individual “whose principal employment is in agriculture on a seasonal basis and who does not establish a temporary home for purposes of employment.” Generally, migratory and seasonal farmworkers are hired laborers who are paid by piecework, by the hour, or on a daily basis.

It is difficult to accurately determine the number of migratory and seasonal agricultural workers in the United States. Estimates of the number of migratory and seasonal agricultural workers (MSAWs) range from 1 million to 3 million. According to the Legal Services Corporation’s LSC Agricultural Worker Population Estimate Update,

"There are no U.S. Census Bureau or other available data sets that provide comprehensive, reliable information regarding the size, distribution, economic and demographic characteristics, of the agricultural worker population in the U.S."

According to the National Center for Farmworker Health’s Facts about Farmworkers, approximately 42% are migrant workers and 58% are seasonal farmworkers. Both of these population groups are predominantly Hispanic/Latino, and a large majority of Hispanic/Latino farmworkers were born in Mexico. MSAW populations also include whites, African-Americans, Haitians, and Asians. The most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey (2011-2012) indicated 72% of agricultural farmworkers are male, and the average age of a farmworker is 36 years old. Just under half (47%) of all farmworkers in the U.S. are unauthorized, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.


What are some of the common health concerns specific to migrant farmworkers and their families?

Due to the physically demanding and intensive nature of their work, there are several health concerns that put farmworkers and their families at especially high risk.

  • Heat-related illnesses are a significant danger to farmworkers who spend many hours in direct sunlight. Some of the resulting heat-induced illnesses can be fatal.
  • Exposure to a variety of pesticides and toxic chemicals can have serious health consequences for farmworkers.
  • Injuries result from the use of both mechanized and non-mechanized equipment, as well as hand tools.
  • Urinary tract infections and other infections can occur from the lack of toilet facilities available while on the job.
  • Bites can be received from animals encountered, such as insects, rodents or snakes.
  • Higher susceptibility to infectious disease, such as tuberculosis, results from substandard living conditions combined with the barriers to accessing healthcare.
  • Mental health issues, including depression are influenced by the cumulative effect of constant relocation, poverty, and stress.

What are some of the barriers that prevent rural migrant farmworkers from receiving healthcare and healthcare coverage?

Farmworkers face a multitude of challenges when seeking to find healthcare or affordable healthcare coverage:

  • Prohibitive costs of healthcare
  • Shortage of healthcare services
  • Unavailability of culturally or linguistically appropriate services
  • Lack of information about healthcare coverage options
  • Confusing eligibility requirements
  • Inability to get sick leave
  • Concern of losing paid work time
  • Social isolation and exclusion
  • For undocumented workers, fear of how their immigration status will affect eligibility

The frequent relocation involved in migrant work creates challenges to the continuity of care that is necessary to treat diseases that require careful monitoring such as diabetes, cancer, and HIV. The constant relocation, coupled with the general inaccessibility of healthcare, also inhibits farmworkers from seeking basic preventive care and standard annual check-ups, putting migrant workers at higher risk for other preventable conditions.

Additional information about the barriers preventing rural migrant farmworkers from receiving healthcare can be accessed from Health Outreach Partner’s Breaking Down the Barriers: A Deeper Look Into Health Insurance and Farmworker Eligibility and from Farmworker Health Network’s Migrant Health 101: An Introduction to Migrant Health.


Are there healthcare facilities specifically developed for the migratory and seasonal agricultural worker population?

In 1962, the Migrant Health Act was signed by President John F. Kennedy authorizing the delivery of primary and supplemental healthcare services to migrant farmworkers, resulting in the Migrant Health Center program. Migrant Health Centers receive funding under Section 330(g) of the Public Health Service Act and provide culturally competent and comprehensive primary and preventive healthcare to migratory and seasonal farmworkers and their families. The program also emphasizes the occupational health and safety of this population.

In 2012, Migrant Health Centers served over 900,000 migrant farmworkers and their families. Currently, there are 165 Migrant Health Centers across the U.S., and it is estimated that they serve one-third of the migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. For more information about Migrant Health Centers, see the Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) topic guide.

The National Advisory Council on Migrant Health consults with and prepares recommendations to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Administrator on health issues affecting migratory and seasonal agricultural workers.


How can rural healthcare organizations and other community organizations help migrant farmworkers access healthcare and get health insurance coverage?

Healthcare organizations and community organizations can refer uninsured migrant farmworkers to Migrant Health Centers or other Federally Qualified Health Centers. These HRSA-supported health centers are open to everyone. Individuals who do not have health insurance will be able to pay for services based on a sliding-fee scale. Payment is based on income and household size. Migrant Clinicians Network offers an interactive tool for locating health centers across the U.S. that will provide healthcare and continued treatment for migrant farmworker patients.

Referrals can also be made to their state’s Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Farmworkers and their families may be eligible to apply for Medicaid or CHIP to reduce the cost of health insurance. U.S. citizens or residents with a green card who have been lawfully present in the U.S. for more than 5 years may qualify for Medicaid, contingent on the state where they live and their income. In addition, farmworkers who are lawfully present immigrants (U.S. citizens, green-card holders, U- and T-visa holders, etc.) can apply for health insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplaces and may receive tax credits. These tax credits will lower their monthly health insurance premiums.

Many social service organizations, Migrant Health Centers, and other Federally Qualified Health Centers have trained outreach and enrollment staff, including certified application counselors and navigators, to provide health insurance application assistance. Farmworkers and their families can be referred to one of these agencies that provide assistance with the application for healthcare coverage. Find Local Help is a tool identifying local and state agencies that help with the application process for accessing health insurance through the Marketplace.

Besides outreach and enrollment staff, other staff at healthcare and social service organizations can also help assist farmworkers by receiving basic training on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) so that they can provide accurate information about health insurance options to farmworkers and their families. Access to Healthcare provides information about ACA and offers guides to help organizations and their staff assist farmworkers in applying for health insurance.

Additional information about access to healthcare for uninsured migrant farmworkers can be found in The ACA and Farmworkers: A Curriculum for Promotores de Salud and Community Advocates.


Are there model programs or successful strategies that can be implemented to support health services focused on the rural migrant farmworker population?

Model programs or successful strategies to support health services focused on the rural migrant farmworker population include:

  • Culturally sensitive health education and outreach
  • Linguistically and literacy-level appropriate materials
  • Portable medical records and case management
  • Mobile medical units
  • Transportation services
  • Translation services
  • Increasing collaboration with other agencies serving migrant populations

A program model that can integrate all of these services and strategies is the Promotor(a) de Salud, or Community Health Worker (CHW), model. Promotores(as) are healthcare paraprofessionals who promote health and facilitate access to healthcare in their own communities. They are members of the minority and underserved populations that they serve.

Promotores(as) in migrant communities can extend the reach of health services by using their inside knowledge of the community’s culture and language to continue case management to community members with chronic conditions or pregnant women, provide outreach on available services and pertinent health information, conduct informational sessions on relevant health topics, and refer community members to local health service providers. They can also collaborate with other local organizations and service providers to increase efficiency and promote healthy practices and lifestyles.

The following resources provide additional information about community health workers:


Last Reviewed: 8/19/2015