Study: South Dade Plant Nursery Workers Earn Low Pay, Susceptible To Heat Illnesses

WLRN |by Nadege Green | July 30, 2019

“They put me in a shower to get all the chemicals off me,” she reported. “I kept falling down. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t, my body got weaker…I felt like my throat was awful, as if it were cut on the inside.”

A new study that looks at the working conditions of ornamental plant nursery workers in South Miami-Dade found that low wages, harmful exposure to pesticides and inadequate access to drinking water and shade are among the top complaints from workers in the industry.

Miami-Dade County is home to more than 1,500 ornamental nurseries that provide flowering plants, shrubs and trees used for commercial and residential landscaping projects. WeCount, a farmer workers rights group in Homestead, surveyed 300 workers in a workforce largely dominated by immigrant women for the study called “The Human Landscape.”

An ornamental plant nursery in South Miami-Dade.

Workers, largely from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, complete a range of jobs such as potting plants, weeding, driving tractors, digging up trees, loading pallets and customer assitance. They provide a portrait of working long hours outside in intense heat with little reprieve and low pay.

Nearly 70 percent said they experienced heat related illnesses including fainting and headaches due to a lack of shade breaks.

“Folks are under pressure to work fast. They have their order they have to get out and so they don’t want them to take breaks, they want them to produce and that’s that’s a big issue,” said Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount.

Miami-Dade recently recorded record-breaking heat and as it gets hotter because of climate change, Fried says farm workers are on the frontline of serious health risks with little protections.

The study also found many workers did not receive proper training to handle pesticides as required by law and industry regulations.

Of the workers surveyed who used pesticides for work, 64 percent said they did not receive any safety training.

Miguel Bernal, a nursery plant worker and member of WeCount, told WLRN when he worked with pesticides, his employer instructed him to lie and say he had proper training if an inspector visited the nursery.

“She told me to spray, but to not tell them that she told me to do it,” he said.

Other workers who didn’t handle pesticides said they were still exposed because spraying would happen in close proximity to where they were working, according to the surveys. Sixty two percent of the workers reported symptoms of pesticide exposure—dizziness, vomiting and skin rashes.

Nora, one of the women who responded to the survey, described symptoms of pesticide poisoning after another worker was allowed to spray near where she and several other people were working. He had practically sprayed it in our faces, she said. Nora ended up in the hospital shortly after.

“They put me in a shower to get all the chemicals off me,” she reported. “I kept falling down. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t, my body got weaker…I felt like my throat was awful, as if it were cut on the inside.”

Miami-Dade County is consistently ranked as one of the most unaffordable metro areas in the country when it comes to housing. That reality is especially stark for farmwokers. According to the people surveyed, most earn the Florida minimum wage of $8.05 or slightly above.

A smaller percentage of workers reported earning less than minimum wage.

As is the case in most other industries, there is a pay gap for women. On average women earn 36 cents less than men. Workers also reported a pay gap for speakers of indigenous Mayan languages. Speakers of Mayan languages earned 34 cents less on average than Spanish and English speakers.

And across the industry, workers reported little room for economic advancement. Workers with more than 15 years of experience working in South Dade ornamental plant nurseries earned about 45 cents more than someone with one year of experience, according to the study.

WLRN intern Aaron Sanchez-Guerra contributed to this report. 

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