color photograph of about five farmworkers and farmworker advocates wearing dark clothing and face masks standing to the right of an outdoor ofrenda. the shrine has wreaths of yellow flowers and photographs of deceased farmworkers
At a Día de los Muertos press conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Nov. 3, farmworkers and farmworker advocates honor workers who died while working in the fields. (Photo credit Tina Vásquez)

At a small press conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Nov. 3, farmworkers, activists, and advocates gathered to honor the dead. 

Steps away from the state’s Department of Agriculture, farmworker advocates transformed Bicentennial Plaza into a public ofrenda for Día de los Muertos that included images of farmworkers who recently died in the line of work—including José Arturo González Mendoza. The 30-year-old and most of the other men honored were young, fit, and in the prime of their lives—factors that make little difference when the body is exposed to extreme temperatures for long periods while deprived of water, shade, and rest. 

A tobacco worker who spoke at the event said he was there to support his colleagues who died. 

“We cannot lose any more lives,” he said. It was both a plea for help and a demand.  

At one point during the press conference, an organizer yelled, “Ni una vida más,” or not one more life. The crowd followed suit, their chants bouncing off the walls of the North Carolina State Capitol and legislative buildings. 

But would the state agencies and elected officials in North Carolina’s center of power heed their call? 

Diverging stories 

When migrant workers are recruited into the Department of Labor’s H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers visa program that enables American employers to bring them to the U.S. to labor in fields nationwide, they have little control over where they will work or the kind of work they will do. But among the hundreds of thousands of H-2A workers who now come to the U.S. each year, a large percentage end up in the South—specifically Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. This is how González Mendoza found himself in North Carolina picking sweet potatoes for Barnes Farming, the largest sweet potato producer in the world. He worked for less than two weeks before he died in North Carolina, thousands of miles away from his wife and two young children in Guanajuato, Mexico.

This past summer was the hottest ever recorded, and on Sept. 5 when Gónzalez Mendoza died, the temperature in Spring Hope shot up to 97 degrees and 51% humidity. Sources who spoke to Prism said that the actual details surrounding the H-2A worker’s death differ from the account given to the media by Barnes Farming. The company is owned by Johnny Barnes and operated with the assistance of his wife, Republican state Sen. Lisa Barnes, co-chair of the Senate Agriculture, Energy, and Environment Committee.

According to accounts shared with Prism by those in direct communication with Gónzalez Mendoza’s family, the company didn’t provide workers with enough food or water, and Gónzalez Mendoza exhibited signs of heat stress in the days preceding his death. However, sources said, the on-site labor contractor didn’t take his symptoms seriously or listen to workers’ pleas to take him to the hospital. Instead, on the morning of Sept. 5 when Gónzalez Mendoza could no longer physically work, he was sent to sit on a bus, where the temperature likely far exceeded the one outside. He was later found lifeless. By the time 911 was called at 10:42 a.m., it was already too late. Gónzalez Mendoza had been in the U.S. for 11 days. 

In a statement to Prism, an attorney with the firm Fisher & Phillips, LLP, which is representing Barnes Farming, appeared to dispute basic facts laid out by workers, Gónzalez Mendoza’s family members, and reporting published by outlets like CNN—including where the H-2A worker died. 

“Please note, as a point of correction and clarification, that the local authorities are conducting a determination of cause and time of death. I am sure you understand, therefore, that at this time it would not be accurate to write that Mr. Gónzalez Mendoza died at the Barnes Farm,” wrote attorney Marie T. Scott. 

Scott went on to say that Barnes Farming “takes the health and safety of each one of its team members extremely seriously and has prioritized health and safety since the Farm was started,” according to the statement. “Each Barnes Farming team member is vital to the Company, to the community, and to the global food supply and, as a company and a family of devoted team members, we are deeply saddened by the loss of Mr. Gónzalez Mendoza.”

When H-2A workers die laboring on American farms, their deaths only sometimes make national headlines—often for the conditions they were subject to and the tragic nature of their deaths. As CNN reported, Barnes Farming faced investigations in 2019 and 2020 by the North Carolina Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Division related to hazardous chemicals and insufficient toilet and hand washing facilities. The executive director of the rural Latinx North Carolina nonprofit Casa Azul de Wilson also told CNN that Barnes Farming had a history of mistreating workers by allotting them just 20 minutes for lunch and refusing to give workers water breaks. 

More often than not, workers’ deaths do not make the news. Gónzalez Mendoza was actually the third recorded death of a farmworker in North Carolina since the spring. In a statement, the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) confirmed that one farmworker died in a forklift accident and that the agency’s Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau was notified of a farmworker fatality on July 19 that “may have been related to heat stress.” 

Stories of other potential farmworker deaths circulated among advocates, attorneys, and H-2A workers throughout the summer. In one possible case, an H-2A worker died by suicide. In another, workers alleged that a fellow farmworker died from heat stress but said their labor contractor claimed it was a heart attack. NCDOL had no record of these deaths. This doesn’t mean the deaths didn’t happen, but rather that they may not have been properly reported to officials. 

According to North Carolina advocates and farmworkers who spoke to Prism, there is a lot the public doesn’t know about farmworker deaths—and sometimes the obfuscation is intentional. 

“A moment of crisis”

An estimated 32 million people across the U.S. are classified as “outdoor workers.” According to the latest government data, immigrants are far more likely than American workers to hold outdoor jobs where they experience up to 35 times the risk of dying from heat exposure than the general population—and Latinx agricultural workers are at even higher risk, according to Elizabeth Mizelle. The nurse and East Carolina University assistant professor conducts research with farmworkers in eastern North Carolina on heat illness and dehydration. During the Nov. 3 press conference, she said North Carolina is historically one of the top states for farmworker deaths due to heat. 

“The real risk for heat illness is likely much higher than what the statistics show, and that’s because heat illness is under-identified and underreported,” Mizelle said. “The higher risk could be due to the warm and humid climate here and also because heat waves can occur in May and September, not just June, July, and August.” 

And across the South, states like North Carolina with high numbers of H-2A workers are routinely ranked the worst to work in because of dismal labor protections. As global warming accelerates, these deadly labor conditions are certain to worsen

At least a third of the U.S. population was under an extreme heat advisory at some point this summer, making the agricultural work performed by vulnerable H-2A workers like Gónzalez Mendoza even more deadly. Currently, no federal law specifically protects workers from extreme heat. Broadly, the onus is on workers to protect themselves, said Mayra Reiter, the project director of Occupational Safety and Health at the advocacy organization Farmworker Justice. 

Take, for example, North Carolina’s Department of Labor. The agency’s heat stress “solutions” tab first asks workers to consider how they can protect themselves, but anyone familiar with agricultural operations knows that’s the wrong question. 

“Farmworkers are limited in what they can do because even though they know they need shade and water and rest breaks, it’s often up to their supervisor or to their employer to let them take those breaks, drink water, or go to the shade when they need to,” Reiter said. “People are rightly afraid that they are going to lose their jobs, so it’s very difficult for farmworkers to take precautions—even when they know they need to—because they are rightly afraid that there will be consequences.” 

According to Mizelle’s research, the nature of agricultural work in North Carolina doesn’t really allow workers to take even simple protective measures, like afternoon breaks.

“Drinking water is so simple, and it’s crucial to prevent heat illness, yet farmworkers in North Carolina report short breaks and long distances to water coolers, which make it hard to stay hydrated,” Mizelle said. 

Workers can file complaints about these issues with their state or the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but as Reiter pointed out, this is another way of placing the burden on workers who will likely experience retaliation for filing a complaint—if the complaint is even investigated. Federal OSHA does have a general duty clause, which requires employers to maintain a safe workplace. 

“But it doesn’t say anything specific about heat,” Reiter explained. “It’s not a heat standard, so the clause is very vague and very difficult to enforce. Even when workers make complaints, even when investigators go out to the fields and inspect the conditions, it’s still hard to enforce in the case of heat hazards.” 

These conditions have persisted for years, and with the addition of rising temperatures due to climate change, Salvador Sarmiento said migrant workers who disproportionately work outdoors are in “a moment of crisis.”

“Today, it is an undeniable fact that [migrant] workers subsidize every major industry across the U.S.,” said Sarmiento, the national campaign director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). “It is also true that these workers are facing a racist political effort to dehumanize them, to demonize them, and simultaneously to exclude them from basic labor protections—to further exploit them—even as workers literally die on the job.” 

TIME reported that in most American states, there’s a fine for leaving a dog outside without water or shade, but with the exception of California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, which have enacted stronger farmworker protections, the nation’s 2.5 million agricultural workers don’t have the same protections under high-heat conditions. This is largely because of racist exclusions under the National Labor Relations Act that exclude agricultural workers from basic labor protections. 

Amanda Caldwell, the managing attorney of Community Legal Services’ farmworker unit in Yuma, Arizona, spoke to Prism shortly after the July death of 25-year-old farmworker Dario Mendoza. The young father’s death sparked calls for legislation to protect Arizona workers from extreme heat. Caldwell said that in her region of the country, the patchwork of incongruent laws only creates more confusion. 

“There’s no shade requirement here in Arizona or any break or rest requirement. It’s a very strange dynamic for workers because we have a neighboring state that does have a shade requirement and heat-related protections. Our office sees workers who work in California and in Arizona. The result of that is that workers have some protections one day if they’re working in a field in California, and then the next day when they’re working in Arizona, they don’t have those same protections,” Caldwell explained.  

One of Community Legal Services’ primary functions is educating workers about their rights, including information about heat stress. Teaching workers what signs and symptoms to look out for is one thing. Urging them not to push past the point of exhaustion is another. 

This is because many agricultural workers are paid a piece rate, meaning they are compensated according to how much they harvest each day. Under this system, workers are incentivized to harvest more because it allows them to make more money. 

“Unfortunately, they’re not really incentivized to take breaks or care for their health, nor do workers have the power to demand breaks not otherwise required by law,” Caldwell said. “We had a period in July where it was over 110 degrees for 31 days. These weather conditions are really tough on workers. Heatstroke is one of those things where by the time you’re really feeling the symptoms, and you’re in need of medical attention, you’re already in a very grave situation.” 

And for H-2A workers who are forced to rely entirely on their American employers, even seeking medical attention can be a challenge.

The H-2A program is a continuation of the inhumane Bracero Program, which partially explains why human trafficking, wage theft, and slavery are baked into how the agricultural visa program operates. H-2A workers are particularly vulnerable to these abuses in the agricultural industry because their visas are tied to a single employer who controls their ability to legally reside and work in the U.S. and who is also responsible for providing workers with housing, transportation, and access to food. 

Temperatures are rising. We’ve needed a heat standard for a long time, and we need it now more than we did a year ago. We’re going to need it more next year than we need it right now. This is urgent. All of us have to do everything we can to get this in place.

Clermont Ripley

H-2A workers also have almost no incentive to file complaints with DOL or speak out against abuse because it can take the government years to investigate an employer. By then, workers have either returned to their home country or are working in another state entirely. Workers who do assert their rights also regularly report experiencing informal blacklisting from the H-2A program and threats of deportation, among other forms of employer retaliation. A new policy announced earlier this year protects migrant workers who file labor complaints from worksite immigration enforcement, deportation, and other forms of retaliation from employers. Prosecutorial discretion, as it’s known, was a critical development, but it fails to address root causes of the inherently exploitative and dangerous labor contracts many migrant workers have no choice but to enter into. 

“That workers are dying at work—and their co-workers are terrified to talk to government investigators—is a tragic indicator of the state of workplace rights for [migrant] workers,” Sarmiento said. 

If not for initial social media posts about Gónzalez Mendoza, including one from Barnes Farming that was later retracted, his tragic death may have joined hundreds of others that are never publicly acknowledged. 

Government agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that about 40 workers die every year from heat, but farmworker advocates say this number is likely much higher. The consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen estimates that extreme heat contributes to up to 2,000 deaths and 170,000 injuries per year. If accurate, this makes heat one of the leading causes of death and injury in U.S. workplaces.

 But why is there such a sizable discrepancy in the data?

“The full universe of farmworker deaths”

Some H-2A workers’ deaths are never investigated. There are no good reasons for this; it’s mostly due to government bureaucracy. 

Less than half of U.S. states have their own workplace safety and health programs that allow for them to oversee enforcement and investigations of private-sector workplaces. Most states are covered by federal OSHA, which limits the enforcement and investigations it can carry out in individual states. This is because a small-employer exemption bars the federal agency from using federal funds to conduct enforcement on farms with 10 or fewer employees unless they have employer-provided housing. This leaves many farms outside of OSHA’s jurisdiction, which also means many deaths across the agricultural industry go uninvestigated, as highlighted in a recent ProPublica investigation. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, small family farms account for 89% of all U.S. farms.

“Even when a worker dies, OSHA still cannot go in there to inspect, investigate, or do anything because they cannot spend money on that,” Reiter said. “Because of factors like this, I think we have a very limited understanding of farmworkers’ deaths. The numbers that are publicly available do not capture the full universe of farmworker deaths related to heat.” 

In the state of North Carolina, any fatality that occurs at work should be reported to NCDOL within eight hours so the agency can investigate the cause of death. In the case of farmworker deaths, the agency told Prism that attorneys, family members, or coworkers can report the death to the state’s Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau. But what if no one does? 

Eli Carmona Porras, an H-2A worker with nearly 20 years of experience working in North Carolina fields, said in WhatsApp messages from his labor camp that agricultural work is dangerous for many reasons: the heat, the conditions, the elements. For example, he said that when he arrived in Harnett County, North Carolina, this summer for work on a sweet potato farm, he immediately learned of a fellow H-2A worker hospitalized due to a poisonous snake bite. 

Carmona Porras told Prism that many workers die each year due to heat and workplace accidents, but he questions whether labor contractors and other employers avoid properly reporting these deaths—not just to avoid accountability for workplace conditions, but to avoid having to pay workers’ compensation. 

Worker’s compensation coverage varies by state, and according to Farmworker Justice, about half of all states allow agricultural employers to provide “little or no worker’s compensation coverage” for H-2A workers. In North Carolina, where Gónzalez Mendoza died, employers with fewer than 10 full-time, non-seasonal farm laborers do not have to provide workers’ compensation.

Attorney Rachel Micah-Jones, founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), the first transnational migrant rights organization based in Mexico, told Prism that in many workers’ compensation cases her organization deals with, it’s common for H-2A workers to have been coached by their employer.

“When workers are taken to the hospital by a labor contractor, the contractor tells them not to say the injury happened at work,” Micah-Jones said. “And oftentimes, the worker won’t say what really happened because they don’t want to be retaliated against. By the time they come to us, their cases are a challenge because there’s a record of them saying the injury wasn’t work-related.”

When it comes to migrant workers’ deaths, there is a similar dynamic at play. 

Micah-Jones said that a few years ago, CDM was contacted by a group of men who worked at fairgrounds with a migrant worker who died. The employer claimed his death wasn’t work-related and that the worker died of a heart attack in his room. His coworkers insisted otherwise.

“When the ambulance came to take the man’s body away, the workers said their employer made up a story about how the death occurred—and this is certainly not uncommon,” Micah-Jones said. “There’s a whole host of reasons why employers don’t want to properly report deaths. Employers don’t want to have to pay the workers’ compensation, or maybe they don’t have workers’ comp. They certainly don’t want to be investigated for a workplace death—especially a situation where it’s potentially criminal because it was 115 degrees and they weren’t letting people take rest or shade breaks.” 

NCDOL told Prism that in instances where there are conflicting reports concerning a cause of death, the agency utilizes available data to try to determine the cause, including the medical examiner’s report, the autopsy (if one is conducted), the death certificate, medical records, police reports, and EMS reports, among other kinds of information. It appears as if this data may never actually filter down to the family of the deceased. 

H-2A worker Abraham Gónzalez Cervantes died while working in North Carolina over the summer. His wife spoke over a shaky video connection during the Nov. 3 press conference, saying that the workers who were with her husband during his final hours are afraid to speak out. The reasons why are clear: H-2A workers often face retaliation from their employers for filing complaints or otherwise asserting their rights. 

It’s been months since Gónzalez Cervantes died in North Carolina, and his family in Mexico still doesn’t have many answers. He likely died of heat stress, but his wife said that she was initially told that he “had a stroke.” She said that she has yet to receive his death certificate. Prism reached out to NCDOL for comment on whether Gónzalez Cervantes’ death was one the agency had on record but did not hear back in time for publication.

Reiter said that even with all of the data agencies have access to, it likely still doesn’t provide a full account of farmworker deaths.

“It’s not just the issue of employers not reporting deaths,” she said. “There are many other reasons why heat-related deaths are undercounted. Not all people who die due to heat have heatstroke. When people die of other conditions that are brought on by the heat or aggravated by the heat, it’s not necessarily recognized as heat-related.”

Exposure to extreme heat can affect a person’s reaction time or their ability to concentrate, both of which increases the risk of accidents. If an accident leads to a worker’s death, there is little chance it will get categorized as heat-related.

Mizelle said during the 10 years she worked as a nurse in a hospital, she treated many for heat exposure and dehydration, and she saw firsthand how repeated exposure to heat and dehydration also contributed to injuries at work, as well as chronic illnesses that affect the kidneys, heart, liver, and brain. This is likely why the farmworkers Mizelle has treated are diagnosed with chronic illnesses far younger ages than other patients. 

“If a worker dies from a heart attack that was precipitated by the heat, it might not be recorded or categorized as heat-related,” Reiter said. “This is especially true if the death occurs after hours or when the worker has gone home. And on top of all of that, the criteria for cause of death classifications vary from one jurisdiction to another—even from one medical examiner to another. This is why we believe the actual number of farmworker deaths due to heat is much, much higher than the numbers that you see reported.”

Bad for workers, good for business 

After more than a decade of advocacy from organizations like NDLON and CDM, in 2021, OSHA began the process of working to enact a national heat stress standard. The federal agency must go through 48 cumbersome steps to enact a rule. According to advocates, there are other sizable hurdles in the way of implementing a heat standard. 

“Any time a new regulation is introduced, you can expect employers to fight against it,” said Clermont Ripley, the co-director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s (NCJC) Workers’ Rights Project. “Across the U.S., the agricultural lobby is very powerful, and in North Carolina, many legislators own agricultural operations. Farmworkers are the most at risk when it comes to extreme heat, but we can expect the agricultural lobby to oppose heat regulations. They will say what they always say: ‘We can’t afford to make these changes. This will kill agriculture.’ Their messaging is that protecting workers will doom agriculture.”

Take, for example, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), one of the most powerful groups in agriculture—and one that has “a long history of denying science around the climate crisis and has teamed up with fossil fuel interests in fights over climate policies,” The Guardian reported. The group has come out against OSHA’s effort to create a heat standard.

“Considering the variances in agricultural work and climate, AFBF questions whether the department can develop additional heat illness regulations without imposing new, onerous burdens on farmers and ranchers that will lead to economic losses,” the group wrote during the rulemaking comment period. 

Individual states with their own workplace safety and health programs experience similar difficulty passing worker protections. Ripley said in North Carolina, this is true no matter who’s in power. 

Since 2020, Oxfam, a global organization working to alleviate poverty, has named North Carolina the worst state to work in based on wage policies, worker protections, and rights to organize. Conversely, North Carolina is routinely ranked the top state for business—and what’s good for business is often bad for workers. 

Ripley said the business community in North Carolina is well organized, so when worker protections are proposed, employers denounce the regulations during the comment period and threaten to stop donations to legislators, among other tactics. 

North Carolina currently has no heat stress protection, but groups like NCJC have been working with advocates, experts, and activists across the state as part of the North Carolina Heat Stress Coalition. The group was working on drafting a proposed heat stress standard when NCDOL initiated rulemaking for a heat regulation. However, ahead of North Carolina’s 2024 race for labor commissioner, it appears the agency is backing away from pursuing any new regulations.

“We have focused our energy on raising public awareness of heat stress impacts on workers in North Carolina and the fact that there are these very commonsense things that the medical community has agreed on for decades that would be great to put in place,” Ripley said. “The goal is to build support for heat protections [if] a comment period opens up.” 

The strategy is a necessary one. Ripley explained that in North Carolina, once public comments have ended and the “legal hoops” are completed by the Rules Review Commission, the public could still block heat protections if there are at least 10 objections to the standard. This forces the rule to go to the General Assembly, where it becomes even less likely to be adopted. 

“Temperatures are rising. We’ve needed a heat standard for a long time, and we need it now more than we did a year ago. We’re going to need it more next year than we need it right now. This is urgent. All of us have to do everything we can to get this in place,” Ripley said. 

In a statement to Prism, NCDOL spokesman John Mallow would only say that the agency is “monitoring” OSHA’s proposed heat stress standard at the national level “as it makes its way through the federal process.” 

In 2021, when 38-year-old Oregon farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez died during a June heat wave that brought temperatures above 115 in the Willamette Valley, the state’s OSHA issued a temporary heat standard while in the middle of rulemaking for a permanent heat standard. In North Carolina, where state laws do allow for temporary and emergency rulemaking, no such efforts were made after multiple farmworker deaths this summer. 

Given the slow pace of progress in the state, during the Nov. 3 press conference North Carolina’s Farmworker Advocacy Network urged members of the public to sign on to a heat stress petition aimed at legislators. H-2A worker Carmona Porras also announced that a worker-led petition demanding better protections for H-2A workers and justice for those who have died in the fields was signed by more than 200 North Carolina farmworkers and delivered to the North Carolina Growers Association, which serves as the middleman between more than 10,000 North Carolina H-2A workers and the farms that employ them.

Adopting better standards to protect workers’ lives—even if they’re temporary—may seem like a commonsense approach. However, these decisions are largely shaped by a state’s political landscape. 

While workers wait for the state to take action, North Carolina is becoming more hot and humid. In Spring Hope, the small North Carolina town where Gónzalez Mendoza worked before he took his last breaths, conditions are expected to rapidly worsen. Risk Factor, a site that allows users to view future climate projections based on peer-reviewed research from leading flood, fire, and climate modelers, shows that in the next 30 years, Spring Hope will likely see a 128.6% increase in the number of days over 106 degrees F. 

Simply put, this translates to more workers dying. 

“And it’s not just the agricultural industry—we are seeing workers die in construction, in cleaning and maintenance, and in other industries,” Reiter said. “This is happening while lobbying groups successfully argue about the cost of complying with regulations. It’s clear that the protections that are in place are not sufficient to protect people, and at some point we must decide what is more important: industry or workers’ lives.”

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.