Vermont Breaks Ground in Health Coverage for Migrant Workers

Vermont, land of rolling green hills dotted with black and white Holsteins and picturesque red barns. White people, everywhere, lots of them. Home of state-sanctioned town hall meetings that are models for participatory democracy. And now, the first state in our republic to enact universal health care for all. Two weeks ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law H. 202, “An act relating to a single-payer and unified health system.” It’s the first state to plunge into a single-payer system to implement national health care reform, which Harvard economist William S. Hsiao found was the best method to both reign in spiraling costs and diminish disparities.

Nationally, the need is perhaps more dire now than ever as safety net hospitals close down across the country. These hospitals are often places of last resort for care for the uninsured and for undocumented immigrants—populations that are disproportionately comprised of low-income people of color. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 44.4 percent of Latinos lack insurance, as well as 28.5 percent of black people and 21.2 percent of Asian Americans. In contrast, 16.5 percent of whites don’t have coverage.

Vermont takes one bold step towards reversing these disparities by extending coverage to the thousands of undocumented workers who toil in obscurity, hidden by the state’s rural isolation. That victory comes after a two-year, people-led movement to fight for single-payer care, under the banner of Healthcare is a Human Right—an effort that included a heroic, last-ditch campaign by the Vermont Workers Center to repeal an amendment that would have excluded undocumented workers.


The dairy industry in particular relies heavily on imported labor, with most farms employing one to two workers, the largest with 10 workers. Most of those workers are undocumented, like Santiz Cruz, having traveled north out of economic need; others come through guest worker programs. Farmworkers in Vermont earn anywhere from $5 to $10 an hour, the average is $7, working 12 to 15 hour days. Most stay for under two years, sending remittances home, before returning themselves.

These workers have until now gone without access to health care, without oversight of their working conditions for safety and health violations, and without recourse to other services that our social safety net extends to most of our citizens. (Well, it’s now a fight to preserve those services for anyone in this age of budget cuts). A 2007 report by the Vermont Department of Health found that farmworkers face many barriers to health care, including lack of language translation, transportation to providers, and fear of deportation.


“We’re seeing more undocumented workers in different industries. Primarily, up til now, they were in the dairy industry, but now they’re at vegetable farms and doing construction,” said James Haslam of the Vermont Workers Center. “We’ve operated a workers rights hotline since 1998. We occasionally got calls [from undocumented workers] and they’ve increased, despite the fact that up til now all our materials are in English. Still, somehow, people find our number.”


The victory to include undocumented farmworkers in universal health care is a temporary one. Haslam, of the Vermont Workers Center, anticipates more fights ahead. “What we’re doing in Vermont is going on the offensive for human rights,” he said, “building a proactive movement, not just defending what we have, but pushing for and really turning things around.”