Even after having worked as a farmworker for a few years, Eva Chavez still had trouble coping with how exhausted she was after a day of picking apples. “I’d barely make it home because I was so tired,” she remembers. “I’d just park the car outside my house and sleep in the car. I didn’t even want to go inside.”
She saw her fellow farmworkers get similarly worn down. She said she worried when she saw someone in charge of a job distribute pain pills and Coca-Cola. Some of her friends drank cans of Red Bull or Monster Energy so often that if they stopped, they got sleepy and lost their motivation to work. “We put our lives out there in the fields for a job that will never give our health back,” says Chavez. Another farmworker I talked to, who once picked tobacco on a farm in Kentucky, said that the exposure to the nicotine in the leaves left him with a sensation “like a hangover multiplied by 10.”
For decades, farmworkers living in Washington like Chavez have been an integral part of the state’s fruit production, which includes apples, apricots, and berries. Once she gained experience, Chavez could pick as many as 10 4x4x3-foot bins of apples a day. The prevailing pay for picking a bin, according to Washington’s Employment Security Department, ranges from $20 to $28, depending on the variety of apple. Although this price rate is higher than when Chavez started more than a decade ago, the state reports that the average farmworker earned just under $25,000 in 2015. That’s usually only enough to rent a trailer or a run-down home.