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Meet Abel Cruz, one of North Carolina’s 15,000 seasonal farm workers toiling in the summer heat

Abel Cruz sitting
David Boraks
Abel Cruz outside the dorms at the farm worker camp.

This story first appeared as part of WFAE's EQUALibrium newsletter, exploring race and equity in the Charlotte region. Get the latest news and analysis in your inbox first by signing up here.

It’s a Wednesday evening at the farm labor camp in Wilson County where 37-year-old Abel Cruz lives and works harvesting and cleaning tobacco. It’s the end of the workday — typically 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. — and the end of the workweek.

A wood walled dorm
Kayla Young
The shared housing where the men live during the harvest season.

“We close out today. Today’s like Saturday or Friday for us,” Abel says. He’s sitting on a wooden bench, fashioned out of lumber and a couple of rocks, outside the men’s dormitory, provided by their employer.

He’s lived in this building, with its wood-panel walls and corrugated metal roof, for 15 harvest seasons. Inside, the group of 30 men, mostly from Mexico, sleep three to a bedroom. Cruz says that means there’s not much privacy. But now, at least, there’s air-conditioning. A few summers ago, they negotiated that with the grower who owns the farm, under the condition they paid for the units themselves.

“We wanted to have one because the heat gets bad at night, and you don’t sleep,” he said. “You have to work but you’re not getting rest. But with air-conditioning, it’s different. You arrive home, bathe and cool off.”

Cruz is part of the H-2A program, through which the government issues temporary visas to 370,000 people, mostly from Mexico, to work in the U.S. in agriculture. North Carolina ranks fifth nationally for the number of workers on seasonal H-2A work visas, with about 15,000 laboring under the sun in fields of ripening tobacco, cotton, soybeans and more. Thousands more workers are undocumented.

Agricultura worker selfie
Abel Cruz
Abel Cruz takes a selfie outside the tobacco oven at work.

‘The green monster’

Cruz’s after-work routine is similar most nights: try to get a good spot in the shower line and scrub off the build up of tar and chemicals before dinner. Cruz tries to take another during his lunch break, so that his food doesn’t pick up the bitter taste of nicotine and his skin doesn’t form welts.

“I have to clean my nostrils because they’re black like they were full of some type of rubber from inhaling so much nicotine,” he says. “My clothes turn dark, dark, dark, like it was covered in grease.”

He’s developed a high tolerance to the nicotine at this point, and he doesn’t get sick anymore like some of the new workers do.

“It’s tobacco poisoning, but around here it’s known as ‘the green monster.’ When the green monster hits you at the hottest temperatures, at 10 a.m. you’re already feeling it,” he said, recalling his early years. “You start to spit more frequently. You feel the smell penetrating your nose. You don’t feel very good. You get nauseous. You get worse and worse until you get to the point of vomiting and more vomiting.”

But tonight, the men are in good spirits. The weather is nice and a few men are sitting outside, catching up and sharing a drink.

Even though tonight, payday, feels like a Friday, tomorrow won’t resemble a Saturday.

Cruz will wake up at 4:45 a.m., just like he does every day, so he’s ready to start work by 6. His job is seven days and about 75 hours a week. His only chance to cash his paycheck and send money home will be Sunday afternoon.

“On Sundays, after we finish harvesting, they pay us and we go out for a bit to do our shopping,” he said. “Then we come back to do it again another day.”

Extreme heat is a risk for workers, but like most states North Carolina has no standards or regulations to protect them. As the situation worsens with global warming, advocates say it's time for that to change.

He’s eager to pick up hours though, because this is the money that will pay for his children’s school fees and big-ticket items like a new refrigerator for his family back home.

Cruz grew up in a town called Tamazunchale, in the Huasteca Potosina region of central Mexico. Many, like him, speak Nahuatl, an Indigenous language. It’s a mountainous area without many job opportunities or arable land.

To get ahead, he had to look for work elsewhere. For Cruz, North Carolina tobacco fields are the ticket to a better life. With his harvest season earnings, he’s been able to buy land, build a home, purchase a car and pay for his children’s schooling.

“If I hadn’t come here, maybe I’d still be trying to build my house because I’d need more money,” he said.

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When he’s back home, he says he earns up to $118 a week — if he’s able to secure a decent job in town. In North Carolina, he earns almost 10 times that, about $1,100, for a 75-hour week.

H-2A farm workers in North Carolina earn a minimum wage of $14.91. But they don’t get overtime or benefits like health care or pension contributions. Cruz’s only paycheck deduction is a membership fee for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the union meant to represent North Carolina farm workers.

And workers have little to no control over their schedule, no matter how grueling the work is. Later this week, temperatures in Wilson County could reach a high of 100 degrees. Cruz says that might mean coming in early from the fields and instead, spending afternoons cleaning and drying tobacco.

That decision will depend on their employer.

This story was produced through a collaboration between WFAE and La Noticia. You canread it in Spanishat La Noticia. Puedes leer la nota en español en La Noticia.

Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.