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Migrant worker's death highlights risks of seasonal farm work

Around 100 people searched for a farm worker who turned up missing while detasseling corn near Grand Island (NTV News)

Migrant workers endure triple digit temps for single digit pay. And a death in a central Nebraska corn field illustrates the dangers.

“They come here, they just want to work, hard-working, work long hours,” explained Jody Stutzman of Proteus, Inc.

Migrant workers may come with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and the promise of jobs.

Nebraska’s growing seed corn industry requires seasonal workers to take the tassel of corn plants, and many contractors use migrant laborers.

Stutzman said, “There's not enough kids detasseling anymore, so there's a lot of adult farm workers that come from Texas, Arizona, California to detassel and rogue corn.”

A migrant farmworker went missing while detasseling in hundred-degree heat near Grand Island recently, prompting a search.

“We’ve got about 100 volunteers out here, lining up shoulder to shoulder walking the field,” said Quinn Webb, Hall County Chief Deputy Sheriff.

52-year-old Cruz Urias-Beltran died 100 feet from the edge of the field.

And while companies are required to provide pesticide training, heat training is not mandatory.

“It breaks my heart knowing he could have some training that could help,” Stutzman said.

She says Proteus is funded by the Department of Labor to provide services for migrant and seasonal workers.

After this tragedy, caseworkers are visiting central Nebraska hotels where farmworkers stay, to let them know how to stay safe.

“The training could only take 20 minutes of their time but it could help,” she said. “If you become sick due to the heat itself, you don't really realize you're sick, so it's important we provide the training so that the workers can pay attention to each other and we're safe in the field.”

Stutzman says some get minimum wage, and others around $13 an hour. They may work longer hours than the kids who detassel.

Her organization provides shirts and bandanas, in addition to training.

She said, “When you get around corn that's taller than you are, and humidity, it can be very dangerous.”

And in this case, it appears it was deadly.

“To have something like this happen just because someone wanted to work is heartbreaking and devastating,” she said.

These workers don’t speak the language, are in an unfamiliar place, and may not want to speak up but Stutzman says they need to, if they feel safety is compromised.

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