Deadly wildfires raging across California are leaving some of the state’s most vulnerable residents in harm’s way. Farmworkers are still hard at work in the fields, despite danger from smoke inhalation and neighboring flames.
Farmworkers experience direct exposure to smoke and heat in connection with wildfires, but many are unable, or unwilling, to seek help for reasons related to income, immigration status, and other factors. Advocates worry that as fire season grows longer and longer, the dangers these workers face are increasing.
At least 50 people have died amid the deadliest wildfire onslaught in California’s history. A number of fires are currently raging across the state, including the Camp Fire in northern California, which was only around 35 percent contained as of Tuesday, and which has destroyed almost 9,000 structures and killed 48 people.
The Woolsey Fire, meanwhile, is burning west of Los Angeles, and is around 40 percent contained with two casualties confirmed, while the Hill Fire in nearby Ventura County is close to 90 percent contained.
A handful of wealthy Californians — including Hollywood celebrities — have lost their homes in the blaze, but farmworkers are in a far more precarious position. In an email to ThinkProgress on Tuesday, Bruce Goldstein of Farmworker Justice noted that many workers are facing devastating choices as the fires rage.
“The consequences for farmworkers of the fires and other natural disasters tend to be compounded by several factors, including the lack of immigration status for many farmworkers, which causes them to be fearful of coming forward and seeking disaster assistance even when they are eligible for it,” he wrote, pointing to both the health and legal ramifications associated with working near flames.
“Working in the fields is dangerous due to the smoke from fires. Another issue is that most farmworkers have no paid leave and many are not eligible for unemployment compensation, so when they cannot work, they suffer serious economic harm,” he said. “If they are displaced from their homes, they often have very limited options.”
In states like Florida, researchers have found that climate change is taking an outsized toll on farmworkers, exposing them to extreme heat. Moreover, disasters like hurricanes are becoming more frequent, hurting growing season and displacing farmworkers.
In California, a similar scenario is playing out, as wildfire season becomes longer and more deadly, leaving farmworkers extremely vulnerable to their impacts, along with the incarcerated workers the state uses to battle the flames.
A current advisory from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) shared with ThinkProgress advises that employers take “special precautions” during the wildfires, in addition to providing N95 masks, a disposable filtering respirator.
“Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can harm health,” the advisory notes. “The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles in the air, which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.”
Whether or not employers will follow the advisory is unclear. During last year’s Thomas Fire, farmworkers continued on in the strawberry fields of Oxnard, a coastal city not far from Los Angeles. At that time, the LA Times reported that many farmworkers lacked masks to protect them from the air until labor rights activists distributed around 2,000 respirators.
Those activists faced pushback from growers, who argued they had offered masks to workers themselves and been denied. Some workers, however, said their employers never offered them masks, leaving them at the mercy of terrible air quality linked to extreme health ramifications.
This year, activists have been working to make sure farmworkers know their rights and have access to specialized masks. But that’s far from easy.
Zuleth Lucero, the South Coast regional coordinator for the United Farm Workers Foundation, told ThinkProgress on Wednesday that while poor air quality has been a concern in the Ventura County area, she has seen farmworkers this week in the fields either without protection or with less-efficient hospital masks.
“Some of the smoke is still there [but] people are still going to work,” Lucero said, noting that air quality had improved throughout the week but that the risks remain very real. “They will not stop going to work. They [typically] don’t know the consequences, the risks.”
While activists are working to set up information sessions and deliver masks to farmworkers, the threat to day laborers comes from all sides.
Many farmworkers are undocumented and fear seeking medical attention when they become ill from the effects of things like smoke. Lucero noted that following recent movements by the Trump administration to label immigrants using public assistance a “public charge,” more and more farmworkers have questions about how seeking aid could impact their jobs and status.
They also fear losing income. Farmworkers are typically paid per piece as opposed to per hour, meaning that any time spent away from their jobs can result in a steep income loss. With families to feed, that alone can be a powerful incentive to stay in the fields, at great personal risk.
Ultimately, Lucero said, all activists can do is offer information.
“We let them know, we help them, we educate them, we inform them,” she said. “We let them know if you get sick at work, it is your right to go.”