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Protections for Sonoma County workers near fire zones spotlighted after recent wildfires

In the aftermath of another year of devastating wildfires, Sonoma County residents again dealt with hardships of fleeing their homes and ensuring they were not breathing unhealthy, smoky air.

Furthermore, some local residents had little choice but continue to report to work during dangerous conditions because of the nature of their jobs.

Now, there’s a growing chorus of voices saying the state needs to do more to protect people working near fires in mandatory evacuation zones. A large number of them often are farmworkers who need to keep working to earn paychecks to put food on the table for their families and pay the rent.

“Workers are fearing for their safety and (are) being put between a rock and a hard place, when it comes to feeding their families,” said Omar Paz Jr., lead organizer for North Bay Jobs for Justice, and someone who has heard concerns directly from workers about their safety working near wildfires.

The issue took center stage when the Walbridge fire sparked in mid-August just as the county’s annual wine grape harvest kicked into high gear. Farmers still had to pick their grapes and tend to their animals. Local agriculture producers relied on county Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith to obtain permission to allow them and their workers to enter mandatory evacuation areas to get access to their farm properties — if given the go-ahead by law enforcement. During the Walbridge fire, ag producers made 450 applications to Smith’s office for such clearance and another 213 during the subsequent Glass fire, according to public records obtained by North Bay Jobs for Justice.

Smith said his role was to simply determine if applicants were legitimate commercial ag producers. He said a few applicants were denied, mentioning people who have beehives to make honey at home, then give it to family and friends.

In considering the farm property access requests, the ag commissioner does not take into account air quality levels or worker safety. The final decision to allow farmers onto their properties in fire zones is determined by law enforcement officers on the ground, Smith said.

A spokesman for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said no statistics were compiled regarding how many ag producers were stopped this year from entering fire evacuation zones because of worker safety issues.

The county’s ag property access system was developed during the 2017 wildfires. Even its creator, retired county Agriculture Commissioner Tony Lineager, acknowledged last year more needs to be done.

“The difficult part is coordinating all of the agencies involved to make sure everyone is on the same page. I believe that a statewide protocol must be developed that is portable and can be employed in any county for such disasters,” Lineager wrote in 2019.

While Lineager said Cal Fire and the California Highway Patrol have to be involved, the state’s oversight agency responsible for worker safety is Cal/OSHA. Labor analysts and activists said the absence of any enforcement action taken by the state agency on this front speaks volumes.

“This is only going to continue in the future, and there needs to be some type of safeguard in place that is evaluating these hazards and protecting the workers,” said Karin Umfrey, an attorney at Worksafe, an Oakland-based workplace safety advocacy group.

And concerns are not just in agricultural sector. During the 2019 Kincade fire, a similar situation occurred when grocery and restaurant workers reported to work in mandatory evacuation areas in Santa Rosa at the behest of their employers since their workplaces were not affected by PG&E power shut-offs.

Despite repeated requests for comment for this story, Cal/OSHA did not provide any information to The Press Democrat on what the agency is doing to protect laborers working in close proximity to wildfires. And the agency declined to make Director Doug Parker available for an interview.

“I know that Cal/OSHA has been out some (during the fires); I’m not sure how much,” said Anne Katten, pesticide and work safety project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

Fifth-generation grape grower Bret Munselle said he held off a daily harvest for about five days in Dry Creek Valley because he didn’t want to expose this workers to hazardous conditions during the Walbridge fire.

“Then it wasn’t active … and the smoke had lifted and we were able to get in more comfortably,” Munselle said. “That was one we did have to wait on, but we were able to come back within a week.”

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said he would like to see more state input on workplace safety in fire evacuation areas, noting the county’s local “ad-hoc program” doesn’t have clarity. It’s a statewide issue, he said, in need of the state agency’s attention.

“It’s appropriate to have people work if safety is covered. That really has to be lined up well at OSHA at the state level,” Gore said. “This is now the new normal (annual wildfires) and it shouldn’t be dependent on one jurisdiction or another to figure it out because worker safety for me has to be maintained at the utmost standard.”

The spotlight on worker safety comes as Cal/OSHA is attempting to put in place permanent safety rules for workers on air quality standards to protect them from wildfire smoke. Under emergency rules, when fine particles in the air cause an “unhealthy” air quality level deemed to be above 150, employers must take action to protect workers such as providing proper respiratory protection equipment. They can include disposable respirators and N95 masks for voluntary use. Under the same temporary rules, their use is required when the air quality level is greater than a reading at 500, meaning a “hazardous“ level.

Labor analysts expect the state agency soon will adopt final rules that are similar to the emergency guidelines.

“Worker advocates would like to see a regulation that’s more protective,” Katten said.

Advocates contend the rules should be more stringent with masks being provided to workers when air quality deteriorates to levels “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and they should be required for use at “very unhealthy” level — an air quality reading over 300.

There has been pushback, however, from business trade groups on the more restrictive requirements. A group representing the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers said moving the mandatory mask requirement air quality level from 500 to 300 would place a “burden on employers to comply with this threshold” that it called “considerable.”

The California Legislature has yet not fully debated the issue of worker protections around wildfires. Gov. Gavin Newsom this year did sign into law AB 2658, sponsored by Assemblymember Autumn Burke, D- Los Angeles. It shields domestic workers from employer retaliation, including firing, if they refuse to work in hazardous conditions or emergency situations. That legislation was an outgrowth of uproar over revelations of housekeepers going to work in mandatory evacuation zones around the 2019 Getty fire in Los Angeles.

While the wrangling continues at the state level, local advocates are pushing for more responsiveness in Sonoma County. Paz has helped lead the effort along with officials from the Graton Day Labor Center and United Farm Workers.

They are calling for more safeguards such as a temporary stop to the county ag property access system during disasters and the establishment of a farmworker safety advisory committee to develop better enforcement tools. Besides concerns over workers proximity to the wildfires, the advocates were troubled during the recent fires because they claimed some workers may not have had access to N95 masks. Smith said his office distributed more than 50,000 of the masks to local farmers.

“It was a supplemental effort to complement the efforts that employers were already undertaking,” Smith said of the mask distribution.

County farmers defended the ag department’s property access system and said they would not place their workers or themselves in harm’s way. During the fires, some farmers were stopped at access checkpoints by law enforcement officials, whether it was due to dangerous conditions or because PG&E was in the area trying to restore power, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Lynda Hopkins, another county supervisor, was able to gain access during a fire to Foggy River Farm, the ag operation she and her husband operate. They produce vegetables and eggs and sells goats. She said the county’s access system was essential to save animals and ensure the summer crop didn’t go to waste. They don’t have any employees work at their farm.

Hopkins said there should be more discussion at the local and state levels about the need for farmers to enter fire evacuation zones, focusing on the urgency and need to access properties.

Delaying a grape pick for a day or two may not be a problematic, she said, but it could be if it’s postponed for up to a week.

“I think it’s kind of hard to draw hard lines on some of these issues,” Hopkins said. “I think we need to have more conversations about the categorizations of activities and the levels of risk.”

Smith, the county ag commissioner, met with local worker safety activists to hear their concerns on the matter of greater protections for people working in areas near wildland blazes.

It’s ”important to acknowledge that agriculture and farming doesn’t stop because there is a pandemic,” he said. “People still need to eat.”

Bill Swindell
The Press Democrat

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