Through heavy smoke clouds, farmworkers in the Central Valley have continued to harvest lettuce, grapes, strawberries and other produce. For many, the wildfires are just the latest crisis to hit them as they’ve continued to labor in the fields.
Advocacy organizations are concerned about the toll multiple crises are taking on the health of workers, many of whom have worked outside in close contact with one another during the COVID-19 pandemic and through a scorching heat wave without proper protective gear.
“Some are just concerned for their health, others are just concerned about what’s next, what’s going to happen, because they have to pay the rent,” Armando Elenes of the United Farm Workers Labor Union said.
According to the Center for Farmworker Families, California has an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 farmworkers in the state, about 75% of whom are undocumented and do not qualify for uninsurance benefits or have regular access to healthcare.
Juanita Ontiveros,an attorney at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, goes out to observe farmworker conditions and says they vary depending on employers.
“The air is suffocating, you can smell the smoke, thick — you can literally taste it And the particles, you see people spitting things out. it is like a thick rain of ashes falling down,” Ontiveros said. “They’re coughing, their eyes are watery and red and itchy, many of the crews are being let go earlier, though not all labor contractors and growers are sensitive to the workers’ needs.”
Some companies aren’t sending workers out right now or have shifted or shortened hours to end earlier in the day. However, many farmworkers are in desperate situations where they’re having to make decisions around staying healthy or making money to support themselves.
“They’re scared, not just for their health, but they’re also scared for their income,” Elenes said. “Because if they don’t work, they don’t have access to unemployment insurance, which is one of the reasons they’re out there during heat waves, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially those that have respiratory conditions, and not having healthcare, that makes it really tough.”
The summer months are typically when farmworkers make the bulk of their money for the year, and many don’t feel they’re in a position to stop working during peak harvest season.
Additionally, access to N95 masks has been difficult as a result of the pandemic, but this is the only kind of mask that can protect against smoke inhalation. Some employers are giving out masks and many nonprofits are currently working to find and distribute more, but advocates warn that wearing those masks while doing strenuous labor in high heat makes breathing difficult.
Seciah Aquino, director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California said that even before the wildfires and COVID-19, farmworkers’ health was already at risk.
“In many instances, farmworkers suffer from underlying health conditions, and this is because hazardous conditions are routine out in the fields and includes pesticide exposure, lack of shade and inadequate drinking water,” Aquino said. “These workers are being forced to work under huge clouds of smoke in proximity to the fires. One can only presume that increased risk is going to hurt their lungs.”
The Latino Coalition for a Healthy California and other advocacy groups are continuing to push the state to expand Medi-Cal for all Californians regardless of citizenship status, but in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most recent budget, plans for expansion were curtailed by financial shortfalls due to the pandemic.
“We’re watching images of farmworkers harvesting wine grapes under heavy plumes of smoke, with the fire raging, they’re out there working,” Elenes of the United Farm Workers Labor Union said. “But for farmworkers, this is nothing new to them. When it’s 110 degrees, farmworkers are out there working so that Americans have food on the table. When people are getting infected, farmworkers are out there. These essential workers are doing the essential work needed to keep this country going, but unfortunately, they don’t get treated as essential workers.”