In this July 30, 2018, file photo, the setting sun is reddened by smoke from a wildfire over a vineyard, in Finley, California.

Amid wildfires, US farmworkers labor with few protections

Notoriously weak labor regulations have kept farmworkers, many of them immigrants, breathing smoke from nearby wildfires as they work all along the West Coast. Many are afraid to speak up.

The World

The smoky air was so thick in southern Oregon last weekend, it was like a dense fog. People up and down the West Coast stayed inside their homes as wildfires burned, spewing massive plumes of smoke and toxic ash. 

In hard-hit parts of Washington, Oregon and California, the only people outside were those who had to be. That included farmworkers, tending to everything from almond orchards to cattle and vineyards. 

Even during the smokiest days of September, Maricela, 48, continued working her typical eight-hour shifts at a vineyard in southern Oregon. The air burned her eyes and throat, she said.

Her hands worked quickly to protect the tiny grapes that would eventually become Merlot wine. But nothing would protect her from the smoke. 

Maricela, who migrated to Oregon from Mexico nearly a decade ago, makes $12 per hour and wires as much as she can back to Mexico to feed her children. She said she could not afford to miss work. Though Maricela normally gets along with her boss, she said she was angry that no economic safety net existed, either from her employer or government officials, to keep her from working in toxic air. She asked The World not to use her last name because she feared that speaking out could cost her job. 

"It's dangerous to work in this air, but the bills don't wait,” Maricela said, who nearly lost her home as a fire swept through her own neighborhood. “And if I don't work, I don't get anything. My boss said he was sorry but the grapes needed picking.” 

That reality — along with notoriously weak labor regulations — has kept farmworkers breathing smoke as they work all along the West Coast. Nearly 80 large fires have torn through Western states in recent weeks, burning more than 3.8 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that people remain indoors or limit physical exertion outside while smoke blankets the air, enforcement of its guidance and rules is lacking. 

In California alone, OSHA counts on about 200 field enforcement officers to inspect around 200,000 workplaces in California right now that are potentially impacted by wildfire smoke, said Doug Parker, who leads California’s division of OSHA, or Cal/OSHA.

And because many farmworkers are undocumented, or noncitizens, or are in the US on temporary visas that are tied to their jobs, they may fear retaliation if they report unhealthy work conditions.  

Parker said he wishes he had stronger regulatory and enforcement tools to protect farmworkers: “A lot of advocates sought a more protective standard. And this current structure is just what the result of the regulatory process was. I think it was a balancing of interests.” 

Those interests can include farm owners and agricultural associations, which represent the economic powerhouses of the American West.

Related: Farmworkers are getting coronavirus. They face retaliation for demanding safe conditions.

Farmworkers are particularly sensitive to smoke inhalation, said Estella Cisneros, a legal director with California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents farmworkers in legal fights related to workplace health and safety. 

“Because they have preexisting health conditions, because they have low socioeconomic status, because they have less access to health care. They're already vulnerable to the negative effects of prolonged exposure and inhalation of smoke.”

Estella Cisneros, legal director, California Rural Legal Assistance

“Because they have preexisting health conditions, because they have low socioeconomic status, because they have less access to health care, they're already vulnerable to the negative effects of prolonged exposure and inhalation of smoke,” Cisneros said. 

Under California's emergency regulations, employers are supposed to provide workers with particulate respirators if the air quality index, or the AQI, tops 150, which the Environmental Protection Agency considers unhealthy. Typical respirators might include N95 masks, which are sturdy and contain small filters. Oregon and Washington have issued similar recommendations, but California’s initiative is the only version that includes an enforcement component. 

Many farmworkers told The World they’ve not received any protective equipment. 

“That’s disturbing to me,” said Parker of Cal/OSHA. “It’s the employer’s obligation to provide protective equipment to employees. Plain and simple.” 

If masks are available, it’s up to workers to wear them voluntarily. They are not required unless the AQI tops 500. The AQI was in the 300s on some of the worst days of smoke on the West Coast over the past few weeks. 

Related: Farmworkers are now deemed essential. But are they protected?

In addition, it can be difficult for farmworkers to speak up. Many are undocumented immigrants or work under flimsy contracts with no union support. One man, who did not want his name used because of his immigration status, said he kept harvesting almonds in Fresno, California, throughout September — even as smoke filled the area from a massive fire nearby. 

“We kept working like any other day,” said the man, who migrated to California from Oaxaca, Mexico, more than a decade ago. He said he has not had a conversation with his employer about the hazardous air, which he said is affecting him.

“At night, especially, I’ve had a hard time sleeping because my throat hurts. I’m coughing, my eyes are red,” he said.

He was not aware of an anonymous Spanish-English tip line run by the California Department of Labor that workers can call to report labor law violations. 

“I wouldn’t call that number,” he said. “What if it gets traced back to me?” 

Related: California hospital translates coronavirus information for immigrants

Immigrants’ fear of losing their livelihoods also makes it difficult for farmworker advocates to help them. So, when possible, they try to meet with the farmworkers in person. 

Daysi Bedolla, organizing director for a nonprofit that helps farmworkers in Oregon, spent last week passing out face masks and bags of donated food to evacuees and those who are not working because of the heavy smoke. The group is called Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or Northwest Tree Planters and Farmworkers United. They set up a donation center in Woodburn, south of Portland. 

“We have an assembly line of food — so everything from protein bars, granola, coffee,” Bedolla said. 

A couple approached the donation table as she spoke. Standing beside his pregnant wife, the man told Bedolla they worked in the fields, but not that day. Their boss told them to stay home, he said. 

Bedolla hopes the donations will make it easier for farmworkers to do that. She understands the financial tradeoffs: Her own family worked on berry farms after migrating from Mexico, Bedolla and her brother included.

She knows farmworkers often have few protections — even as the smoke swirls around them.

“They’re having to work outside in real hard conditions,” Bedolla said. “It's very frustrating that they’re always the ones that are put at the end. And the last ones that people think of.”

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