As smoke lifts on California's coast, it lingers in Central Valley, where farmworkers have no refuge

David Knowles
·Editor

Hazardous smoke from wildfires across the West is presenting the latest danger for the men and women who pick America’s fruit and vegetable crops in a year when record heat and the coronavirus pandemic have already put their lives at risk.

On Thursday, while air quality improved in the San Francisco Bay Area, throughout much of California’s Central Valley it remained classified as “unhealthy” or worse. Under those conditions, residents are advised to stay indoors — but farmworkers don’t have that option.

“To be out in the fields, it’s like you can’t breathe,” Herman Hernandez, director of the California Farmworker Foundation, told NPR.

The United Farm Workers, the nation’s largest farmworkers’ union, has been highlighting the poor working conditions caused by wildfires like the Basin Complex Fire, which has burned more than 162,000 acres near Big Sur, Calif.

The state requires employers to provide particle respirators or face masks when the air quality index reaches the “unhealthy” level of 151 parts per million, but thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic, personal protective equipment is in short supply and many farmworkers have been going without it.

Oregon has no such mask regulations, but on Sept. 11 the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent a letter to employers urging them to halt outdoor work when the air quality index exceeds 151 and to allow “workers with underlying health conditions to stay at home.”

On Monday, the air quality index in Oregon topped 500 in many parts of the state, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality said, prompting prompting Gov. Kate Brown to order the National Guard to distribute 250,000 Chinese-made KN95 masks to farmworkers and tribal communities, the Oregonian reported.

“Governor Brown’s goal is to make sure agricultural workers are protected from the health impacts of hazardous air quality, which is why she directed Oregon OSHA to issue guidance to employers last week,” Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, told the Oregonian.

Farm laborers
Farm laborers in California work in smoky conditions. (Courtesy of United Farm Workers)

The short-term health effects of breathing wildfire smoke include chest pain, headaches, sore throat, fatigue, asthma attacks and an elevated heart rate. The longer-term effects haven’t been studied yet.

“Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can harm health,” California’s Department of Industrial Relations says on its website. “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.”

As in California, the majority of farmworkers in Oregon are Hispanic, a population that has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus.

“This makes this important and sizable population of our workforce potentially more vulnerable to the adverse effects of combined wildfire smoke and COVID-19 risks,” Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist at the Oregon Health Authority, said in a press release.

Since the wildfires began in Oregon, OSHA has filed 425 complaints on behalf of workers that allege working conditions in the fields are unsafe.

A farm is surrounded by polluted air
A farm in Colton, Ore., is engulfed by polluted air from the wildfires. (Stanton Sharpe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In May, California allocated $125 million in aid to undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in the state picking the nation’s crops.

“Whether it’s wildfire, pandemic, drought or storm, farmworkers are out in the field,” Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, told the Guardian. “It’s largely an immigrant workforce, many undocumented. Many are from indigenous communities from southern Mexico who face even greater barriers to accessing services and reporting labor issues.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 57 percent of farmworkers employed in the U.S. are Hispanic and of Mexican origin. The average total yearly income for farmworkers working full time is between $15,000 and $17,499, according to a report published by the U.S. Department of Labor.

In recent months, farmworkers have faced an unprecedented number of health risks, including the coronavirus pandemic and record-breaking heat across much of the West.

A July survey conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies found that agricultural workers in Monterey County were infected with COVID-19 at rates three times that of the population at large, National Geographic reported.

California, which has more scorched acreage this year than in any year in recorded history, is little more than halfway through what is now regarded as “fire season.” That means farmworkers in the Golden State will likely be dealing with smoke for months to come.

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