Treat Farmworkers as Essential, not Sacrificial

The record-breaking California wildfires that have burned more than enough land to cover the state of Connecticut are putting the state’s farmworkers at grave and growing risk. These workers put their bodies on the line every time they venture into smoky fields and orchards to pick crops that feed the nation. The fires are raging as harvest season is in full swing for many of the state’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, and more fires and smoke are feared as fall wind patterns set in across the state.

Carrots are picked near Arvin,​ Calif., Aug. 20, 2020. More frequent heat waves, smoke from​ wildfires and COVID-19 are ba​ttering farmworkers in Califor​nia.

Brian L. Frank/The New Y​ork Times

And meanwhile, for the past six months, employers and governments have been sacrificing California’s predominantly Latino and Indigenous immigrant farmworkers to the COVID-19 pandemic, even as they label those same workers “essential.” California counties such as Imperial, Kings, and Tulare—centers of industrial agriculture—now report the highest per capita COVID case rates in the state.

This dangerous situation for California farmworkers and their communities is a perfect example of how the climate crisis magnifies and upholds existing vulnerabilities associated with racism, extreme income inequality, and other structural disparities. 

Let’s take a look at some of the ways we got here. 

A Vulnerable Immigrant Workforce 

Roughly 90 percent of California crop workers were born outside the United States, mostly in Mexico and Central America. Although estimates vary, more than half of those workers are thought to be undocumented, and lack adequate access to health care. 

Immigrant workers, always vulnerable, have been marginalized even further in recent years by abusive political rhetoric and policy changes—with dire consequences for their health, safety, and well-being. 

For example, researchers at Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center suspect that the 2020 Public Charge rule may be partly to blame for disproportionately high COVID-19 rates among foreign-born Latinos. Although the Public Charge Rule has been paused during the pandemic, Latinos without full documentation may still be concerned about the federal government’s push to deny residency or citizenship to immigrants who lawfully use public benefits such as Medicaid. In California, 12 percent of more than 900 farmworkers surveyed earlier this summer were afraid to seek medical care because of distrust of government agencies and the healthcare system.

Dangerous Work with Inadequate Protections

Even without climate change, agriculture is already one of the most hazardous industries in America. As average temperatures rise and heat waves and wildfires get more frequent and severe, farmworkers will be at an ever-heightened risk of heat- and smoke-related illnesses. We are seeing this layering of crises unfold in real time, as California battles COVID-19, wildfires of historic proportions, and scorching heat waves.

Yet farmworkers still need to report to the fields because they can’t afford to lose income. And unfortunately, employers and state and federal regulators have a poor track record of protecting farmworkers from these hazards.

During the 2017 Thomas Fire, for example, farmworkers reported a range of smoke-related symptoms such as nausea and nosebleeds. Agricultural employers didn’t just fail to provide these workers with the N95 masks recommended by public health officials; in some cases, they actively chased off local volunteers who tried to distribute masks. 

California is further ahead than most states, with the only occupational safety standard for wildfire smoke in the nation and one of only three state-level heat safety standards. However, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with enforcement, and has the equivalent of just one Spanish-speaking field inspector for every 192,308 Spanish-speaking workers and no staff who speak Mixtec or other Indigenous languages.

The result? Many farmworkers aren’t getting the workplace protections they need, whether those be for climate-related hazards like wildfires or an infectious disease threat like COVID-19.

Low Pay, Insufficient Benefits

Despite the dangers of farm work—and the skill needed to get the work done—about a third of U.S. farmworkers live below the poverty level and fewer than half have health insurance or sufficient paid sick leave (though California farmworkers do have some sick leave benefits available).

Most farmworkers don’t enjoy the same federal pay protections as workers in most other industries because of gaps in the Fair Labor Standards Act. While some protections are offered by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, it does not include the right to overtime or other rights guaranteed to other workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Due to the seasonal nature of their work, and other eligibility requirements many farmworkers are not receiving federal COVID-19 relief such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. California’s Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants program, as well as paid sick leave benefits authorized through an Executive Order in April, were created to fill the federal gap but are not likely to be sufficient. 

Furthermore, agriculture has such a severe problem with wage theft that it ranks seventh in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Low Wage, High Violation Industries list. (Other major offenders on that list, such as construction and food services, also hire significant numbers of brown and Black workers). From 2001 to 2019, agricultural employers illegally withheld $65 million in wages nationwide. 

Low wages and little to no paid time off incentivize workers to keep showing up, no matter how dangerous their workplace is or whether or not they’re sick—an especially urgent problem during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many California farmworkers are not aware that they are eligible for Workers Compensation and State Disability Insurance benefits and that these are not public charge benefits.

Unsafe Housing

In the third quarter of fiscal year 2020, the Department of Labor certified requests from California agricultural employers for more than 20,000 workers under the H-2A program. Although employers are supposed to provide H-2A workers with free housing that meets “all applicable safety standards,” employees regularly experience unsafe conditions such as rat infestations, crowding, broken windows, and toilets that don’t work. Even H2A farmworker housing that complies with requirements allows high occupancy that  makes COVID-19 social distancing mandates impossible to execute, amplifying exposure risk.

Unsafe housing also puts farmworkers at greater risk of climate-related hazards such as extreme heat. California saw a record breaking heat wave in early September, with temperatures in some agricultural communities reaching 112 degrees. Continuous exposure to extreme heat increases the likelihood of heat-related illnesses and injuries, which is bad news for farmworkers who spend hot days in the fields and then hot housing at night

Polluted Communities

Farmworkers and their communities face chronic risk of exposure to toxic pesticides. California leads the United States in pesticide use, with over 1.1 billion pounds of these toxic chemicals sold for use in 2018 alone. Far too many workers on conventional farms are poisoned by pesticides, and suffer from headaches, nausea and asthma and other breathing difficulties. Long term, farmworkers live with a higher risk of health threats like cancer, birth defects and infertility, neurological disorders, and respiratory problems. The latter may be most important right now, given the confluence of COVID-19 and wildfires. 

Pesticides also find their way into communities through air, water, soil, and food. This especially puts families, and young children with developing nervous systems, in harm’s way. 

In 2019, California cancelled registration for the brain-toxic organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos, and began a process to develop and implement safer pest control methods. 

Many California farmworker communities, especially in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys, also lack access to safe and affordable drinking water. These low-income areas rely primarily on groundwater sources that are highly contaminated by naturally-occuring arsenic and nitrate from farm fertilizer runoff. People are forced to rely on expensive bottled water, sometimes spending up to 10 percent of their monthly income. 

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, even bottled water became difficult to access due to hoarding and price gouging at some  grocery stores. 

We Can Do Better

Farmworkers in California and elsewhere deserve better—and not just because they put food on our tables. This imperative will only grow as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and climate change fuels evermore extreme heat waves and wildfires. 

Most California voters support COVID protections for farmworkers and the state has taken several critical steps in the last few months (including those mentioned above) to protect workers. 

First and foremost, Cal/OSHA needs to ensure that masks and other workplace safety protections are available to all farmworkers by enforcing existing regulations and holding employers accountable. As of late August, United Farm Worker (UFW)  polling showed that 84 percent of workers had not received protective N95 masks from their employers. In addition to sick leave, workers also deserve hazard pay to compensate for the difficult conditions brought forth by the pandemic and extreme weather events.  

The Housing for the Harvest program unveiled in July provides temporary isolation housing to farmworkers with COVID-19. However, it doesn't yet apply to every region of California or address the general problem of crowded housing. Safe, uncrowded worker transportation must also be prioritized, to reduce COVID-19 risk for workers and their families.

In late August, the California Legislature passed the Farmworker COVID-19 Relief Package of three bills now awaiting the Governor’s signature. If signed, AB 2043 will increase much needed farmworker outreach and require Cal/OSHA to regularly report on violations, AB 2164 will expand tele-health services, and AB 2165 will improve farmworker community access to the state court system. Also on the Governor’s desk are bills to expand emergency food assistance for low-income Californians, regardless of immigration status (AB 826) and to ensure that employers report workplace COVID-19 exposures to workers (AB 685).  

Click here to voice your support for these bills with Governor Newsom.

For too long, farmworkers have been expected to put their lives at risk to keep grocery store shelves full. In the long term, we need to create a different kind of system, where humane and dignified guidelines establish when conditions for outdoor work simply aren't safe. In those instances, workers should not be out in the fields—but they should be paid anyway. We also need to ensure that more public dollars are invested in organic and other farming practices that do not rely on fossil-fuel based pesticides and fertilizers, cultivate soil health, and most importantly, protect workers from toxic exposures in the workplace. 

About the Authors

Lena Brook

Director, Food Campaigns, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Juanita Constible

Senior Advocate, Climate and Health, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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