Wildfire Solutions for Agriculture, Part 4: Improving Working Conditions for Farmworkers and Farmworker Resiliency During Wildfire Events

Posted on Wednesday, March 31st, 2021 by
Farmworkers during the California wildfires in 2020, photo courtesy of SEIU Local 2015 Twitter

Note: This is the fourth blog in a 4-part series on solutions to address the impacts of wildfire on agricultural communities. Part 1 covered controlled burns. Part 2 covered prescribed grazing. Part 3 covered improving access to farms and ranches during wildfire events.

In last year’s peak fire season in California, images and videos of farmworkers working with raging fires and smoke in the background made their rounds on mainstream and social media. Many Californians last year heeded the advice of public health officials by staying indoors during the hazardous air quality caused by these wildfires. I remember having to run an errand in this hazardous air quality while still a graduate student in the Bay Area  and I could sense the weight of the particulate matter almost immediately. Suddenly breathing was harder, I got tired faster, and just being outside was nauseating. While staying inside may have inconvenienced many of us, I think many of us understood that it was what was best for our health.

I think it is obvious why the images of farmworkers went viral this past year. When people see the images, they have an innate understanding that what farmworkers are having to do is inhumane. Farmworkers do not have the luxury to stay at home during the peak fire seasons. Each day of missed work equals missed wages that they just cannot afford due to the low-wage nature of their work. And for many of these workers, farmwork is really the only option – in the United States, an estimated 70% of farmworkers are undocumented workers.

Benny Corona, pictured here, has been a farmworker for seventeen years, starting in elementary school.

For most of my life, I have been a farmworker, working full-time, part-time and for some extra income for 17 years, starting in elementary school. Today, these workers go by a new name,“essential.” Farmworkers, healthcare workers, firefighters, fast-food workers, teachers and construction workers are just some of a long list defined by both the federal and state governments as essential workers. Governments have called it the duty of these workers to continue working despite considerable exposure to the ongoing pandemic and despite the fact that many might not have access to the healthcare they would need should they fall victim to COVID-19 or hazardous air quality caused by wildfires. Perhaps California has seen this irony play out more than any other state with hundreds of thousands of farmworkers without health insurance putting their bodies on the line during the wildfires and pandemic so that the rest of us can get food and sit at home in comfort at our dinner tables.

Although this is nothing new and many of us grew up seeing the sacrifices that farmworkers make everyday for the rest of society, the wildfires highlighted the experiences of these workers and their importance in a way that contradicts the invisibility of the past. But it is also crucial to understand that even before the wildfires, farmworkers have always had to work under inhumane conditions by being exposed to pesticides, brutal heat, poisonous insects, arduous labor, the violation of labor rights, and constant body fatigue. The most tragic things I have seen as a farmworker are not while working during the wildfires or even this pandemic, but the everyday economic and public health struggles of America’s hardest workers: where even pregnant mothers have to show up for work, where men with broken bones have to work to make ends meet, where workers well into retirement age have to keep supporting themselves in the fields, and where workers with cancers avoid hospitalization because of their documentation status.

Policy Solutions: Invest in Farmworkers and in Farmworker Safety

California is in a very exciting place when it comes to the issues of farmworker safety and advocacy. For the first time in a long time, there is a policy window to secure the funds and legislation needed to improve farmworker lives and lessen the burden they have as essential workers, if not, permanently. Recent polls show massive support by Californian’s for farmworker safety and economic support. 

To mitigate future confrontations with wildfires, farmworkers need guaranteed access to personal protective equipment (PPE), including N95 masks, which too many farmworkers didn’t receive during last fall’s fire season. They also need clean drinking water, general public health education, and affordable homes where they can be safe from hazardous air quality. The following bills represent strong and hopeful changes to the way farmworker safety is approached and the way our society is reacting to the injustice of the past by investing directly in the lives of farmworkers. These two bills are:

AB 73 by Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister). Employment safety: agricultural workers: wildfire smoke. Air quality protection enforcement and access to N95 masks is vital to the health and safety of farmworkers during wildfire smoke emergencies. To improve enforcement and N95 mask access during future wildfire seasons, this bill would, among other things, require CalOSHA to designate a wildfire smoke strike team within each regional office for purposes of enforcing regulations regarding air quality safety for agricultural workers. The bill would also require that, by January 2023, the state establish a stockpile of N95 masks large enough to adequately equip all agricultural workers during wildfire smoke emergencies. 

As we wrote about last week, AB 125 by Assemblymember R. Rivas, the Equitable Economic Recovery, Healthy Food Access, Climate Resilient Farms, and Worker Protection Bond Act of 2022 which CalCAN is co-sponsoring with 16 other organizations, would put a bond on the ballot before the voters in 2022. The bond would invest $637 million to protect the health and well-being of California’s farmworkers. These investments include safe and affordable farmworker housing, energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for farmworker homes, and PPE stockpiles. You can take action now to support AB 125. 

CalCAN will also continue to engage with the legislature on AB 73 and other bills addressing wildfire solutions for agriculture in the remainder of this legislative session. Lastly, March 31st is Cesar Chavez Day which commemorates the life of the lifelong farmworker advocate and labor organizer. This blog was also written in memory of him and Farmworker Awareness Week. May we continue centering farmworkers as we strive for better living conditions for all in California. Si Se Puede! 

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