Photograph by Noah Berger, AP Photo
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A smoke plume billows over Healdsburg, California, on August 20, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes and farmworkers throughout the region kept working through the lung-damaging smoke conditions.

Photograph by Noah Berger, AP Photo

An extraordinary summer of crises for California’s farmworkers

The “essential workers” picking American’s food are facing fires, heat waves, and the pandemic, all at once.

Rosa Villegas woke up at two in the morning on a late August Monday to make her way to the lettuce fields in California’s south Salinas Valley, where she was scheduled to start bagging heads of romaine at 4 a.m. The sky overhead wasn’t its usual dark, star-dotted self as she walked to her car. Instead, it glowed a sickly red, colored by the fires burning on the flanks of the Santa Lucia mountains, just a few miles west.

“It was like a volcano,” she said in Spanish. “Like there was lava everywhere, so close.”

The fire snaked quickly through the mountains bordering the wide, flat valley, the self-proclaimed “salad bowl” of the world. By the next day, so much smoke hung in the air that Villegas couldn’t see the edge of the romaine field, let alone the mountains.

Villegas is one of the thousands of farmworkers in the state, many of them undocumented, who have been working through a summer of increasingly brutal conditions. A heat wave brought record-breaking temperatures to the western United States. Then, fires laced the air with lung-aggravating smoke. And underneath these stresses lurks COVID-19, which has infiltrated Monterey County’s agricultural communities at three times the rate of the rest of the state’s population and caused massive cuts in jobs and hours for people who are already living on the edge of poverty.

For many, there is no choice but to keep working. This is the height of the picking season for many crops and the time of the year when farmworkers earn the bulk of their income. With few legal, health, or financial protections, but an “essential worker” designation that forces them to choose between being fired and working and risking exposure to the coronavirus, many farmworkers face pressures far beyond what they’ve had to deal with before.

“There’s just no option to not work,” says Sarait Martinez, the organizing director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. Her parents are both farmworkers in the Salinas Valley. “In heat, COVID, or fires, you just have to keep working.”

Says Don Villarejo, a researcher who recently surveyed how California’s agricultural workers are weathering the pandemic: “I think this is the most difficult time I’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been working with this community.”

COVID-19 and the disappearing demand for vegetables

In March, farmworkers and their advocates began sounding the alarm: Because of crowded housing, little access to health care and testing, and inability to self-quarantine, farmworkers were at extreme risk from the coronavirus. They also weren’t always getting the information they needed, often because of language barriers, says Genevieve Flores-Haro, an organizer for MICOP, an indigenous worker advocacy group in Ventura County.

Local nonprofits and individuals tried to fill that void. They coordinated with doctors and nurses to provide access to testing and health care, and suggested programs to provide housing for infected workers and cash for undocumented workers who were ineligible for federal stimulus funds.

But still, as feared, the number of COVID-19 cases rose. In a recent survey from the California Institute for Rural Studies, researchers found that agricultural workers in Monterey County were infected at rates three times higher than the population at large, even though most workers have taken self-protection extremely seriously, reporting that they are wearing masks and cleaning surfaces carefully at work and at home.

The pandemic is also devastating many people’s income as demand for vegetables has collapsed. The survey found a nearly 40 percent drop in employment among California agricultural workers during May, June, and July compared to previous years.

Maria Salazar lives in Gonzales, a primarily Hispanic and Latino town in the central Salinas Valley. She drives the tractor for a 28-person crew picking brightly colored cauliflower—purple, green, orange—that usually gets exported. Her bosses have slashed hours. By this time last year, she had made about $17,000, she says, but so far this year, she’s at only $10,000.

Numbers from California’s Farm Bureau echo her lived experience. The state lost billions in agricultural revenue and tens of thousands of jobs over the past few months, as demand for produce from restaurants, schools, and other institutional buyers plummeted.

And workers are being squeezed in other ways. Driving through the town, Gonzales’s mayor, Maria Orozco, points at building after building where her constituents—70 percent of whom work in agriculture, many undocumented—have told her that their rents have gone up in the past few months, even though the governor made rent increases and evictions illegal.

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NOAA's GOES satellite shows how the smoke travels from the fire sites all the way across the continental U.S. On August 20, plumes reached Texas.

The extra financial pressures mean it’s even more difficult to stay protected from the virus. Taking time off to get a test is even tougher than it would have been, and even getting to a testing site costs money that’s even tighter than normal. For many undocumented workers, concerns about sharing personal information are high, as well.

A state-sponsored program that provides infected farmworkers with hotel rooms, daily meals, and medical assistance is helping some of those who’ve contracted the virus, says Orozco. But many more who may have been exposed and want to self-quarantine, can’t.

Fundamentally, the situation is complicated because of a simple reality: Farmworkers don’t get paid if they’re not working. So the incentives to work through uncomfortable or dangerous conditions are high.

Smoke and heat

During the 2018 Thomas Fires, which ripped across almost 500 square miles in the Santa Barbara area and caused unhealthy air quality for weeks, farmworkers stayed in the fields through the worst of the smoke—in many cases without respirators, hazard pay, information in their own language, or any recognition that they should be protected.

“They were rendered invisible,” says Michael Méndez, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, who wrote a recent study looking at how undocumented immigrants were ignored during that disaster. “But they shouldn’t have been—that community has been there for decades, doing critical work.”

In response, their advocates pushed for more comprehensive protections. Last July, the state created a regulation requiring outdoor workers to be provided with N95 masks if the air quality index rises above 151, the EPA’s cutoff for “unhealthy” air.

In late August the index hit that threshold in many of California’s agricultural regions, including Monterey. The county agricultural commissioner collected 100,000 N95s, which bosses were supposed to deliver to field workers—of whom there are an estimated 91,000 in the two main agricultural valleys of the county. But it took time for those masks to trickle out to the workers.

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Fire crews maintain a backburn to control the River Fire near the Las Palmas neighborhood in Salinas, California, on August 19, 2020. The ongoing fires, burning just a few miles from many fields, loaded the valley's air with unhealthy amounts of smoke and ash.

On the first day of the smoke, Villegas got a headache after a day working without an N95—with just her cloth mask and a cotton face covering she’d sewed from an old embroidered pillowcase, its bright flowers encircling her brow. On the second, her boss showed up with a box of N95s for the crew but said a single mask would have to last for four days. “Take it home and wash it,” Villegas recalls being advised. Everyone had laughed, knowing the masks wouldn't hold up to water.

The following day, another boss showed up with enough masks for everyone to have one each day the smoke was bad.

“Our eyes were red and stinging, but we worked full days,” Villegas says.

A coworker of Salazar’s ended up in the hospital after smoke exposure irritated her lungs. Salazar’s own asthma flared up after a few days of exposure. Others report that they never recieved masks, or were told they'd have to pay for them.

“What we’re hearing from farmers is that they’ve never had to deal with this kind of smoke,” and certainly not so frequently, says Heather Riden, an agricultural researcher at the University of California, Davis. Some forward-thinking farmers are starting to think about what an even smokier future could entail, she says.

More to come

Scientists have estimated that climate change has nearly doubled the area burned by wildfires in recent years in the western U.S. The frequency of fires may increase by 25 percent in coming decades, and the big fires may get bigger.

Heat creates its own challenges. In California, the number of days over 90 degrees is predicted to increase by more than 30 per year by 2050, under worst-case climate change projections. In 2005, after a very hot summer during which several farmworkers died of heat exposure, the state passed a new law mandating that employers provide workers with more breaks, shade, and water access during hot days. More stringent requirements kick in when temperatures rise above 95 Fahrenheit.

In mid-August, as a record-breaking heat wave bore down on the western U.S, forecasters told California residents to do whatever they could to keep cool—find air conditioning or at least a fan, the recommendations said, and avoid direct sun or strenuous labor. Drink plenty of water.

Joselina Islas, a farmworker who's a member of Líderes Campesinas, an advocacy group that works with female farmworkers, belongs to a crew that picks and packs cauliflower in fields up and down the Salinas Valley. She heard those warnings, but couldn’t really heed them. Workers on her team wear thick rubber chaps to protect their legs from damp and the knives they use to cut cauliflower heads, these days covered in ash. They pull on hooded sweatshirts , several pairs of gloves, and plastic sleeves—layers that protect them from sun and work dangers, but leave them drenched in sweat.

“We just deal with it the best we can,” Islas says. “We try to take care of each other.”

In Gonzales, Orozco administers a fund to distribute donated money to undocumented farmworkers. Similar “Undocufund” projects exist in other communities across the state, attempts to fill the financial holes where state aid might otherwise fit. Smaller-scale mutual aid networks are spinning up in farmworker communities, too: a diaper and food distribution network in Gonzales, taco trucks donating food in Salinas, nationwide fundraisers for school supplies for farmworker children whose families have lost income.

Early in the pandemic, when Villegas’ crew realized their bosses weren’t going to provide them with COVID-19 protection, she called a friend in town who had been sewing masks from brightly patterned fabrics. The next day, the friend showed up at the romaine field, boxes stuffed with hundreds of masks that she handed out to the 28-person team. They’re wearing them to this day, layered in with the N95s.