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Undocumented Farmworkers Face Triple Threat as West Coast Burns

Farmworkers continue working amid a pandemic and climate-fueled fires.

As devastating fires burn across the West Coast, some of the most vulnerable people are farmworkers — many of whom are undocumented. Despite the risks of the pandemic and the climate-fueled fires, many feel they have to keep working even if that means working inside evacuation zones. The state of California has repeatedly allowed growers to continue harvesting despite evacuation orders putting workers at great risk. Estella Cisneros, legal director of the agriculture worker program for California Rural Legal Assistance, says farmworkers who speak out against unsafe working conditions risk losing their jobs. “Farmworkers have continued to work during this whole time, despite fears of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace, despite fears of getting heat stress while they’re at work, and now despite fears of the dangers that wildfire smoke brings,” Cisneros says.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: California, Oregon and Washington continue to face a climate apocalypse as devastating fires burn across the West Coast. At least 35 people have died, but the death toll is expected to be far higher. Oregon says it’s bracing for a, quote, “mass fatality event.” Entire towns have been destroyed. Nearly 5 million acres have already burned. Parts of the West Coast now have some of the worst air quality in the world.

President Trump is visiting California today but refuses to link the fires to the climate crisis. California Governor Gavin Newsom says there’s no question about the climate crisis.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes. It’s not an intellectual debate. It’s not even debatable any longer, what we are experiencing — the extreme droughts, the extreme atmospheric rivers, the extreme heat. Just think. In the last few weeks alone, we’ve experienced the hottest August in California history. We had 14,000 dry lightning strikes over a three-day period. We’re experiencing temperatures, world record-breaking temperatures, in the state of California, 130 degrees.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the most vulnerable people on the West Coast have been farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented. First came the pandemic, now the climate-fueled fires. Despite the risks, many feel they have to keep working, even if that means working inside evacuation zones. Authorities in California have repeatedly allowed growers to continue harvesting despite evacuation orders, putting workers at great risk. The Intercept reports agricultural commissioners in California’s wine regions have worked closely with the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Winegrowers to repeatedly grant permission to grape growers to harvest in wildfire evacuation zones.

The issue is not new. In 2017, the Sonoma County Agricultural Commission issued evacuation zone entry permits to 280 groups of people to conduct, quote, “critical functions.” The Intercept reports such critical functions included, quote, “harvesting, feeding and watering livestock, managing fermentations, and irrigating nursery crops,” unquote.

Farmworkers have also been disproportionately hit by the pandemic. Gervacio Peña López is a former farmworker who now serves as the executive director of the Cultural Movement of Indigenous Alliance.

GERVACIO PEÑA LÓPEZ: [translated] From the beginning of the pandemic, there was the recommendation to stay home and protect yourself. But for our immigrant community, that was not a viable option. How are you going to survive — at the time, we thought, for the next two or three weeks, now it’s been half a year — without an income and without support from the government? This was almost impossible.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll hear more from Gervacio Peña López. But first we’re joined by Estella Cisneros, the agriculture worker program legal director at California Rural [Legal] Assistance. She joins us from Fresno, California.

Estella, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, although under these extremely dire circumstances. Can you explain what farmworkers are facing right now? So many in California who are not being forced to evacuate are staying in their homes, if at all possible, because the horrendous air quality conditions from the fires, this on top of COVID-19. But what about the farmworkers?

ESTELLA CISNEROS: Thank you, Amy. Such a pleasure to be here.

Right now farmworkers are facing a triple threat. They are facing the dangers of COVID-19, wildfire smoke, as well as an unprecedented heat wave. Farmworkers, as many already know, are essential workers. They have continued working throughout this entire pandemic. Agricultural workers include those who work in the fields, but also those who work in dairies, as well as meat processing and other food processing locations, as well as people who work in packing houses and nurseries. Now, farmworkers have continued to work during this whole time despite fears of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace, despite fears of getting heat stress while they’re at work, and now despite fears of the dangers that wildfire smoke brings.

Now, the reason wildfire smoke is so dangerous, not just for farmworkers, but anybody who inhales it, is because smoke tends to have particulate matter which is 2.5 [micrometers] or smaller. Now, the inhalation of what’s called particulate matter 2.5 or smaller is very, very dangerous for one’s health. It can lead to long-term both lung, heart and respiratory illnesses. So, the fact that farmworkers are out there working in the fields, facing the dangers of COVID-19, as well as the dangers of heat stress and wildfire smoke, is a very, very dire situation right now in California.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to go back to former farmworker Gervacio Peña López, now executive director of the Cultural Movement of Indigenous Alliance, describing to Democracy Now! the dangerous working conditions that undocumented farmworkers face as they’re forced to work in the vineyards of Sonoma County amidst the wildfires.

GERVACIO PEÑA LÓPEZ: [translated] The situation with the smoke, because we have experienced this before, it is already known that employers, if they are conscious, they should provide N-95 masks to protect their workers, which is the only thing that filters the toxic particles. But working in the fields, everything moves very fast. Sometimes the workers themselves do not want to bring masks because they cannot breathe well. They have to move at a very fast pace because the promise is that they are paid for the work they produce. The typical amount of product to harvest in one day or one night is like two tons of grapes. So they receive two payments, or two minimum wages, but it is because they have to earn it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Estella, if you can explain further: Are the farmers, are the owners of, for example, the vineyards — are they forcing workers to work? Do they lose their jobs if they don’t? And also, what kind of access do they have to masks?

ESTELLA CISNEROS: So, unfortunately, there are a lot of farmworkers who face the very real risk of losing their jobs if they either speak up about unsafe working conditions or if they refuse to work, before being provided, in this case, an N-95 respirator. We have had a lot of cases of workers who have faced retaliation after they have spoken up in the workplace about their rights, and so there is a very, very real danger of losing your job if you speak up.

Now, there’s that aspect of things, but there’s also the unspoken aspect of working in a workplace where N-95 respirators are not provided to you. Even if an employer doesn’t tell you, “You will be fired if you stop working,” what kind of message are workers getting when employers are not affirmatively following their duty in California, which is to address workplace health and safety hazards? What kind of message are employers sending it they are not proactively, as the law requires them to do, providing the training, as well as the equipment and the materials, the personal protective equipment that people need to access?

Now, when it comes to whether farmworkers are having access to N-95 masks, unfortunately, the reports that we’re hearing out in the fields is that hardly any farmworker is getting access to N-95 respirators, which is really the only thing that is going to keep them safe from particulate matter inhalation.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to talk about the people that are coming out to the fields, even more so, and start with the former farmworker Gervacio Peña López. This is what he said, when you were talking about the triple threat.

GERVACIO PEÑA LÓPEZ: [translated] Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were left without work in other industries, such as hotels, restaurants or factories. So, many people in our community, because they have the necessity, and others because they do not have documents and do not receive aid from the local or state or federal government, they have no other option but to go to work in the fields. And many of them do not know the risks.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Estella Cisneros, can you talk about who are the farmworkers in the fields, and tell us further where they’re coming from?

ESTELLA CISNEROS: Certainly. So, farmworkers in the state of California, and certainly across the nation, tend to be immigrants. They tend to be undocumented. And they tend to speak a language other than English. So, a lot of farmworkers have a very similar situation to what the gentleman was describing, in the sense that they were working in another industry, they’ve been displaced from that industry, and they’ve translated that skill set to working in the fields. However, there are a very large number of farmworkers who are essentially lifelong agricultural workers, and so they have been working in the fields for many, many years. And that’s certainly the population that is still active in the fields today.

AMY GOODMAN: How much do farmworkers get paid? And what about during this horrific period?

ESTELLA CISNEROS: The state minimum wage in California, which is one of the highest, if not the highest, currently is $13 an hour, if you have 26 or more employees, but it’s $12 an hour if you have 25 or fewer employees. Now, eventually, that minimum wage is going to increase to $15, but we’re still a couple of years off.

Farm work tends to be one of the lowest-paid industries in the United States. And so, even when workers are paid by what’s called piece rate, which is when you’re paid by the bucket or the pound, something other than by the hour, farmworkers still have very low wages. And actually, the fact that you’re paid by piece rate is actually a disincentive in terms of slowing down, in terms of taking health and safety breaks, because the more that you work, the more that you get paid.

And so, you either have workers who are being paid the minimum wage, which is not enough, nowhere near enough, or you have workers who are paid by piece rate, which actually is a disincentive, to continue to work more and work through all the rest breaks and lunch breaks that are more legally required, as well as work through the pandemic and wildfires and the heat.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of benefits do they get from the government, dealing with this period of the pandemic and the fires?

ESTELLA CISNEROS: If a worker has legal status, which a lot of farmworkers don’t, they may have access to the state’s unemployment insurance program, as well as, you know, a variety of other public assistance programs. However, such a large percentage of the farmworker population is undocumented. They really don’t have any other recourse in terms of income replacement. They are really struggling right now, if they are displaced, either by the fires or by the wildfire smoke, because they don’t have access to the safety nets that citizens and residents of the United States do —

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of —

ESTELLA CISNEROS: — including the —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

ESTELLA CISNEROS: — including stimulus payments, as well as unemployment insurance payments.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of — and what languages are instructions given in? Are people getting accurate information about what’s happening, from COVID to the climate catastrophe?

ESTELLA CISNEROS: Unfortunately, we have heard reports of either employers or other individuals in the community giving incorrect information about COVID. So that’s one issue. We anticipate that there may — that that may also exist for information about heat stress, as well as the wildfire smoke.

I mean, even the information that’s provided by state and government and other governmental agencies, unfortunately, is not provided in Spanish. Just this morning — or, last night, I should say, I looked on the CAL FIRE website, as well as the website for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, which are the two agencies that are giving information on the wildfires, as well as evacuation zones, as well as evacuation orders. Neither of those are available in Spanish. That’s one issue.

The other issue, of course, is that a lot of farmworkers don’t speak Spanish; they speak Native Mexican Indigenous languages, such as Mixteco, Trique, Zapoteco. And these communities are facing even a greater challenge to the very critical and necessary information that they need in order to keep themselves and their families safe.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Estella Cisneros, we quoted The Intercept at the top, which has an article saying “In California’s Wine Country, Undocumented Grape Pickers Forced to Work in Fire Evacuation Zones,” the article stating, quote, “Officials that regulate evacuation order exemptions have close relationships to agricultural associations that serve local business owners’ interests.” Your response, and what needs to be done?

ESTELLA CISNEROS: So, while I don’t have personal information about the facts that are cited in that article, unfortunately, it has been a common occurrence in our experience that the safety of farmworkers is not prioritized and is actually sacrificed in the name of profit and business interests. Certainly, the reasons that those permits were given — taking care of livestock, picking fruits and vegetables — to a farmworker, the fact that some people may believe that that’s essential — right? — is very difficult to comprehend, when their literal health and safety, as well as that of their families, is being compromised.

The other part, of course, is that even in areas where you are not being evacuated, there is so much wildfire smoke in the air that you have two sets of workers that you’re worried about. One are the workers who are working in evacuation zones, such as those cited in that article, but then you also have a significant number of farmworkers who continue to work despite the air quality index being at hazardous levels.

What we’re asking for is for, first of all, employers to follow the law — there is a wildfire smoke emergency regulation that is currently in effect in California that requires employers to provide workers with N-95 masks or mask respirators — as well as take other measures to ensure that if a worker must work outside and they are exposed to wildfire smoke, that they have the correct equipment in order to protect them from inhaling that harmful smoke, as well as the wide distribution of N-95 masks — we have yet to speak to a worker, actually, that has actually been provided one by their employer — as well as robust and widespread enforcement of current regulations.

AMY GOODMAN: Estella Cisneros, we want to thank you for being with us, agricultural worker program legal director at the California Rural Legal Assistance.

When we come back, we go to Oregon to speak with a former firefighter, now wildland fire ecologist, amidst the climate apocalypse. As devastating fires burn across the West Coast, President Trump continues to deny the climate crisis. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals. Reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert passed away at the age of 77 Friday.

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