During wildfires, West Coast farmworkers forced to put harvest over health

Little is done to protect the workers’ health, and many feel powerless to hold employers accountable.

Farmworkers picking fruit

Ground charred from the Cold Springs wildfire juts up against a road separating it from apple orchards in Okanogan, Sept. 11, 2020. (Karen Ducey/InvestigateWest)

When a fire raged nearby and smoke blanketed Quincy in the summer of 2015, Maria Blancas knew that farmworkers would be the last to be told that they might have to evacuate. A child of farmworkers herself, Blancas grew up in Quincy, a town in Grant County, and was working at a local health clinic. With evacuation information available only in English, and with farmworkers on temporary guest visas often tucked away in housing deep in fruit orchards, she wanted to get the word out. 

So she hopped into her car and drove to local farms, bypassing the big house where the owners live and heading straight to the fields out back.

“The smoke was so dense you had to use the windshield wipers to get the ash off,” Blancas recalls. “The sun was a different color, like this strange orange color. I opened up the windows and all I could smell was smoke.” 

The 50 workers she met in the fields of one farm had no idea that the townspeople had been told to pack their bags and be prepared to leave. Local firefighters had discussed this with farm managers, but not with the workers themselves. Blancas and other advocates mobilized quickly, making sure the fire department knew where farmworkers lived. Then she filed a complaint with the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, because “this is a human rights issue,” she says.

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In order to pick the produce we all rely on, the farmworkers work under strict harvest schedules that can’t easily be altered. As a result, up and down the West Coast, they sometimes work in hazardous smoke conditions, with few breaks and few protections.

They are also regularly the last to know about wildfires and their risks, last to leave a dangerous area and last to be offered protections.

With many facing precarious employment and unsteady immigration situations, they can’t easily demand better working conditions. As monthslong wildfires increasingly become the norm in the U.S., these essential, vulnerable workers are risking their lives to keep our food system intact.  

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Rosalinda Guillen, a longtime farmworker advocate who leads Community to Community Development, a small nonprofit in Whatcom County, says the Quincy case isn’t a rare occurrence.  While a spokesperson for Washington agricultural interests says some farmers are taking steps to help deal with wildfire smoke, activists say the efforts aren’t nearly enough, nor soon enough.

“There’s no protection for farmworkers whatsoever, and even if it does come, it’s always last minute and in crisis mode, and there’s never anything prepared beforehand until it happens again. Then we start all over,” says Guillen. “That’s always been the case with farmworkers and wildfires. The only difference is now [the wildfires are] increasing.”

Apples in crates next to an orchard under smoke and haze from the Cold Springs wildfire in Okanogan, Sept. 11, 2020. (Karen Ducey/InvestigateWest)

Drink water and keep picking

A group of strawberry farmworkers in Oxnard, California, spoke to InvestigateWest about working through Southern California’s 2018 Woolsey Fire, which eventually burned nearly 100,000 acres. (The workers are being identified by first names only because they fear retribution from their employers.) As flames tore through Ventura and Los Angeles counties, Adri, a 37-year-old farmworker, saw people being evacuated from “houses close to fires,” she says, “but then we see farms are also close to the fires and people are still harvesting vegetables there. They’re not evacuated. They prefer to evacuate people living in the houses than people working in the fields.” 

Even as ash formed little piles on everything — the strawberries, workers’ clothes — growers insisted the berries needed to be picked, Adri says, in spite of the air quality index reaching as high as 250, a very unhealthy level. 

Lucila, another Oxnard farmworker, says she wasn’t given a mask or goggles during the Woolsey Fire; she and other farmworkers brought their own cloth masks instead. Management, she says, mostly gave advice on how to protect the fruit, worried about how to keep strawberries safe from the soot.

“We only had a meeting early in the morning and they told us to be careful with our eyes,” she says. “But how are we going to be careful if we didn't have any glasses to protect us, and they didn't give us anything?” Her eyes were red by the end of each day, Lucila says, and she soon experienced headaches and nausea.

“We were just told to drink water,” she says. “That’s it.”

Lucila kept working, struggling to see through the dark smoke. On the one hand, she wanted her managers to let her leave early; that sometimes happened, such as when temperatures rise above 100 degrees. Yet, “if they let us leave early, how are we going to make ends meet? Because the check is going to be a small check,” Lucila says, noting she gets paid $13 per hour, the same rate the other Oxnard workers interviewed for this article receive. Lucila says she needs all the hours she can get to make her $1,450 rent and pay the babysitter.

Cecilia, a 40-year-old farmworker in Oxnard, says farmworkers were told they could go home if they felt ill, but “sometimes workers preferred to stay because they don’t have health insurance, and we only get paid the time we're working, that's all. Losing a whole day is a lot for us.” 

Victoriana, another female farmworker in Oxnard, says she worked throughout wildfires in Ventura County in 2017 and 2018, fearful for her health as her throat became sore. But even when a cough came, she wasn’t offered paid time off. She worried: “If I were to get sick, what will happen to my children? Where will I find the money to go to the doctor?”

The farmworkers didn’t have a break from the smoke when they finally got home. Farmworker advocates up and down the West Coast say shoddy housing meant farmworkers regularly reported air that is as bad indoors as it is outdoors. Cecilia’s 16-year-old son is prone to bronchitis. During wildfires, Cecilia closes windows to protect him, but “they’re not sealed properly,” allowing “smoke to come in very, very easily.” So she gives him a mask, makes sure he has his inhaler and hopes for the best. 

Burnt cars from the Cold Springs wildfire in front of apple orchards. (Karen Ducey/InvestigateWest)

Death of a blueberry picker

Guillen from Community to Community Development says this business-as-usual approach can be devastating. She recalls the summer of 2017, when farmworkers at a blueberry farm run by Sarbanand Farms, owned by berry giant Munger Bros. and operating in Sumas in Whatcom County, told Guillen and colleagues that they worked 14- to 16-hour days in the midst of weeks of smoke and heat, with inadequate food and water. Even though the region was blanketed in smoke, workers say they were not given N95 masks or extra days off.

“Everyone else was told to stay at home, stay out of the smoke, stay inside because air quality is really bad,” Guillen recalls. “In the meantime, the farmworkers were told to keep working because it was peak season.”

After working in the heat and smoke, Honesto Silva Ibarra, a 28-year-old diabetic on a temporary guest worker visa, began experiencing severe headaches. According to Guillen, as well as Columbia Legal Services attorney Andrea Schmitt and news reports, he asked to take time off to go to the clinic, but his supervisors said no, and he was too afraid to go because of the strict stipulations of his guest visa. Several of his colleagues went on strike in response to the harsh working conditions. 

A few days later, Silva Ibarra died of diabetes-related causes, a spokesperson from Sarbanand Farms told the Lynden Tribune in 2017. The spokesperson said Silva Ibarra had run out of medicine, but had not told his employer, and that when it learned of his condition, “the company immediately called 911 and an ambulance arrived a short time later.” Silva Ibarra died in Harborview Medical Center in Seattle four days later, and the company paid for his body to be returned to Mexico. 

The Washington state Department of Labor and Industries later found that the farm was not responsible for his death, given that he had an underlying health condition, although the department did fine the company about $150,000 for not providing adequate rest breaks and meals. Ryan Allen, who heads up the department’s Division of Health and Safety, told InvestigateWest that a thorough investigation was conducted. In 2019, Munger Bros. was fined $3.5 million in back wages and penalties by the U.S. Department of Labor “due to the seriousness of the violations found during the 2017 blueberry harvest season in California and Washington,” including failing to provide safe housing conditions and pay required rates. The company was also banned from using guest workers for three years.

Munger at the time said: “The Department of Labor has presented a novel theory that has been never used before, but our obligations to our employees, customers and the community motivated us to comply with the settlement.” The company did not return several calls seeking comment for this story.

Workers pick apples at Gerbers Farms under smoke and haze from the Cold Springs wildfire in Okanogan on Sept. 11, 2020. (Karen Ducey/InvestigateWest)

Little room to maneuver 

Fueled by her experience in the summer of 2015, Maria Blancas left Quincy to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. In her new home of Seattle, she sees that “smoke has become an inconvenience. People only care because they can’t go camping. But Eastern Washington is full of smoke the whole summer.”

Blancas continues to work with advocates across the state, pushing for farmworking communities to be informed about the hazards of smoke. “We try to get information out before something happens, letting people know what they can do,” she says. Every fire season, she hears the same questions: “How do I take care of my kids? How do I protect myself?”

Getting information out in Spanish and to vulnerable communities is one step. But even if workers know the risk, it’s not clear what they can do. Many are hired by contractors; they often aren’t told the name of the farm where they are working.

“The farms will say, ‘Well we don’t own the labor,’ and the contractors will say, ‘We don’t own the labor either,’ ” says Ariel Kelly of Corazon Healdsburg, a small nonprofit that works with farmworkers in California’s wine country. “There’s a murky pathway of people shaking off responsibility. It’s not like they have an HR department they can go to.” While they could complain to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Kelly notes that its phone number isn’t on the back of the pay stub when they’re paid in cash or under the table.” Without direct contact with employers, farmworkers have limited opportunities to advocate for precautions like masks, time off or more rest.

Kelly also warns that efforts that focus primarily on information and education put the onus on individual farmworkers themselves to enact change.

“What we often see from the government public health response is, ‘Oh, we need to educate those workers, like wear a mask.’ ‘We should translate this information to another website,’ ” Kelly says. “But my feeling is that the employers and those who are in positions of power are the ones who need to be educated. They need to be the ones who are responsible for their workforce and protect their workforce, even if it comes at a cost to the business.”

Bigger changes needed

There are efforts to creatively respond. A team at the University of Washington is working with growers to install more air quality monitors on farms, which could help employers and employees know their risk. The team is also considering clean air tents placed in the middle of orchards to give farmworkers a break. 

Some employers are starting to provide protective equipment and adjust working hours, according to Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. But given that smoke is not a constant threat, there are a lot of stop-and-start efforts, with employers making some changes during particularly bad fire seasons, and efforts then waning when fires abate, DeVaney says.

Growers are increasingly aware of the need to screen and protect workers with respiratory conditions as a result of guidance from the Department of Labor and Industries, DeVaney says.

Still, the agency offers only recommendations, not requirements.

Corazon Healdsburg’s Kelly says that in order to move from a haphazard, farm-by-farm approach, protections like paid sick leave and a solid minimum wage are needed. “These are not new concepts,” she says. “We’re just asking that those be extended to our most vulnerable workers.” 

Community to Community Development’s Guillen agrees. “Agencies and employers haven’t even thought about giving people days off when it’s smoky. There are no ongoing economic protections for farmworkers. The employers are like, ‘We’re not going to pay for it,’ ” Guillen says. “This is a failure of state agencies to let people of color, and especially farmworkers, be protected against these dangers, prior to when they happen.”

By Washington state law, paid sick leave is technically available for all workers, but it has to be accrued, with one hour given for every 40 hours worked, and time off available only after 90 days are clocked, far longer than many harvesting seasons. Accrued time cannot be transferred from one employer to another, a problem for contract workers who hop from one farm to the next. And workers must work 820 hours the previous year to be eligible for the program, which is more than what many seasonal workers officially put in. 

Tight harvesting schedules also make time off tricky, with some fruit — cherries, peaches — needing to be picked in a matter of days. The problem is that “wildfire season and harvest season are often at the exact same time,” says Blancas.

When it becomes too hot to work, “schedules can be modified, people can go to work earlier in the day,” explains Blancas. “But with smoke you can’t really do that. And since people are often being paid piece work, they’re working even more intensely,” huffing and puffing and letting smoke inside their lungs during long, strenuous shifts.

Erik Nicholson, a former United Farm Workers executive, says that some unionized farmworkers have better access to protections, like paid sick leave. (Only 10% of America’s workers are unionized; the percentage drops to 1% for farmworkers.)

His union represents Gerardo, a 63-year-old pesticide applicator who has worked at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville for 34 years. Workers at the winery have been represented by United Farm Workers since 1995. For Gerardo, the union contract means he has “respect and dignity. And safe work. We can’t get fired without just cause.” He works eight hours a day at $16.75 an hour, five days a week, and has health insurance and 200 hours of paid vacation time a year, which he uses to visit his family in Mexico. 

Such provisions help him stay safe from smoke, too. Two years ago, when the air was thick with it, Gerardo says the winery’s workers were informed about health risks and then told to leave early, relying on their paid sick leave to cover the hours off. Still, while Gerardo says workers and supervisors decide together whether conditions are safe, there isn’t a strict policy to quit working during smoke. “We don’t know what we’re breathing,” he says. “I worry about that.”

The United Farm Workers’ Nicholson says a recent move by Washington and California to extend coronavirus paid sick leave benefits demonstrates that the political will to strengthen workers’ protections can be mustered. Now, he says, there should be paid wildfire smoke days, too. “We should not punish people economically for doing the right thing.”

For Corazon Healdsburg’s Kelly, a major reframing is needed by growers and consumers, who need to think about the broader balance of health versus profits.

“Yes, there are grapes on the vine that might not be picked this year. But is there crop insurance that might cover that?” Kelly asks. “What activities could we take to insure the greatest protection for the most vulnerable? We should be asking, ‘Why are we putting people in those positions in the first place?’

“As we continue to see climate change and nature interrupt business as usual, we’re going to see friction between the normal cost of doing business and the emergency crisis we’re facing. That can be an opportunity to change. Or it can be an opportunity for employers to skirt rules and exploit workers.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Rosa Amanda Tuirán

Rosa Amanda Tuirán Grobet is a documentary filmmaker, photographer and multimedia journalist from Mexico City.