Farmworkers face dangerous conditions as heat waves scorch Western U.S.

·Senior Editor
·4 min read

With temperatures expected to top 110 degrees in California’s Central Valley and reach 120 degrees in the southern part of the state, migrant farmworkers will once again be forced to endure dangerous conditions born of climate change.

“Farmworkers really are at the frontlines of climate change,” Leydy Rangel, communications manager of the United Farm Workers Foundation, told Yahoo News. “Unfortunately, that’s an issue that will not get better. We know that heat is the No. 1 cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S.”

When a heat dome descended over the Pacific Northwest last month, Sebastian Francisco Perez, a Guatemalan immigrant, was found unresponsive on June 26 at the farm where he had been working in 104-degree heat. 

A farmer pulls a wind-felled almond tree with a tractor on an almond farm in Gustine, California, U.S., on Monday, June 14, 2021. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A farmer pulls a wind-felled almond tree with a tractor on a farm in Gustine, Calif. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In response, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown directed the state’s workplace safety agency to implement rules designed to protect workers from extreme heat. 

“All Oregonians should be able to go to work knowing that conditions will be safe and that they will return home to their families at the end of the day,” Brown said in a statement. “While Oregon OSHA has been working to adopt permanent rules related to heat, it became clear that immediate action was necessary in order to protect Oregonians, especially those whose work is critical to keeping Oregon functioning and oftentimes must continue during extreme weather.”

California’s heat standards — which mandate clean drinking water for workers, breaks and access to shade — were put in place following the 2008 death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old migrant worker from Oaxaca, Mexico. Unaware that she was pregnant, she died while harvesting grapes at a farm near Stockton, Calif., in temperatures near 100 degrees. 

“Farmworkers have been excluded from many of the rights and benefits that protect other workers partly because they are immigrants and don’t have legal status,” Rangel said. 

During last month’s heat dome event in the Pacific Northwest, which killed hundreds of people across the region, the UFW conducted a text-message survey of agricultural workers in Washington state. While the results are still preliminary and have not yet been published, Rangel told Yahoo News that of the 1,875 workers who responded, 56 percent reported experiencing symptoms associated with heat illness while on the job, 26 percent said they were not being provided with cool drinking water and 96 percent said they believed heat regulations should be improved in the state.

Ben DuVal stands in a field of triticale, one of the few crops his family was able to plant this year due to the water shortage, on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Tulelake, Calif. (Nathan Howard/AP Photo)
Farmer Ben DuVal in a field of triticale, one of the few crops his family was able to plant this year due to a water shortage, in Tulelake, Calif. (Nathan Howard/AP Photo)

Washington, California and Minnesota are the only states in the nation that have implemented heat rights for farmworkers, Rangel said, but the standards vary. As yet there are is no federal legislation to protect workers from exposure to excessive heat. 

In 2019, the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Like California’s heat standards, the bill is named after an agricultural worker who perished while picking table grapes for 10 hours straight in temperatures of over 100 degrees. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Alex Padilla, D-Calif.; and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., introduced the bill in the Senate this year. 

“Workers in California and across the country are too often exposed to dangerous heat conditions in the workplace. In the past year, Californians have faced extreme heat temperatures from wildfires, while trying to navigate the unique challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic — risking the health and safety of our workers,” Padilla said in a statement when the bill was introduced. “This vital legislation will hold employers accountable and ensure workplace protections are put in place to prevent further heat stress illness and deaths from happening.”

The bill’s sponsors noted that 815 workers in the U.S. had been killed due to heat stress injuries between 1992 and 2017, and more than 70,000 workers had been seriously injured. 

Pedro Lucas (left), nephew of farm worker Sebastian Francisco Perez who died last weekend while working in an extreme heat wave, break up earth on Thursday, July, 1, 2021 near St. Paul, Ore. (Nathan Howard/AP Photo)
Pedro Lucas (left), nephew of farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez, who died in June while working in extreme heat conditions, breaks up earth near St. Paul, Ore. (Nathan Howard/AP Photo)

From soaring temperatures to increased smoke exposure from wildfires, climate change has made the conditions for migrant farmworkers, most of whom have come to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America, increasingly dangerous. As California braces for its third record-breaking heat wave of 2021, farmworkers are having to adapt to a new normal. 

“Every single year, we keep hitting record after record in terms of temperatures,” Rangel said. “That’s only going to continue. So it’s important that we do something now before we see more deaths. Everyone deserves to be protected when they go to work.”

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