POLITICS

Farmworkers Demand Basic Safety After Working In Extreme Heat Wave

Undocumented farmworkers worked in 100+ degrees to get food on people's tables. They want federal heat standards and a pathway to citizenship.

Farmworkers are calling on Congress to pass basic safety standards to protect them from extreme heat after a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed hundreds of people, including an undocumented worker in Oregon.  

“Farmworkers are imperiled by a perfect storm of deadly plagues: Extreme summer temperatures fueled by climate change… field workers disproportionately afflicted by the coronavirus… and too many live in daily dread of deportation, afraid to complain about abuse and mistreatment due to their immigration status,” said Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers union, in a press call Thursday. 

As temperatures soared above 100 degrees in Washington, Oregon and California amid a record-breaking heat wave last week, hundreds died from the heat. Sebastian Francisco Perez, a Guatemalan undocumented farmworker in St. Paul, Oregon, was one of them.   

“We’re tired of going to vigils and funerals for those who have died,” Romero said. “The time for action is now.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) enacted temporary emergency rules Tuesday, requiring employers to provide shade, water and breaks to outdoor workers — but advocates want such protections to be permanent, and nationwide. 

There is currently no federal standard for working conditions during extreme heat. Only three states — California, Washington and Minnesota — have regulations to protect workers from heat.

Earlier this year, Democrats introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which would ensure basic rights like access to water and paid breaks in the shade. It was named in honor of Asunción Valdivia, a California farmworker who died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in 105-degree temperatures.

Most of the nation’s 2.4 million farmworkers are undocumented, and their lack of legal immigration status makes them more vulnerable to workplace abuses, as they’re more hesitant to make demands of their employers. 

Many farmworkers also only get paid for what they pick, rather than a steady rate per hour, making them reluctant to take time off or even breaks out of fear of losing much-needed pay, said Bruce Goldstein, the president of advocacy group Farmworker Justice.

In Oregon, an average annual salary for a farmworker can come out to $19,000 to $24,000 per year — less than minimum wage, according to Reyna Lopez, executive director of farmworker group Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste. 

Leticia, an undocumented farmworker in Washington who spoke on Thursday’s press call, said that she’s been working for over 14 years picking cherries, apples, pears and grapes. Last week, she was out in the fields in temperatures around 115 degrees.

While her employer gave workers the choice to finish the day early, it was the workers who decided together to break once they couldn’t handle the heat anymore — “if it were up to the farmers, probably we would have kept working,” Leticia said, explaining that they didn’t have enough water or shade to not risk their health.

“Us farmworkers are often scared to demand our rights because of our immigration status,” the mother of four said. “We’re scared they’re going to cut our hours or even lose our jobs.” 

Democrats introduced bills to fast-track citizenship for undocumented essential workers and provide a pathway to citizenship to farmworkers specifically. But with only a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, it’s unclear if these efforts can pass. 

“They call us ‘essential,’” Leticia said, referring to the term to describe those who kept working as millions stayed home in the pandemic. “We wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning to harvest the food you put on your tables. We’re asking Congress: We deserve a pathway to citizenship.”