Wildfires Make Dangerous Air For Farmworkers: 'It's Like You Can't Breathe' | WCAI

Wildfires Make Dangerous Air For Farmworkers: 'It's Like You Can't Breathe'

Sep 14, 2020
Originally published on September 15, 2020 10:38 am

Farmworkers in California are facing two crises at once: the coronavirus and exposure to dangerous air from wildfires.

Massive fires border large swaths of California's agriculture region, the Central Valley. Monitoring stations report unhealthy air across the interior of the state.

"To be out in the fields, it's like you can't breathe," says Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation.

California requires employers to provide outdoor workers with respiratory protection such as N95 masks if the air quality reaches a certain threshold. In a statewide survey last month, a labor union found farmworkers mostly weren't getting them. But wearing a mask when it's 110 degrees isn't easy either.

About half, or more, of farmworkers in the U.S. are in the country illegally. They don't have access to many government benefits, can't afford to miss work and may be hesitant to complain.

Here are excerpts of Sacha Pfeiffer's interview with Hernandez on All Things Considered about the threats facing farmworkers.

I understand that you're hearing that employers are not always supplying masks.

Yes. There's not enough PPE to sustain the current agriculture workforce in California. So what we're seeing on the ground is that everybody's just trying to get a hold of whatever they can. At a state level, in which PPE distributions have occurred in the past couple of weeks, we're nowhere near meeting the demands to ensure the safety of farmworkers and their families.

What are you hearing from farmworkers about the kinds of dilemmas and choices they're facing, especially in terms of what if they miss work and how do they try to protect their health?

When you look at farmworkers and you ask them, "How can the state help you during these difficult times?" the No. 1 thing they will tell you is rent relief. The Central Valley, the coastal areas, everywhere in California, there's a housing crisis. And you're seeing it through farmworkers living in households that have two to three families because they can't afford the rent.

California did supply some pandemic aid to undocumented immigrants — about $125 million in May. Has that money gotten to farmworkers and helped them during this time?

Yes, it was a very minute force that actually received the California aid, because just in the Central Valley alone we have over 500,000 farmworkers. The aid for the Central Valley was capped at 10,000 undocumented workers, so this didn't encompass just farmworkers, it encompassed any type of undocumented worker that works in retail, that works in restaurants, that works in construction, so a very minute force actually had an opportunity to receive those $500.

Jonaki Mehta and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

For the past week, orange California skies have rained down ash as dozens of wildfires blanket the Northwest region. The outdoors in many places is toxic. Those fires have hit the Central Valley hard, the region at the heart of California's agricultural industry. Most farmworkers there have little choice but to be outside, inhaling smoke as they perform physically demanding work. That is especially the case for those who are in the country illegally and cannot access government aid. Hernan Hernandez is executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation, and he joins us now.

Hernan, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HERNAN HERNANDEZ: Thank you, Sacha, for having me.

PFEIFFER: Could you start by giving us a physical sense, a visceral sense of what conditions are like for some of these workers who spend their days on farms and outside in fields?

HERNANDEZ: Yes. Physically, if you're working at 110 degrees, then you have, like, the perfect toxic cocktail right now going on with the wildfires. And given the area in which we are in - the Central Valley - we have one of the worst air qualities in the nation. When you go down to the ground and you talk to the average farmworker, a lot of them will tell you that it's extremely difficult for them to breathe. And it's even worse when you try to give them an N95 in 110-degree weather. It's a very tough time right now for farmworkers.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned masks, and certainly, wearing a mask could help somewhat. But one of the concerns we're hearing from farmworkers in California is a lack of PPE. You know, masks were already required during the pandemic, and California employers are required to make masks available to outdoor workers if the air quality reaches a certain unhealthy level. But, Hernan, I understand that you're hearing that employers are not always supplying masks.

HERNANDEZ: Yes. There's not enough PPE to sustain the current agricultural workforce in California. So what we're seeing on the ground is that everybody is just trying to get a hold of whatever they can. At a state level, in which PPE distributions have occurred in the past couple weeks, we're nowhere near meeting the demands to ensure the safety of farmworkers and their families.

PFEIFFER: Hernan, for a lot of office workers, they have the option to work at home right now. That's clearly not an option if you work on a farm or in a field. What are you hearing from farmworkers about the kinds of dilemmas and choices they're facing, especially in terms of, what if they miss work? And how do they try to protect their health? What are they wrestling with?

HERNANDEZ: When you're dealing with a population of 60- or 70% are undocumented, when you ask them, you know, why are you continuing to work, or, how can the government help you, they're always looking just to continue to fend off for themselves. But it's extremely difficult right now during a pandemic. And when you look at farmworkers and you ask them, how can the state help you during these difficult times, the No. 1 thing they will tell you is rent relief. The Central Valley, the coastal areas - everywhere in California, there is a housing crisis. And you're seeing it through farmworkers living in households that have two to three family because they can't afford the rent.

PFEIFFER: The state of California did supply some pandemic aid to undocumented immigrants - about $125 million back in May. Has that money gotten to farmworkers and helped them during this time at all?

HERNANDEZ: Oh, yes. It was a very minute force that actually received the California aid. So this didn't encompass just farmworkers. It encompassed any type of undocumented worker that works in retail, that works in restaurants, that works in construction. So a very minute force actually had an opportunity to receive those $500.

So when you look at what happened there and when we look at testimonials and farmworkers calling us and showing their frustrations in regards to program, they would tell us that they would be on the line for 10, 12, 13 hours day after day, and they could not get in the line. It got to the point where the lines crashed, and we noticed that farmworkers not only were frustrated, but they also were a bit saddened because they didn't have the opportunity to receive a bailout just like the rest of the country that has documents did.

PFEIFFER: That's Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation.

Thank you for coming on the program.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you, Sacha, for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.