California Farmworkers Are Devastated by Heat, Smoke, and COVID-19
The state’s multiple crises are disproportionately harming the workers who feed America.
In the past month, Californians have been enduring a “triple threat” of sorts. As the state continues to battle against rising COVID-19 cases, it is simultaneously being hit by a blistering heat wave and rampaging wildfires.
Since mid-August, more than 650 fires have burned 1.25 million acres in California, an area more than six times the size of New York City. The fires have caused seven deaths and destroyed 1,400 buildings, according to Cal Fire. They have forced tens of thousands to evacuate from their homes, and made the state’s air quality the worst in the world.
Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires leap above Butts Canyon Road on Aug. 23, 2020, as firefighters work to contain the blaze in unincorporated Lake County, Calif.
Although no one among California’s population of 40 million is immune to the impacts of the heat, smoke, and virus, some lack the means to adapt and protect themselves from these crises. Like the pandemic, the fires have only exacerbated the inequities that already exist in the US, proving more harmful to those who are from poorer or marginalized communities.
Farmers, the workers who feed America, are one of the more vulnerable groups. Not only are the fires destroying farm structures and razing crops, but the ever-warming temperatures and worsening air quality are threatening the health of those who earn a living by working outdoors.
“But we need to work, and if we stay indoors we don’t get paid,” Leonor Hernández, 38, mother of three, told the New York Times. “We have bills for food and rent to pay.”
The majority of California’s farmworkers are from Mexico, earn minimum wage or less, and lack health insurance. When they work outside in over 100 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures and “very unhealthy” air quality, they risk heat and respiratory illnesses that could potentially result in exorbitant health care costs.
A farmworker, considered an essential worker under the current COVID-19 pandemic guidelines, works at a flower farm, April 15, 2020, in Santa Paula, Calif.
Twice last year during a heat wave, Hernández became sick with nausea, headache, and stomach ache, according to the New York Times.
Yet many farmworkers are forced to sacrifice their health for economic profit. Even before the pandemic, American farmers have been struggling financially due to the current administration’s trade war, fluctuating weather, and volatile food prices. These factors have caused farm debt to be at an all-time high, and more than half of all farmers have lost money every year since 2013, a dynamic that leads to lower wages for laborers, according to Time.
Now, as high temperatures reduce their outdoor working hours, farmworkers will have to face even greater economic loss.
Besides the health risks and the economic loss from reduced outdoor working hours, the fires have also destroyed farm structures and crops. Those who have escaped destruction still face the challenge of figuring out how to save their summer harvest and transport it out of fire evacuation zones.
The LNU Lightning Complex Fires, the third largest wildfire in California’s recorded history, have burned more than 360,000 acres, including areas with small farming communities and family farms. Castle Rock Farm, a goat farm in Vacaville, was entirely wiped out by the fire.
“There’s little evidence that I even owned goats in the barn or the house,” the owners wrote in a Facebook post on Aug. 22. “The majority of trees I’ve planted over 17 years for much needed shade are gone. My greenhouse and grow tables, which were full of native plants are completely gone. All show equipment, except for the vacuum for our Surge milker, is toast. All of our tools melted.”
The CZU Lightning Complex Fires, which have burned more than 81,000 acres, have caused extensive damage at Molino Creek Farming Collective, destroying several homes, large portions of its water system, and many orchard trees.
Pie Ranch, a nonprofit education center for regenerative farming that partners with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, saw its historic 1863 farmhouse burn to the ground from the CZU fires. The site was used to house staff members and apprentices, and also hosted youth meetings, campouts, and celebrations.
All of these tragedies are coming at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has already impacted farmers — especially small, rural farmers — in devastating ways. Many were left with no market as restaurants, schools, and stores closed at the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, they had to dump much of their produce instead of turning it into profit.
Farmworkers are also at higher risk of infection due to their living and working conditions. Although they work outside, they often work in close contact with one another, live in communal housing, commute to fields in vans and buses, and lack access to clean water throughout the day, according to the CDC. Many also have pre-existing conditions, are not provided sick leave or health insurance, and yet are deemed essential workers.
During this time of multiple crises, the United Farm Workers Foundation (UFWF) has been providing financial assistance and food distributions for those affected. It is also collecting donations to purchase and deliver N95 masks for farmers, which are essential during this year’s fire season.
“The vast majority of farmworkers have no health insurance,” Armando Elenes, UFWF secretary treasurer, told CNN. “Their biggest worry is getting sick and not being able to work ... They don't have a fallback plan; they can't collect unemployment. They've got no safety net.”
As the Golden State continues to suffer from extreme heat, ravaging fires, and the invisible virus, the workers who feed America have little choice but to head to the fields and work to put food on their, and our, tables.