Summer heat is a danger for farmworkers every year, with heat deaths happening steadily. But with climate change and heat waves like the one that hit the Pacific Northwest in recent weeks becoming more frequent, the need for legal protections for farmworkers is becoming more urgent. At least one worker died during that heat wave.
California farmworkers have a right to shade when the temperature reaches 80 degrees (though enforcement remains an issue), and farmworkers are winning legislative victories in the states, including Colorado recently and Washington state, gaining minimum wage and overtime protections. But nationally, farmworkers lack protections and enforcement, and heat is an annual danger. The Pacific Northwest’s record-shattering June heat wave drew renewed attention to that—even as some coverage of agriculture in the heat wave talked entirely about the danger to crops and never even mentioned workers.
The workers picking cherries and blueberries in temperatures over 100 degrees included children as young as 12 and adults in their 70s, with some employers not even supplying water, let alone shade.
“There's no shade where I work,” a cherry picker in Yakima County, Washington, told Motherboard. “A lot of people who don’t feel well keep working so as not to lose money for lunch or rent. People endure a lot to finish. They give more than they are able to.” Elizabeth Strater, strategic campaigns director for the United Farm Workers of America, told Motherboard’s Lauren Kaori Gurley that “There is a perverse incentive to work as fast as you can not to hydrate to the extent that you’d need bathroom breaks,” because so many workers are paid piece rates.
Workers also often work in heavy clothes to protect themselves from chemicals used on crops, as they do unbelievably grueling, skilled work in dangerous heat. This is already a workplace safety issue that demands national policymaking—and it’s only going to get worse thanks to climate change.