“Farmworkers, who are a majority migrant and Spanish-speaking workforce, die of heat-related causes at a rate of 20 times more than other professions,” Civil Eats reported last week. “In 2004, a worker in the valley died from heat stroke after he spent 10 hours picking grapes in 105-degree weather, prompting California to enact the first heat standard in the nation. It requires employers to provide water and shade when temperatures climb above 80 degrees.”
The worker’s name was Asunción Valdivia, and he is the namesake of a national heat regulation bill that has passed a House committee but has failed to go on to a full vote. Valdivia “collapsed from heat stroke after working a 10-hour day picking grapes in the 100-degree sun,” UFW said. “No ambulance responded because employees were unable to provide the vineyard's location. Asuncion died in the car as his son tried frantically to reach a hospital.”
Sherrod Brown, a main sponsor of the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021 in the Senate, was among lawmakers who led a call last year urging the Biden administration to establish a permanent federal heat stress standard. Civil Eats reports “Occupational Safety and Health Administration is in the initial stages of creating a federal heat injury and illness prevention.”
Senators had already noted in their call last year that the danger facing workers was “at a pressure point.” One year later, the state is seeing record-breaking heat, and it is fair to say that it is only going to get worse. Angel Santiago Fernandez-Bou, a postdoctoral scholar in environmental systems at University of California, told Civil Eats that farmworkers in the state’s San Joaquin Valley could within several decades be enduring months of extreme heat.
”Historically, here in the valley, there have been four or five days of extreme heat, and the projection is that by the end of the century, there will be 15 times more, so there will be two months of extreme heat,” Fernandez-Bou told Civil Eats.
”I don’t want to speak for farmworkers, but I can give you an idea of the things I’ve heard,” Fernandez-Bou continued in the report. “One of the main problems that farmworkers have is language barriers. It limits them to access information that is essential, such as standards to protect them against extreme heat. There are many grassroots organizations that are trying to reach out to farmworkers to tell them they have rights, that their employers have to implement those standards for them.”
UFW noted that workers in Wasco, about 24 miles northwest of Bakersfield, were sent home midday when the temperature hit 102 and the air was too poor:
Yesica Balderrama lifted up farmworkers’ personal stories in a piece for Prism this past June, reporting that “increasingly volatile and extreme weather” can affect workers far after the day’s work has ended.
Josue Josue, a 34-year-old farmworker in North Carolina, “feels exhausted and has regular stomach aches and dizziness,” Balderrama reported. “These are common symptoms of heat stress, which also include dehydration, nausea, and heat stroke, the leading cause of work-related death in farmworkers.” Nancy Apropilla picks grapes and tobacco in the state and experiences headaches. “Sometimes you get headaches, but there is nothing else to do but to keep going,” Apropilla said in the report. “When I first started working, it was 80 degrees, and now temperatures reach over 100 degrees. Some people start the job for one day and then never come back.”
The report notes that because a significant chunk of the workers who put food on our tables lack legal immigration status, they’re less likely to have health care for their work-related issues.
We need to defend farmworkers with the same ferocity farmers have seen in recent years. That needs to include protecting them in extreme weather, and protecting their union rights. Gavin Newsom can single-handedly do the latter by signing the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act into law today. “Farmworkers worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to keep food on America’s tables during the pandemic,” President Joe Biden said in endorsing the bill this past Labor Day weekend. “In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union.”
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