Health officials are urging residents to stay indoors. Many farm workers feel like that’s not an option.
On Sunday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee compared the massive, ongoing wildfires along the West Coast—which have razed entire towns and killed at least 35 people—to a “blowtorch.” Air quality has reached unhealthy levels across the state, and local health officials are urging residents to stay indoors as much as possible. “It’s apocalyptic,” Inslee said in an ABC interview.
Despite the inhospitable environmental conditions, farm workers in California, Oregon, and Washington are continuing to harvest crops—in wine country, on vegetable farms, in orchards, and more—often without adequate respiratory protection. Most farm workers lack legal work authorization in the U.S., or they are employed via a precarious guest worker program. Fearing employer retaliation, many don’t feel empowered to demand health and safety protections or time off during wildfire season.
On Tuesday, we spoke with a farm worker in the Tri-Cities metro area in Washington state, where the air quality index (AQI) has been categorized as “hazardous” for nearly five days. Mr. Gonzalez, who asked to be identified by his surname only, works in the region at an apple orchard, where he’s paid by the box for his work. (Apple season in Washington, the country’s biggest producer of the crop, begins right around now.) He’s originally from Oaxaca, Mexico. Now he lives about an hour away from Tri-Cities by car in a rental house with his wife and two children. He told us that he has continued to work through the wildfire season—despite lacking protection that can properly filter out particle pollution, and suffering from sore throats and headaches—because he can’t afford not to.
For Gonzalez, as well as for many other West Coast farm workers, the wildfires represent a fresh crisis that compounds the existing emergency of the coronavirus pandemic. He says that the treatment he’s experiencing right now only reiterates what he’s already faced during the public health disaster, including a lack of sanitation resources or paid sick leave: “We are second class citizens. We are definitely not looked after.”
His account has been translated, edited, and condensed.
Gonzalez: I work for a company located in Tri-Cities, Washington. We grow and harvest fruits, and we’re presently harvesting apples, which we pick, put in bags, and load onto trucks.
During wildfire season, I have not stopped working at all. There hasn’t been any mention from my bosses about giving us breaks due to the air quality. The masks that we wear are cloth masks with no filters. We take them home to wash them because they are not disposable.
A lot of days, I’ll have a sore throat and a headache. Today, I noticed that the air quality was worse than previous days, and when I got home, I saw a very thin layer of ash on cars on the street. I just push through the sore throat and the headache, but I do worry about the future, health-wise. Today it’s a headache, tomorrow it’s a sore throat, but a year from now, I could have an issue with my lungs that, looking back, I’ll know is because of the wildfires. But there isn’t really any other alternative for me.
Taking time off is definitely not an option. My employer cares less about its employees than it does about making sure that we are working, whether we feel sick or not.
Throughout the pandemic, the company has had a lot of cases of Covid-19. They send sick people home to quarantine for 14 days, but there is no sick pay, no hazard pay, none of that. We are second-class citizens, and we are definitely not looked after.
“Today it’s a headache, tomorrow it’s a sore throat, but a year from now, I could have an issue with my lungs that, looking back, I’ll know is because of the wildfires.”
Most farm workers get paid a piece-rate: Depending on how many boxes of apples we harvest, that’s what our pay is, even if we work a 16-hour day and we only produce six boxes. It really just makes no sense that we are the ones out here bringing fruits and vegetables and food to everybody’s table, but we aren’t valued.
As workers, we value each other, and we support each other when we walk out the door and leave work behind. But as an employer, the way to show value is to use words that are affirming of workers—and the work and value that we bring to a company that we’re making a lot of money for—and better compensation.
Lawmakers should mandate some kind of paid time off for farm workers, so that we feel valued as human beings rather than machines. It just feels really demeaning the way we’re treated. While workers do express grievances to our supervisors about work conditions and lack of rest, their hands are mostly tied. We should have the benefit of being able to take a three-day weekend, or even two days off, and have it be paid so that we can recharge our batteries and be able to go back to work feeling like a new person.
“Most farm workers get paid a piece-rate—even if we work a 16-hour day and we only produce six boxes.”
When I come home every day, every night, my hands and my feet and my back—my whole body is just craving rest but I just have to go back at it the next day.
It weighs on my heart every night that farm workers are treated so unfairly. We just want to come to work peacefully and feel like we’re valued and rewarded for the hard work that we do, and that is something that we never receive.