Farmworkers are on the front lines of food production, and often exposed to environmental hazards, like pesticides. This year, their jobs have become even harder, because of climate change, COVID and wildfires.
In agricultural areas across the country, including in Pennsylvania, many farmworkers face unrelenting summer heat. With climate change, those temperatures are rising. In the vast industrial farmland of central California, where much of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are produced, farmworkers face added air quality concerns caused by wildfires. This is all happening while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic
“Farmworkers don’t have the luxury of Zooming into the fields to pick crops. Sheltering in place is something that farmworkers have not been able to do,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, vice president and executive director of the United Farm Workers Foundation, based in California. It’s the sister organization to the union, providing services to farmworkers and their communities, including immigration legal services.
The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Tellefson Torres about the working conditions of farmworkers now facing COVID, wildfire smoke and worsening heat.
LISTEN to the interview:
Kara Holsopple: Who are farmworkers in this country?
Diana Tellefson Torres: There are about 2.5 million in the U.S. Given that about half of the population of farmworkers are undocumented, and are immigrant, we know that it’s definitely a hard population to count. But that said, we know that farmworkers mainly come from Mexico, but there’s also this guest worker program, H-2A. So a couple hundred thousand farmworkers are coming from not just Mexico, but other parts of the world, including Jamaica and Haiti. So there is some diversity there within the guest worker population.
Many farmworkers are Spanish-speaking, however, we also have farmworkers that are coming from Indigenous areas, and rural, isolated areas, within Mexico or Guatemala, for instance, who speak their native languages, and not at all related to Spanish.
So there are different language barriers, and we are very aware that many farmworkers’ vulnerability is related to that language barrier — not always knowing exactly what their rights are, and the different systems in place here in the U.S. that do protect them.
KH: When the Covid-19 pandemic started in the U.S., farmworkers were deemed essential workers. Other essential workers, like health care providers and grocery store workers, have been held up as heroes. Are people talking about farmworkers in the same way?
Tellefson Torres: Farmworkers are the individuals who provide the food that every single human being in this country eats, whether it be a doctor or grocery store worker, all of the other heroes that are essential workers all count on farmworkers so they can literally function. So, yes, absolutely, farmworkers are heroes. We ensured that they were included in the Heroes Act at the federal level because they are currently and always have been essential.
Climate Change, Wildfire and COVID
Holsopple: What is life like for someone who works in the fields in the Central Valley of California, for example?
Tellefson Torres: You know, farmworkers are working in a disaster within a disaster. So if we’re taking the Salinas Valley, which is considered to be the salad bowl of this nation, farmworkers are worrying about the pandemic. There’s also extraordinary heat right now because we’re experiencing a heat wave.
In addition to that, you are working in smoke because the wildfires are happening nearby. Many farmworkers have sent us pictures of them working, and you can literally see the flames nearby. Clearly, farmworkers’ health is at risk.
“What we’re talking about is a very dangerous job, and a profession that truly, I think, merits human dignity.”
Just to give an example, during the pandemic here, we’re making sure that farmworkers are wearing their masks, and that they understand that employers should be providing them with masks for their protection and that of their colleagues. At the same time, the smoke that is out in the air is also an added layer. Do you have the appropriate mask? Because the N95 mask or equivalent, which is what doctors are utilizing in hospitals, are the masks that provide the most protection from smoke. However, it’s hard to breathe with them on.
Let’s talk about farmworkers who are working piece rate. So really you’re not working for a regular hourly wage, and you’re not making a specific amount of money. You have to move fast to be able to fill a bin or a box of whatever crop you’re picking, because you are getting paid by the amount of the crop that you are picking.
When you couple that with what’s happening in the environment around you, wearing a mask in particular, when there’s smoke around, and moving fast, breathing heavily. Folks are having a very hard time breathing. That impacts your efficiency. It impacts your wallet because, you might not be able to move as fast.
It’s high peak here in California. It’s high peak in the apple industry, for instance, in Washington State. Farmworkers could work 10 hours, 12 hours — we’ve heard up to 16 hours in Georgia.
Farmworkers do not get paid overtime in most parts of the country, because they’ve been excluded from federal labor laws that protect other workers. When you compile all of these different issues, lack of federal labor protections, exposure to heat and other elements, really what we’re talking about is a very dangerous job, and a profession that truly, I think, merits human dignity. This is something that we all have a role in, to make sure that we’re improving the conditions for those who are nourishing us every day.
Holsopple: You mentioned masks. This is probably state by state, what each state requires — or even maybe not even requires, but has guidelines for what kinds of protections different kinds of workers should have.
Tellefson Torres: It’s very important to understand that guidelines are not mandatory. That is a problem, especially when farmworkers are putting their lives at risk in the Central Valley, which here in California, is one of the hottest areas in the state. Workers are experiencing more heat than they have in the past, and that is something that we’re consistently hearing from farmworkers. They feel it. They understand that the climate is changing and they, as outdoor workers, are being exposed.
There was really a lot of movement from farmworkers who were letting us know that their family member had died from heat exhaustion in fields. So we were getting many calls one summer from farmworkers’ families.
In order to get a reprieve from the heat, you need shade. It’s not enough to just be able to sit under the grape vines, because it’s hot in that area, confined in the rows where grape workers are working.
“Just canopies to cover farmworkers for shade was literally a fight with agribusiness.”
There was no mandatory measure that said that employers needed to provide shade, and yet there are many laws that say that you have to provide shade and water for animals, for your pets, for horses.
The irony of that is that it doesn’t exist for human beings at the national level. It doesn’t exist. It didn’t exist in California, and so we had to fight to get that type of protection. Just canopies to cover farmworkers for shade was literally a fight with agribusiness.
Relief for Farmworkers
Holsopple: What should the country be doing to help make things better for farmworkers?
Tellefson Torres: This country, I think, is at a point where we need to face the reality. Most farmworkers are undocumented, and we need to make sure that they have legal status — that they have earned legal status. And we have a bill that’s been passed through the House, that had bipartisan support, that’s the Farm Workforce Act, and this is a bill that we need to get through the Senate. In addition to that, Senator Merkley from Oregon introduced the Farm Laborers Protection Act.
When we’re seeing that agribusiness is receiving billions of dollars in disaster relief funding, and there is nothing that says that any of that funding needs to be used towards hazard pay or the protection of farmworkers. That’s a problem.
The Farm Laborers Protection Act really outlines that growers or employers — agribusiness — when they’re receiving any disaster relief funding, that they need to be able to provide 10 days of paid sick leave, that they need to provide pandemic premium pay, that they need to limit furloughs or layoffs, implement the CDC guidelines — basic, basic stuff.
This is really a time when this country needs to act to protect folks who are putting their lives at danger. It’s about time that the federal government recognizes that farmworkers are essential. But it’s also time to do something about it.
Diana Tellefson Torres is vice president and executive director of the United Farm Workers Foundation.
TOP PHOTO: USDA photo by Lance Cheung