As California wildfires rage, the harvest goes on

Advocates worry about farmworkers who were in Sonoma County vineyards during the LNU Lightning Complex fire.

A week after the Walbridge Fire started in Northern California in mid-August, I met Ezekiel “Zeke” Guzman at 11 p.m. in a deserted McDonald’s parking lot. Soon, we were driving through the backroads of Sonoma County’s wine country towards the fire’s mandatory evacuation zone. The county’s Covid-19 infection rate had recently peaked, so we were both wearing N95 masks, trying our best to keep our distance from each other in Guzman’s car.

Zeke waved a hand at the vineyards out the window. “Zinfandels, cabernets, merlots, petite sirahs,” he said. “The fire’s still going on over there, see?”

He pointed to a shock orange glow between two black hills. The Walbridge Fire is just one branch of the massive LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which has killed five people and burned over 550 square miles so far.

Guzman is President of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma, a local non-profit that provides food and financial aid to farmworkers and their families. We spot a floodlight in a nearby vineyard, and he pulls up alongside the rows of grapes. A small group of field workers are busy harvesting.

“Have you finished up for the night?” Guzman asks a worker in Spanish. Her face is covered with a bandana. “Do you have masks and everything you need?”

“Yes, yes,” she assures him, “everything’s fine.”

As California suffers through its worst wildfire season in modern history, agricultural workers are still going to work, risking heat, smoke, and Covid-19 to pick grapes and harvest strawberries. Activists like Guzman worry that 2020’s historic combination of disasters is also fueling labor abuses. After receiving a worrying tip from a former farmworker, he and a small group of labor organizers drove from vineyard to vineyard, trying to see if labor violations were occurring in the fields.

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A thick, yellow fog of wildfire smoke has settled over California as it burns, and health researchers warn it could have both immediate and long-term effects on residents. Respirators like N95 masks can filter smoke particles out, but farmworkers from Fresno to Salinas say they aren’t getting the safety gear they need.

Guzman used to be a farmworker himself. When he was a kid, his dad marched with Cesar Chavez and used to spray pesticides on prune trees, without wearing any protective gear. “All they did was put a cap and sunglasses on him,” he said.

He thinks agricultural work has gotten harder since then. David Hornung, a Senior Safety Engineer for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), tends to agree.

“It’s a very hard time to be a farmworker,” he said in a recent interview. Hornung is the agency’s Heat and Agricultural Program Coordinator, and he says climate change and the pandemic are making a difficult job even worse.

“Farm work is the most dangerous job, arguably, in California,” he said. “Their [farmworkers’] fatality rate is five times that of general industry. You’ve got climate change making our summers hotter. On top of that, you’ve got Covid-19, and all of the hazards related to that. And then, on top of that, you’ve got the wildfire smoke.”

These disasters aren’t just happening all at once. They amplify each other. Experts in environmental health are concerned that relentless wildfires could fuel the pandemic, and farmworkers are already disproportionately impacted by the virus. Agriculture has been deemed essential, and workers are often forced to live in crowded housing. When wildfires erupted in Sonoma County, several local advocates said that many farmworkers fled to friends and families’ homes rather than official evacuation centers, making living conditions even more crowded. Studies also suggest wildfire smoke could make people more susceptible to Covid-19.

According to Hornung, a series of California safety laws should help protect farmworkers through these intersecting crises. Under California’s Emergency Wildfire Smoke Standard, employers are required to offer workers N95 masks when the air quality gets bad enough. The state also regulates how long employees can work outdoors in extreme heat without shade or breaks, and employers need to have a plan in place to protect workers from Covid-19.

Smoke and haze from wildfires hover over a vineyard in Sonoma, California, in August.  AP Photo/Eric Risberg

But enforcing those regulations can be daunting. In a recent interview with the World, Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker said his agency is relying on 200 or so field enforcement officers to inspect roughly 200,000 workplaces that may have been impacted by wildfire smoke. David Hornung says agricultural workers can also be reluctant to speak out against unsafe work conditions. Around half of all field workers in the United States are undocumented, and many have little to no union support.

Sonoma County labor advocates say they’re already hearing stories about vineyards that aren’t following the rules.

“The accounts we’re hearing are very scattered,” said Omar Paz, the lead organizer for Sonoma County nonprofit North Bay Jobs with Justice. He was one of the labor organizers who spent a night driving between vineyards with Guzman. “Everyone’s either working around the clock, or they’re concerned with evacuation.”

In the chaos after the LNU Lightning Complex Fire started, Paz said a former farmworker he knows got in touch with him. The worker said he had family members who were still picking grapes at two vineyards nearby. They were being pressured to bring in the harvest quickly. “Masks weren’t being provided,” Paz said, “and the ones that were were surgical [masks], not N95s.”

In a recent interview, Sonoma County’s Agricultural Commissioner, Andrew Smith, said he hadn’t directly heard about these allegations. Labor organizations have made similar claims throughout California’s farm country. In a statewide poll last August, the United Farm Workers found that 84 percent of the workers who participated had not been given N95 masks by their employers. According to Cal/OSHA spokesperson Frank Polizzi, the agency has received 21 complaints about hazardous wildfire conditions on farms in the past few weeks.

When wildfires threaten farm country, Paz says employers and employees are incentivized to work through adverse conditions. For the owners of California’s vineyards and farms, the state’s agricultural sector is a $50 billion industry, and this is the beginning of harvest season for many of its crops. Wildfire smoke can also damage wine grapes if they’re not picked quickly.

For field workers, a poor harvest can be economically devastating. The average Californian farmworker only makes $18,000 a year, and vineyard workers are paid piece rate; according to Zeke Guzman, workers in Sonoma County are paid between $125-150 per ton of grapes they pick. Workers are compelled to harvest as many tons as possible, and Paz says that is particularly true this year, as communities cope with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People had to cash out their life savings,” he said. “Their money under their mattresses was gone.”

When the pandemic started, it shut down the entire food service industry, shuttering restaurants and school cafeterias. California’s growers lost billions, which trickled down to their employees. Field workers started losing jobs. As the recession deepens, Paz says more people are competing for the agricultural jobs that are available. People who were laid off from the service industry jobs are heading out to the fields for the first time.

“We have people [who were] working in back-of-the-house restaurants and waitressing, things like that,” he said. “They’re clunking along, they’re learning on the fly. We have people who are willing to take pay cuts without concern for safety issues—any sort of income they can get.”

In Sonoma County, local officials, non-profits, and business leaders have distributed tens of thousands of N95 masks to farmworkers in the past month, and a coalition of community organizations helped farmworkers evacuate and get the resources they need. At the state level, the California Office of Emergency Services and California Department of Food and Agriculture have shipped around 3.27 million N95 masks to local agriculture commissioners for distribution. In the meantime, advocates like Omar Paz and Zeke Guzman are connecting with workers and documenting their accounts of labor violations.

Guzman is also looking ahead to the next crisis. The wildfires mean more workers could lose their jobs and struggle to pay rent. If they’re undocumented, then also they won’t be able to collect unemployment benefits or apply for federal disaster relief. When the pandemic accelerated last spring, California became the first state in the nation to extend relief to its undocumented residents. The program distributed one-time, $500 payments to only a fraction of the state’s undocumented community, and Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged that it wasn’t enough. Sonoma County nonprofits re-launched their UnDocuFund to fundraise for community members without status, and Guzman says it is in need of donations.

“I really feel sorry for young people nowadays,” he said, as we drove back from the field. Guzman has been an activist since he was in high school. He’s 68 now, and this is his third major wildfire in four years. His house almost burned down this time. Climate change is getting worse, and he says conditions in the fields aren’t getting any better.

“Farmworkers can’t afford food that they pick for the rest of us,” Guzman said. If that basic inequity isn’t addressed, he says, workers will keep risking their health in the fields, and there will always be employers who are willing to take advantage of them.

Lead image: A plume rises over a vineyard in Napa County as the Hennessey Fire burns on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. AP Photo/Noah Berger

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The audio version of this story was originally published by KALW’s Crosscurrents. This expanded audio version was published by WorldAffairs. This story may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.