As climate disasters worsen, researchers push for farmworker safety net

In the last few weeks, academics and labor advocates have released a flurry of studies and surveys with the same urgent finding: Climate disasters are wreaking havoc on the health, safety, and economic stability of farmworkers, and well-funded government programs are the best way to provide workers with relief.

While the studies and surveys vary in scope, focus, and methodology, two concentrated on farmworker communities in California, where residents are still struggling to recover from the atmospheric rivers that flooded parts of the state earlier this year. Others are already anticipating the state’s fire season, which has worsened over the past several years as the planet warms.

“We don’t believe that any workers should have to work in those conditions,” says Max Bell Alper, executive director of the advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice, which conducted one of the surveys. “Whatever the impacts of climate change, farmworkers are on the front lines — and that needs to be recognized.”

Agricultural work ranks among the most dangerous jobs in the country, and many farmworkers are both poorly paid and undocumented, which excludes them from many social benefits. In the studies released this month, academics and advocates explored how these harsh working conditions leave farmworkers uniquely vulnerable to climate shocks.

In a report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) this week, researchers were frank about the risks farmworkers face when they work through extreme weather, particularly high heat. The rate of farmworker deaths from heat-related causes is estimated to be 20 times that of any other nonmilitary occupation; the rate of heat-related deaths among farmworkers is higher than for workers in any other industry.

The destructive impact of climate disasters on farmworkers is not well understood, UCS analysts argue, because it is chronically under-researched. After conducting a comprehensive review of relevant spending across a range of federal agencies, UCS found that the agencies invested an average of just $16.2 million a year in researching farmworker health and education — roughly $6.75 per farmworker, per year. The report urges Congress to increase USDA funding for research on farmworker health in the next farm bill, and it encourages scientists to study the intersection of climate and pesticide hazards.

“The risks presented by climate change add to and amplify those posed by exposure to pesticides and other agrochemicals commonly used by farmworkers,” the UCS report says. “These threats lead to both acute outcomes and chronic diseases that may not fully appear until decades later.”

Despite these growing health and safety risks, some farmworkers are increasingly working through hazardous conditions as climate change intensifies. In a survey of 500 farmworkers released earlier this month, North Bay Jobs with Justice found that 95 percent of vineyard workers in Sonoma County — the heart of California’s wine country — had worked under those harsh conditions. Sixty-four percent of respondents had harvested wine grapes through wildfire smoke, and 59 percent had worked through extreme heat.

In an ideal world, says Alper, farmworkers wouldn’t harvest crops under these conditions at all. “At the very least,” he says, “they should be recognized for the risks they’re taking to themselves and their health and be compensated fairly.” Last weekend, more than 200 farmworkers and their allies marched to the site of a tony Sonoma “wine experience” and demanded that vineyards pay their workers hazard pay during natural disasters. E&J Gallo’s Sonoma winery and the farm Eco Terreno have already adopted hazard pay policies.

Small family farmers have raised concerns that such policies could put them out of business, but Alper points out that very few Sonoma vineyard workers actually work for small family farms. “These are very large companies who are producing a luxury crop,” he says, “and we need to be respecting the people who do this work.”

As an increasing number of farmworkers risk their health and safety to continue to work through climate disasters, thousands of workers are also losing their jobs as extreme weather rattles the agricultural sector. The disasters have also forced some workers to evacuate, and some have lost their homes or belongings.

In a study published by the University of California Merced’s Community and Labor Center earlier this month, researchers focused on the farmworker community of Planada in California’s Central Valley, which flooded after a levee broke during an atmospheric river in January. Four months later, the town is still reeling. According to UC Merced, 83 percent of Planada households experienced significant economic losses during the flooding. Researchers found that Planada farmworker households missed an average of five weeks of work — and because farmworkers are usually paid hourly or piece rate, that meant they lost five weeks of critical income, too.

According to the study, many Planada farmworkers are undocumented, which means they are ineligible for unemployment insurance and federal disaster aid. Because of these exclusions, 64 percent of Planada homes with flood-damaged property did not qualify for disaster assistance, and 57 percent of households with one or more workers who experienced a job loss could not collect unemployment insurance benefits. Researchers also found that a quarter of the study’s participants had been hit with illegal rent increases or illegally threatened with eviction in the wake of the disaster.

Labor advocates throughout California have observed a similar pattern. According to North Bay Jobs with Justice’s survey, 90 percent of Sonoma County farmworkers have lost work and income due to extreme weather events. And in Santa Cruz County this past April, a month after the California farmworker community of Pajaro flooded, the nonprofit Center for Farmworker Families distributed food to over 1,000 farmworkers — nearly triple the number of workers they’d served in January. In a recent interview, organizer Eloy Ortiz said that some farmworkers have lost more than two months of work.

“We’re hearing of people going to payday lenders, borrowing from friends and family,” he said. “The March storms made everything so much worse.”

UC Merced’s Planada study says that California should assist farmworkers by developing a statewide unemployment system for undocumented immigrant workers that would compensate farmworkers excluded from federal social benefits. The state legislature is considering a bill, SB 227, to that effect, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed similar legislation last year on the grounds that it was too expensive. And this year, California is facing a budget deficit of more than $30 billion.

“I’m just not hopeful,” says Ortiz. He added that farmworkers and community-based organizations will need to picket government buildings and demand fair compensation to get the assistance they need.