Thursday, August 27, 2020

San Joaquin farmworkers beset by heat, smoke, pandemic

California's San Joaquin Valley is a critical agricultural area that supplies a wealth of fruits, vegetables, and nuts to the rest of the nation. But the workers who pick those crops, many without access to health care, are being hit with a triple whammy of the pandemic, scorching hot weather fueled by climate change, and wildfire smoke. Somini Sengupta reports for The New York Times.

So far this year, more than 7,000 fires have scorched 1.4 million acres, and there is no reprieve in sight, officials warned," Sengupta reports. "Summer days are hotter than they were a century ago in the already scorching San Joaquin Valley; the nights, when the body would normally cool down, are warming faster. Heat waves are more frequent. And across the state, fires have burned over a million acres in less than two weeks. One recent scientific paper concluded that climate change had doubled the frequency of extreme fire weather days since the 1980s."

Farmworkers in many areas face such hazards, but it's particularly bad in the valley, where industrial activity and the valley geography make for some of the nation's most polluted air. "Rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease run high, according to doctors at Clinica Sierra Vista, a network of medical centers in the valley," Sengupta reports. "Kidney functions decline with prolonged dehydration among many agricultural workers, doctors in the region say. Diabetes — associated with eating inexpensive, starchy food — is common. There’s even a respiratory ailment named for the area: Valley Fever, caused by coccidioides fungus in the soil."

Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America, told Sengupta the poor working conditions are "the price of cheap food." California and Washington are the only two states that require employers to accommodate outdoor workers in hot weather. Workers must be provided with shade (usually a bench under a canopy) and water. Some labor contractors stop work when it's too hot, but the law doesn't require that at any certain temperature. The law was passed in California 15 years ago after a string of farmworker deaths; UFWA is lobbying for similar nationwide legislation. 

But some workers may choose not to take breaks so they can make decent money. "If you work fewer hours, you make less," Sengupta reports. "And for those who get paid at piece rates — wine grape pickers generally get paid by the bin — there can be a perverse incentive to work as fast as possible, even if it means skipping a water break."

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