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Day Laborers Pay a Steep Price Working in California Fire Zones

Without adequate oversight, there is little incentive for employers to protect workers during wildfire season.




Farm workers labor under a sky made hazy by wildfire smoke. Photo courtesy United Farm Workers.

When wildfires consumed large parts of Santa Rosa in 2017, Anabel Garcia and scores of her co-workers were sent into the fire zone by temporary labor companies subcontracting with insurers. Their job was to clean damaged buildings. Garcia, who, like many of the others, usually worked picking crops in the fields, and who had recently finished a hazardous job harvesting grapes in the middle of the fire zone, was assigned to sweep out the debris at a local health clinic.

“I had to take out furniture, carpeting. They didn’t give us anything to cover ourselves — just helmets so nothing hard would fall on our heads,” the 41-year-old day laborer, who has been in the U.S. for a quarter of a century, recalls, speaking through a translator. “They didn’t even give us water to drink. It was a very difficult job. After two to three days, it rained, and water got to the first floor. We collected the water and threw it in the toilets.”

“I had to breathe in ashes and the chemical smell. I developed a throat infection. My eyes got red. My hands were extremely dry.”

~ Anabel Garcia, day laborer

From there, the company she was working for sent her out to clean up three damaged houses. Her pay was $14 per hour, with no overtime and no health care. “I cleaned the garages, houses, had to move metal. I was given no gloves, no protective gear. We cleaned the ashes, separated the metal bars that were part of the house construction,” she says.

“I had to breathe in ashes and the chemical smell. I developed a throat infection. My eyes got red. At times, I got diarrhea. My hands were extremely dry.”

In August 2019, in response to growing numbers of reports about workers made sick by smoke, the state passed emergency smoke standards legislation. It mandated workers be provided with N95 masks by their employers anytime the Air Quality Index rose above 151, a level indicating the air is unhealthy to breathe. While employers are supposed to monitor the daily AQI levels, in practice on the ground much of the onus was left on employees to monitor the AQI, to report that number back to employers and to then ask for masks. For if neither employees nor employers were aware of dangerous air quality out in the fields, say, nobody would be asking for, or giving out, masks.

In practice, therefore, the law is virtually impossible to enforce. And during fire season many workers continue to labor in desperately unsafe conditions.

This situation is made worse by the fact that California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) standards and protections in the main still do not cover domestic workers and farm laborers, giving employers precious little incentive to adequately protect their workers during the months of the year when fires blanket the state in smoke.

As Garcia tells it, during that fire season most of her co-workers also ended up sick, having for days breathed in air that was saturated with the toxic emissions from burned plastic. It was, she recalls, at least as bad as the work she had done in the vineyards a few weeks earlier as the infernos raged in the lush Sonoma slopes around them. But with the cleaning work, at least she was guaranteed a baseline minimum wage. By contrast, laboring in the fields had become increasingly precarious; the workers are frequently paid piece rates, meaning they get a certain number of cents for each pound of produce picked. During bad fire days, the ability to work fast declines: With their throats and eyes burning from the smoke and from the noxious fumes released by the blazes, pickers inevitably see the amount they can harvest go down, meaning that in the most dangerous conditions workers get paid less rather than more per day.

“We have these extremely dangerous, vulnerable areas and a workforce that is invisibilized to formal protections.”

~ Cal Soto, National Day Laborers Organizing Network

In response, North Bay Jobs With Justice and other groups have, in the past year, demanded that wineries pay their grape pickers hazard pay to work during fires. So far, however, the wineries haven’t responded positively, and to date hazard pay is not routine come fire season. The workers have also approached the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors hoping to secure their support for this and other workplace safety demands. The board hasn’t set a date for a hearing on the resolution.

Worse still for Garcia, sometimes she would show up for work at the agreed upon time only to be told that because of the smoke damage the vineyard owner was no longer interested in having his crop harvested and thus wouldn’t be paying his workers that day. “Starting in 2017,” Garcia explains, “the growers started buying insurance for their grapes. So they aren’t damaged, but we as the workers continue to be damaged.”

*   *   *

Around California, the most vulnerable of workers — many of them undocumented and lacking access to the social safety net, many not able to read or write in English, many unaware of their basic legal rights — have become frontline responders during and after increasingly devastating wildfires. So prevalent is this practice that workers’ rights groups have taken to calling them “second responders,” a workforce primed to enter areas immediately after firefighters have doused the flames and medics have evacuated the injured. In 2007, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) estimated there were 40,000 such workers in the state. By 2020 the National Day Laborer Organizing Network estimated there were close to that number just in Los Angeles alone.

“We know they are going to be doing this work, but aren’t given the care or preparation to do it safely,” says Cal Soto, the Los Angeles-based workers’ rights coordinator of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. “We know there is generally in California a huge day laborer uptick after fires. We have seen anywhere from an immediate 5% increase in hiring in affected areas.”

Soto adds, “Day laborers are a workforce that are able and willing to do whatever they’re asked to do, because they’re responding to economic need.” He cites the example of Paradise, California, two years ago when day laborers pointed hoses at towering flames.

Photo courtesy United Farm Workers.

“We have these extremely dangerous, vulnerable areas and a workforce that is invisibilized to formal protections. We have seen day laborers going into fire zones to help owners prepare for encroaching fires. More often, you see someone coming into a fire-affected area to clean, or to clear up the rubble, without being given the PPE they need — mask, full body protection, goggles, without proper training as to what chemicals they’ll encounter. It takes quite a while to clean the debris and remove all the toxic ash. You have to dig six feet down to the foundations to make sure you haven’t missed anything.”

The results are frequently debilitating and sometimes fatal. The Graton Day Laborer Center, in Sonoma County, has chronicled at least one fatality, a day laborer who developed breathing problems after being sent into a fire zone and shortly thereafter died.

When the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California) conducted a study of the experiences of 500 workers during and after the state’s Woolsey fire in 2018, the researchers found that many had developed skin rashes and breathing problems, but that workers felt pressure to stay on the job, knowing that if they refused their employers could simply fire them.

“When you have any kind of natural disaster, whether a fire or a hurricane, we see an increase in the exploitation of immigrant workers, especially day laborers,” says Christy Lubin, executive director of the Graton Day Labor Center. “Because in the public eye, they are a disposable and invisible workforce.”

In Sonoma County there’s a house building boom going on in 2021, following years of fires that have destroyed thousands of structures county-wide. And that means that a lot of people are being hired by labor contractors to do the dangerous work that those with options don’t want to do.

“During fires, a farmworker will see a surge of work, as companies try to get crops harvested before they’re damaged by smoke and ash.”

~ Lucas Zucker, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy

“I’m 35-years-old and have been living in Oxnard for 15 years, and been working in the strawberry fields 15 years,” says a farmworker who wanted to be identified only by her first name, Lucilla. Even when there are no fires to worry about, Lucilla is continually impacted by chemicals used in the fields. Her hands itch, her eyes burn. When the winds blow clouds of fertilizer around, she feels a burning in her throat and often wants to throw up.

Then, in 2018, fires hit the region and the workers, lacking N95 masks, started getting sick. Lucilla’s eczema worsened, and her eyes got so damaged by particulate matter that she ended up needing surgery.

This year, again, Lucilla and her co-workers are still picking berries, even on days when the fields have been covered in a thick smoke haze. She is getting only $14 per hour for her labor.

On a good day, explains Lucas Zucker, policy director at the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, farm work is one of America’s most dangerous jobs, routinely exposing workers to pesticides, on-the-job injuries and the wear and tear of back-breaking labor. But as wildfires and extreme heat become more common, that job becomes even more dangerous. “During fires, a farmworker will see a surge of work, as companies try to get crops harvested before they’re damaged by smoke and ash,” Zucker says.

*   *   *

For Anabel Garcia, the tradeoff is no longer worth it. As this year’s fire season took off, she made a decision. “I don’t want to expose myself anymore,” she announced. “I had surgery on my foot and don’t want to hurt it anymore in the debris.” But for many others, there is no choice but to keep working, even in conditions likely to impact their health.

“You’ve got people working eight to 10 hours a day, breathing heavily, doing manual labor in the most dangerous conditions,” says Zucker. “We see severe impacts among workers exposed to the smoke.”

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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