On the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis: Our Farmworkers Face Heat’s Deadly Dangers

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Farmworkers increasingly struggle with extreme heat and its effects

Heat kills, and it kills farmworkers with distressing regularity. The list of the dead includes migrants like 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez in the grape fields of California; 38-year-old Francisco Perez working in a tree nursery outside Portland; Miguel Angel Guzman Chavez picking tomatoes in Georgia; and 36-year-old Humberto Casarrubias Sanchez detasselling in a cornfield in Whiteside County, Illinois.

Over a half century ago one of the most famous documentary films in American history, Harvest of Shame (1960), exposed the inhuman conditions under which farm workers toiled and too often died. Sadly, conditions in the fields remain dangerous and often life-threatening. COVID-19 has itself recently run rampant in the fields, where masks were not provided and the completion of work tasks made successful social distancing difficult or impossible. Workers also had very limited access to vaccines.

Hopefully the pandemic will eventually run its course, but the failure to address climate change promises to interact with inadequate protections to exacerbate the threat that heat poses to farm workers. Extreme heat days are more frequent in Southern states, which have long been associated with the problem. Worse, as the recent heat wave in the Northwest indicates, extreme heat is becoming generalized throughout the country. A recent Stanford University study projected that the number of unsafe days in our growing fields will jump from an average of 21 per season to 39 per season by 2055. By 2030 Florida will have gone from 20 farmworker “danger days” to 120. Estimates for Illinois indicate an increase from 5 to nearly 50 excessive heat days over the same time period.

Farmworkers Today

A total of approximately one million farm workers labor in almost every state in the US, tending a wide range of vegetable and fruit crops, as well as dairy cattle. In Illinois, for example, about 20,800 individuals plant, weed, and pick crops like apples, asparagus, bell peppers, beans, berries, cabbage, chives, corn, horseradish, lettuce, melons, onions, peaches, pumpkins, soybeans, spinach, squash, tomatoes, and squash. Automation dominates in expansive corn and wheat fields, but detasseling is still done by hand, and its workers are especially vulnerable to heat. For about three weeks each summer, local children as young as 12 and migrant farm workers cut the tops off corn plants to create hybrid seed varieties. Because the work must be completed within a limited window of time, detasselers can be in the fields for up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

Between 50 and 75 percent of all farm workers are undocumented, typically laboring on a seasonal basis, and 99 percent are not union members. These realities help to explain why heat-related death and disease among farm workers are seriously underestimated. Even where there are minimal legal protections, workers, especially the undocumented, are fearful of coming forward with complaints and with evidence about co-worker deaths.

Heat-related deaths are also undercounted due to basing incidence reports only on cases of heat stroke, while ignoring indirect and longer-term impacts on farmworker health. Persistent episodes of dehydration often lead to kidney failure among older workers. A female farm worker toiling in Michigan reported visiting the emergency room about twice a growing season, up to and including in 2020. Heat-stressed workers suffer dizziness and “brain fog” such that they are more likely to fall off ladders or misstep when using dangerous equipment.

Despite problems in underreporting, the Center for Disease Control currently estimates that farm workers have a death rate from heat stroke almost 20 times greater than for other civilian workers, and fall within an age group, 20 to 54, not usually considered high risk for heat-related illnesses.

For protection against insects and, more importantly, pesticides, farm workers routinely dress in a way that adds to heat stress, wearing gloves, hats, long pants and sleeves, and personal protective gear to fight pesticide poisoning. Even where hydration breaks are offered, a piecework system of payment means many workers choose not to reduce their output by taking a break. This problem is exacerbated when water stations are too few and too far between in the fields.

What To Do

Only three states—California, Minnesota, and Washington—have standards to protect workers from heat stress. Federal law is also woefully inadequate. Agricultural workers are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, which offers union-organizing and bargaining protections to workers, and from many other fair labor laws. Even in states where farmworker unions are legal, a June, 2021 Supreme Court decision denied organizers contact with workers in the field, making it much more difficult for unions to access these workers and advocate for them. Additionally, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has failed to adopt even a modest heat safety standard first proposed in 1972.

The right to organize is crucial for farmworkers to be able to achieve health and safety in the workplace

Introduced this year by Senator Sherrod Brown and yet to be passed by Congress, the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act (S. 1068) would require implementation of a stringent federal heat standard for workers, easy water access, regular paid breaks in cool areas, time limits on heat exposure, and prompt medical care for workers displaying heat illness symptoms. The bill also mandates rigorous recordkeeping, governmental review, and whistleblower protections. Over 130 organizations have petitioned Congress for its passage, including unions, farmworker-based human rights groups, worker centers, environmental and physician groups, and even universities. Calls to Senators Durbin and Duckworth in support of this bill are needed.

But even if a standard became the law of the land, guaranteeing its success requires the kind of worksite enforcement associated with unionization. Absent reforming labor law exemptions, an alternative to unionization that has proved successful in Florida is the Fair Food Program, which has wrung concessions from growers through outside monitoring of codes of conduct, with provisions to fight heat illness.

The health of farmworkers is also intertwined with the question of immigration reform. From one-half to three-quarters of farmworkers lack authorized immigration status, meaning the fear of deportation deprives them of any leverage group action might provide, as well as inhibiting challenges to illegal employment practices. Legislation that reforms a broken immigration system is essential. This does not mean more special worker visa, bracero-like programs, but instead a clear pathway to citizenship for farmworkers and their families.

Absent farmworkers kitchen tables throughout the country would be empty, but farmworkers pay too high a price for their contributions. Absent action they will pay an even higher price in the future. They stand up for us; it’s time we stood up for them.

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