Facing deadly heat waves and few protections, undocumented agricultural workers are being pushed to their limit.
In July 2020, Claudia Durán felt compelled to complete her shift harvesting blueberries in the fields of Allegan County, Mich., before driving to the local hospital’s emergency room to be treated for dehydration, where she arrived dizzy, with an acute headache and chest pain. That same month, at least three of her coworkers also ended their shifts in emergency rooms to be treated for dehydration, she says. Durán and her coworkers get paid by the hour, 50 cents for every pound of fruit they pick, and they cannot afford to miss work time and lose income. That is why Durán, who is undocumented, rations her water intake throughout the day — to avoid going too often to the restroom, which is far removed from the harvesting fields.
“I have asked for medicines for the headache, and he [the supervisor] says, ‘No, nothing is happening, nothing is wrong,’ and does not give you medicine,” said Durán, who in 2004 emigrated from poverty and violence in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. For fear of retaliation, she declined to provide her employer’s name. “Until the workday is over, if you feel very unwell, then you go to the emergency room,” said Durán, who is 35 years old and has four children to support.
During the last several years, Durán says she has been treated at the emergency room around twice a summer for dehydration, with July 2020 marking her last visit. Toiling under difficult heat conditions, she and her coworkers have been forced to gamble with their health: Chronic dehydration can cause kidney damage.
The effects of the climate crisis on the more than 1 million agricultural workers in the United States, already severe, have been worsened by profit-driven employers. The increasingly severe heat waves ravaging the country damage some crops, so to protect the market value of their produce, the agricultural industry is accelerating the harvesting season — and in many instances forcing longer shifts on workers.
With no access to shade and for wages often below the poverty level line, agricultural laborers are being pressured to harvest at a higher pace than in previous years, according to workers and advocates who spoke to In These Times. This work is increasingly done in temperatures that soar above 100 degrees and, with growing frequency, in the midst of wildfire smoke.
Undocumented immigrants, often too intimidated to denounce mistreatment for fear of losing their jobs or being placed in deportation proceedings, are generally the most seriously abused and exploited. Between 50% and 75% of all farmworkers in the United States are undocumented. Meanwhile, 99% of farmworkers do not belong to a union. Without the support of organized labor or federal regulations that protect agricultural workers from heat and smoke, undocumented laborers are left to the mercy of employers in the midst of the climate crisis.
At the peak of the heat season, when the fruit is ripening, Durán’s employer implements longer shifts, she said. This season, she says, “we were already asked to work more than 12 hours a day.” She starts working at seven o’clock in the morning. “They want us working until eight at night, and Sundays too,” she added in a phone interview in Spanish at nine o’clock at night, just after she arrived from work. In the background, one of her small children could be heard asking questions in English and Spanish, eager for attention.
“All those hours, you are under the sun because you don’t even have a shade to eat your lunch,” Durán explained.
This kind of abuse can be fatal. On June 26, 38-year-old Sebastian Francisco Perez, a Guatemalan, died while working on a tree farm in St. Paul, Ore., at the height of the hottest June in U.S. recorded history. Scorching temperatures are bringing new dangers to a job that was already dangerous. According to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, from 1992 to 2006, 68 crop workers died from heat stroke, representing a rate nearly 20 times greater than for other U.S. civilian workers. Most of the deaths were of adults aged 20 to 54 years, a population not typically at high risk for heat illnesses. Those tallies, advocates agree, are gross underestimates: They exclude workers on small farms, and heat deaths wrongly recorded as heart attacks or strokes unrelated to the workplace.
The impact of extreme heat on farmworkers’ health has also been downplayed, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Apart from kidney problem, heat stress has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes and increased risk for traumatic injuries for agricultural laborers, who mostly work without commonplace benefits like sick leave, paid vacation or health insurance. At least 33% of farmworkers’ families are not even paid a wage above the poverty line —the annual income for farmworkers’ families usually does not exceed $24,500, according to data from 2015 – 2016. This stark economic reality undoubtedly increases pressure on farmworkers to endure exploitive and dangerous heat conditions.
Whatever the current impact of the increased temperature on agricultural workers, the costs are expected to rise sharply in the coming years. According to a 2020 study led by the Stanford University professor Michelle Tigchelaar, the number of unsafe days in crop-growing U.S. counties will jump from 21 per season to 39 per season by 2055, and without mitigation would triple by the end of the century.
While heat waves continue to break records across the country, resulting in dozens of deaths throughout the Pacific Northwest this year alone, many agricultural workers remain unprotected by regulations and reluctant to denounce abuse for fear of being deported. And unions face significant barriers to organizing this workforce. This past June, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a California law, in place for more than four decades, that allowed union organizers to enter farms to speak to workers during nonworking hours for a set number of days each year. By a 6 – 3 vote along ideological lines, the court ruled that the law amounted to an illegal taking of private property, setting a chilling precedent against union organizers.
“[Agricultural workers] are human buffers protecting the middle class and white-collar America from the effects of climate change,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns of United Farm Workers, one of the largest unions for farmworkers in the country. Those most affected, she said, are the poorest and most vulnerable — undocumented immigrants who are often coming from Indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala.
A 2018 study conducted by researchers at the CDC found that non‑U.S. citizens had three times the risk of dying from heat related-illness compared to citizens, and that the risk was higher among those younger and of Latino ethnicity — the vast majority of the U.S. agricultural workforce.
Protecting companies, not workers
Congress has been slow to act to protect farmworkers. Last March, progressive members of the House and the Senate introduced versions of the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021, named for a worker who died in California in 2004. The day of his death, after harvesting grapes for 10 hours straight at 105 degrees, Valdivia fainted, and instead of calling an ambulance, his employer asked the worker’s son to drive his father home.
The bills in Congress require employers to institute paid breaks for their workers in shaded areas and make water available. They also stipulate emergency response procedures and heat-stress training in a language that workers understand. It is not clear, though, when the bills will be scheduled for a vote.
At the beginning of the year, California had laws similar to the Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. Oregon approved earlier this summer its own emergency protections, while Washington updated its own rules. Minneapolis mandates employers to provide training for its workers to avoid heat stress. But overall, advocates say, more protections are needed on a nationwide level.
The agricultural industry has largely responded to the heat waves by protecting its business, not workers. Advocates have detected nocturnal harvests of cherries and blueberries in Oregon and Washington — done with headlamps and imposed by employers to minimize the damage to the fruits caused by the intense heat.
“Just in the past four days alone, I have talked to farmworkers in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Arizona who are working either very early or nocturnal harvests this summer as a result of the heat,” said Strater. Nocturnal harvests increase the number of children working in the fields because there is no child care available when shifts start at two o’clock in the morning, she said. “So we are seeing more 9, 10 and 11-year-olds working in these really dangerous workplaces.”
The increasingly hot summers also mean agricultural workers toil while breathing the smoke from the progressively intense wildfires spreading throughout the U.S. West Coast. Only California has protective regulations for smoke in place.
Despite the massive wildfires of the season — Bootleg, one of the largest in Oregon’s history, had razed more than 400,000 acres by early August — the Oregonian agricultural industry is resisting common-sense protection for workers against the dangerous particles caused by the ’ smoke, said Ira Cuello Martínez, climate policy associate of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste or PCUN, the largest Latino union in Oregon.
Advocates are pushing for employers in Oregon to provide farmworkers with respirators once the Air Quality Index (AQI) hits 151 —a level considered “unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the state’s agricultural industry has voiced resistance to the required usage of respirators at levels below California’s, which mandates employers to provide respirators after the index reaches 500, even though at 301 the air quality is already “hazardous” by federal standards. At levels beyond 300, Cuello Martínez added, “I don’t think anyone should be outside.”
However, even in an environment that could potentially cause long-term health problems to workers, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have the authority to suspend outside work.
Under these circumstances, agricultural laborers, especially those who are undocumented, say they will continue to be pushed by the industry to ensure the country’s residents have food on their tables amid the climate crisis.
“The supervisor does not regard workers as anything of importance,” Durán said. “He already told us that we have to work more hours, and every day.”
Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.