During California Wildfires, Farmworkers Say They Felt Pressure To Keep Working Or Lose Their Jobs

OXNARD, Calif. — Smoke stung his eyes and throat, but Santiago said his supervisor told workers to go faster because ash from the wildfires could wreck the produce.

As public health officials urged people to stay inside, Santiago remained bent in the field. No one gave him a protective mask, despite the dangerous air quality, he said.

“They don’t care about our health,” said the 34-year-old farmworker in muddy jeans who, like others, spoke on a first-name-only basis because he is in the country illegally.

“They just care about the strawberries,” he said.

A sharp increase in wildfires, heat waves and other climate-fueled disasters has added urgency to California’s efforts at employee protection, especially for the most vulnerable — low-income and undocumented workers on the state’s sprawling farms.

The California Labor Federation, which represents some 2.1 million workers, said it is pressing for tougher legislation aimed at protecting those most at risk, such as farmworkers.

“We’re most concerned about farmworkers, construction workers and others in low-wage industries that might not have scrupulous employers and are vulnerable to exploitation,” said federation spokesman Steve Smith.

State law requires employers to provide protective gear to outdoor workers during wildfires.

Sheriff’s deputies wore protective masks as they helped residents evacuate and maintained order during the Hill and Woolsey fires in Ventura County, said Garo Kuredjian, a captain with the Ventura County sheriff’s department.

Companies are also required to train employees how to wear the gear — typically N95 disposable face masks — and to regularly check on their safety.

But the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project and the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, groups that serve California migrant workers, said that only some field managers followed those rules to their fullest extent, exposing many of the roughly 36,000 farmworkers in the area affected by the wildfires to the dangerous air. Organizers said they visited 25 farms last week and saw workers without protective covering at practically all of them.

In interviews with The Washington Post, workers and supervisors in the strawberry fields described a patchwork of measures — including shortened hours and partial access to protective masks — to deal with the air-quality threat.

When Ventura County declared a health emergency Nov. 13, closing schools and warning residents to keep their windows shut and avoid outdoor exercise, photographers captured pickers still bent between dense rows of strawberry plants.

The fires had released potentially hazardous levels of particulate matter over Ventura County’s strawberry fields at least three times over the past 10 days, according to the local Air Pollution Control District.

The risk increases the longer workers are outside, particularly if they already have heart or lung disease.

“Factors to keep in mind are physical exertion while outdoors, the amount of time spent outdoors and preexisting medical conditions,” said Frank Polizzi, public information officer for the state’s Department of Industrial Relations.

The state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, would not immediately say how many employers it has cited for failing to protect workers this year during the wildfires.

Mallory Ham, manager of the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District’s monitoring division, said outdoor work on even the most moderate smoke days could pose a risk.

“The wind can carry smoke a certain way to where certain workers are — and we could miss that,” Ham said. “Smoke rolls into the ocean and circulates back into the coastal plain where the most of the strawberry farms are.”

Some strawberry pickers told The Post they went to work wearing the face masks recommended by authorities or covered their mouths with bandannas. Others said they rejected what they saw as itchy, damp face pieces.

Santiago, a strawberry picker from Oaxaca, Mexico, at his home in Oxnard. He said he inhaled smoke during his shifts during the Hill Fire. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)