Growing crops is already a field with a lot of inherent risks. Add Oregon’s increasing heat waves and wildfire smoke, as well as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s obvious farmworkers are on the front line in multiple ways. KLCC’s Karen Richards has this report on the future of farm work, the first in our series, “Workin’ It.”

According to the Oregon Farm Bureau, the state’s agriculture industry brings in over $5 billion a year for things like hazelnuts, Christmas trees and wine grapes. The income wouldn’t be possible without an estimated 174,000 farmworkers and their families, most of them Latino.

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Julie Early Sifuentes of the Oregon Health Authority told KLCC, “Farmworkers are a vital part of our food system who might not often be recognized as such, and they at the same time do face higher risks of climate-related hazards.”

Laborers strip leaves from vines at King Estate Winery. At right is a water cooler which, on hot days, is stocked with ice.

Laborers strip leaves from vines at King Estate Winery. At right is a water cooler which, on hot days, is stocked with ice.

Karen Richards/KLCC

Early Sifuentes said the 2020 wildfires happened at the peak of harvest season, and so workers had to choose between their health or meeting their family’s needs. But bad air wasn’t just part of the workday. Ira Cuello Martinez is with Oregon’s farmworkers’ union, PCUN.

“A lot of these folks are in low-income housing,” Cuello Martinez said. “They’re outside in the smoke all day and then come home to more smoke in their housing. So it’s very difficult to see those stories of people letting us know they couldn’t eat for a week because they would just vomit everything that they would eat.”

Cuello Martinez was hired to help write climate policy. This summer, Oregon OSHA passed emergency measures to protect workers from the effects of heat and smoke. Cuello Martinez said OSHA isn’t able to tell employers to stop work, so they had to be creative. As of July 8th, employers have to provide shade and water breaks starting when it’s over 80 degrees, and as of August 9th, employers must provide N95 masks when the Air Quality Index is over 100. The rules last 180 days, then OSHA has to adopt permanent rules.

Many employers were already taking precautions for heat and smoke. Raymond Nuclo is the director of viticulture at King Estate winery. He said, “It’s overdue, to be quite honest. It shouldn’t have taken 117 degrees to have Oregon OSHA thinking about these issues because we’ve definitely have had temperatures in the past where it’s exceeded 100 degrees. So, it’s something that we’ve always been cognizant of.”

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Nuclo said on hot days they start fieldwork early so they can be done by noon before temperatures get into the 90s.

In addition to heat and smoke, the pandemic highlighted other stressors on Oregon farmworkers. Early Sifuentes said the Oregon Health Authority sees mental health as an emerging concern. She said climate can be a risk multiplier, and added, “We do know that it very well could make those factors worse, in terms of poverty and food insecurity, more stressful working conditions, or occupational injuries, and so it stands to reason that there could be some increased mental health effects.”

Early Sifuentes said they’re looking at funding local organizations so they can help their own communities.

Cuello Martinez said advocates have also proposed state-level policies to alleviate the risks. He told KLCC, “Something PCUN is talking with legislators and considering for the 2022 legislative session is having some sort of disaster pay fund for farmworkers who can’t afford to miss work, but they also want to prioritize their health and well being.”

Cuello Martinez said they hope to look at that by next February. He said overtime pay has also been an ongoing discussion.

“PCUN introduced farmworker overtime in this last legislative session, and we didn’t make it through all the different committees to get it out of the session this year. We’re pretty frustrated that we didn’t see the political will to get this carried across the line especially after knowing California’s passed in 2019* and Washington passed it, I believe, in March or April.”

Washington’s law phases in overtime pay from 2022 to 2024. California’s rules began in 2019 with a slower ramp, to full overtime pay in 2025.

Cuello Martinez said, since farmworkers were hailed as essential workers during the pandemic, he hopes Oregon legislators step up in 2022. He wondered how many workers would move to California or Washington if Oregon doesn’t enact overtime pay.

Funding for KLCC’s “Workin’ It” series comes from the University of Oregon’s Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics.

*California’s law passed in 2016 and phased into effect in 2019.

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