Arun Venugopal: California wildfires continue to burn and the state is currently under a red flag warning for strong gusty winds and low humidity.
Gavin Newsom: We are just coming off a record week, a heat wave that led to 130-degree temperature, our highest temperature ever recorded in California. Arguably the world's history here in our state. The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier. Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.
Arun Venugopal: That's California governor, Gavin Newsom, during the democratic national convention a few weeks ago. On Sunday he declared a state of emergency in five California counties and farmworkers in California are especially vulnerable. The people harvesting the fruits and vegetables, those helping to keep the country fed, they continue to work despite COVID-19, despite heat waves, and the wildfires, making the air smoky and really hard to breathe. Recently in Sonoma County, the fires were so severe that evacuation orders were placed and some residents were forced to leave their homes, but farmworkers stayed. The Sonoma County Evacuation Waiver Program allowed the agricultural commissioner, Tony Linegar to dole out access passes to the farmworkers to ensure they continue harvesting the grapes even in evacuation zones. For most farmworkers, not working is not an option. Many are undocumented and without insurance. The choice between safety and work is really not a choice at all. No work, no pay, which leaves thousands in dangerous conditions right now. I'm Arun Venugopal in for Tanzina Vega and the breaking down working conditions for farmworkers is where we start today on The Takeaway. Here with me to discuss is Somini Sengupta, the international climate reporter for the New York Times. Somini, welcome to the show.
Somini Sengupta: Thanks so much Arun.
Arun Venugopal: You actually went to California and you spoke with farmworkers there. Can you tell us about the farmworkers that you met and what they're experiencing right now?
Somini Sengupta: Yes, absolutely. I was there recently to the San Joaquin Valley, which is in the center of California. It's this long, wide valley that's turned into largely industrial farmland. That's where the grapes and the carrots and the lettuce, the watermelon, the pumpkins, pretty much everything the rest of the country eats to stay healthy. That's where much of it is grown. One day when I was there recently by noon, temperatures had surged past 100 degrees Fahrenheit near a town called Lodi. I met a woman named Leonore, she was working in the cherry orchards. The harvest was done and Leonore and a group of other women were there to clear the branches that had been hacked off the trees after the harvest, they needed to clear the fields before the pesticides could be sprayed on the fields. The Valley air pollution control board, the government air pollution agency was saying that the air was unhealthy. By the end of that week, the air pollution control board was telling everyone to stay home, but Leonore was still working every morning. She was out there still working. I asked her and she said, "Well, if we stay indoors, we don't get paid. We've got bills to pay." Leonore and her husband have three children. They're in school. They rent a house in the town. Air conditioning bills are extremely high for them this summer. For Leonore and many other farmworkers I spoke to, whether the air was unhealthy, whether there was smoke in the air, whether there was ash falling from the sky, not working was simply not an option.
Arun Venugopal: What's extraordinary about this to me at least, Somini, is the fact that these are what you might call first responders. They are providing food that we all depend on, right?
Somini Sengupta: They're essential workers. They are out there picking weeds and preparing the fields and harvesting the crops and fixing the irrigation systems and essentially everything that we eat to stay healthy. Those five almonds that you eat every day or the grapes or the cherries, the tomatoes that go into our meals. They're the ones who are harvesting those crops every day and they're doing so at a time when climate change is making heat waves hotter, more frequent, more intense and when wildfires are spreading across just vast areas of California. Millions of acres of California are on fire, have been on fire for the last few weeks as we all are seeing and farmworkers are continuing to work in the fields.
Arun Venugopal: I spoke to my sister the other day. She lives in Marin County, basically, the Bay Area. I'm always used to it being a little chilly, a little rainy. She told me it was 108 degrees there. Now this, where you were, is basically a couple of hours, a few hours east of San Francisco and the Bay Area, correct?
Somini Sengupta: Yes, it's east and south. This is inland, it's a valley that's nestled by two mountain ranges. It's essentially between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I drove down that Valley from the north to the south, speaking to farmworkers in the fields.
Arun Venugopal: I remember spending some time there years ago and it was really hot and that was well before these conditions that you're describing. It's basically getting even hotter and even dryer and these are the people who have to deal with this on a daily basis.
Somini Sengupta: It's already hot in the Valley, but summer days are hotter than they were 100 years ago in California, that's what the data shows. Even worse, summer nights are hotter. That's really important because that's when the body has a chance to cool down. If you can't cool down at night or if it's harder to cool down at night, it can actually be very, very dangerous for our health. Additionally, the Valley is where wildfire smoke, whether it's coming from Northern California or Southern California, it's where the smoke always gets stuck. Now that so much of California is on fire when fire weather days have essentially doubled in frequency since the 1980s, this part of the state, the Central Valley, just has many more days of really, really unhealthy air. For farmworkers who are exposed just by nature of their work, the work is just much more hazardous.
Arun Venugopal: Tell us about the health risks that these farmworkers are essentially confronting, the fact that they're breathing in this smoke on a daily basis. What does that mean for their health?
Somini Sengupta: Even when the government air pollution officials are advising everyone to stay indoors, farmworkers are still outdoors working. That is their workplace. Chronic exposure to air pollution, I just want to add that not only does wildfire smoke create unhealthy air, like really unhealthy air in the Central Valley, there's also just the pollution coming from trucks that are whizzing down the highway. There's pollution coming from the chemicals that are sprayed on the fields. There's also in parts of the Valley, there's oil wells pumping oil and that creates air pollution as well. Parts of the Central Valley have some of the highest rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. There's also something very specific to the Valley. There's actually a disease called Valley fever. It's a respiratory ailment that comes from fungus in the soil and agricultural workers are disproportionately exposed to this as well.
Arun Venugopal: What kind of protections, if any, do these workers have in terms of pay protections or health insurance, anything like that?
Somini Sengupta: That's a really good question. California is unique in the country. It's one of two states along with Washington that actually has extreme heat protections built into its occupational safety regulations. That means that agricultural workers must be offered water, shade, breaks, during really hot days, but there is no cutoff, there's no threshold, temperature threshold at which work must stop. That really remains at the discretion of contractors and employers. When I was speaking to the workers, they made it very clear to me that if they were forced to stop working because it was extremely hot or because the air was unhealthy, they were not going to get paid and they were not going to be able to pay their rent and buy food. The underlying economics of their working conditions really force them, compel them to work under hazardous, unhealthy conditions. They, by in large, lack health insurance, and so preventive health care is a luxury. Many of them end up in the emergency room when they get really sick. They lack basic protections that that many of us have, which is unemployment benefits. If they're not working, if they're not able to work, they don't get paid.
Arun Venugopal: We're, of course, also in the middle of a pandemic, have there been outbreaks amongst farmworkers?
Somini Sengupta: Central California counties have especially high rates of coronavirus infections, and there have been a spate of infections, particularly in processing and packing plants. Everyone I spoke to, to a person, knew someone who had been sick. Either a co-worker, an aunt, a relative a neighbor, everyone knew someone who had been sick. There have been just as in meat processing plants in the Midwest, in nut packing processing plants, in fruit and vegetable processing plants, there have been infections because workers are in close proximity to one another. I should add that generally, when there are really bad wildfires, and there's smoke in Central California, there are efforts made to get masks out to farmworkers. This year, masks have gone out a little bit later than they should have because there's a run on N95 masks.
Arun Venugopal: You quote, an official from United Farm Workers of America, who says, all these conditions that you described, the conditions that farmworkers have to deal with on a daily basis, even during a pandemic, and even during these terrible wildfires. He says, "It's the price of cheap food," which I found really telling and tragic, given that these are essential workers, and they're keeping us fed. Is there anything that you think needs to be done or should be done given that this is increasing in an annual phenomenon, and we all rely on this food nationally, but these are the people who are bearing the brunt of these conditions.
Somini Sengupta: The economics of cheap food and climate change are colliding on industrial farms and the ones who are paying the price are some of the poorest, most neglected, most marginalized workers, who happened to be overwhelmingly immigrants from Mexico.
Arun Venugopal: Price of cheap food. Somini Sengupta is a climate reporter for The New York Times. Somini, thank you so much.
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