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)

Santiago holds a fleece mask he said he wore while working in the fields. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)

Santiago’s company did not distribute protective masks, he said, so he brought a black fleece winter mask to wear.

“I want to go to a doctor,” he said, speaking through a translator in Mixteco, an indigenous language from southern Mexico. “I want to ask about the longer-term effect on my health, but I can’t afford it.”

Rob Roy, general counsel for Ventura County Agricultural Association, which represents dozens of enterprises in the area, disputed claims that pickers were not offered adequate protection.

“There were only two days when the winds shifted that a couple of production areas may have been impacted,” he said in an email.

Advocacy groups that raised concerns online have exaggerated the threat, he said. “They were just looking for free publicity and soliciting funding on Facebook, making it appear that they were helping farmworkers,” he said.

Other employers said they took additional action to protect workers. One Camarillo field manager, Juan Gonzalez, said on a smoky day last week that he let the workers go after 4½ hours. “They didn’t need masks,” he said. “It wasn’t that bad.”

Some workers in other fields said their companies distributed disposable masks but did not make it clear the coverings should be tossed out after a day of use.

Gabriela, a mother of five, said her employer gave her just one disposable mask to last the week.

Gabriela said she suffered headaches and a sore throat while working in smoky conditions. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)

“For three days the smoke was so bad — it looked like a big storm was coming,” she said.

After one shift, her mask was too sweaty and dirty to wear, she said. It was hard to breathe.

She pulled a bandanna over her face, took Tylenol for her headaches and drank cinnamon tea with lemon to soothe her throat.

“Still I was so dizzy,” she said. “But what can I do? I have to feed my kids.”

Halting their work on the strawberry harvest during the fires wasn’t realistic, worker advocates said, because pickers lose income — an average of $11 an hour, California’s minimum wage — for every day they miss in the field.

An estimated 60 percent of pickers in Ventura County are in the country illegally, according to the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, which makes them especially vulnerable to labor abuses.

Many speak indigenous languages and do not know whom to trust if they do try to lodge a complaint.

During the fires, workers said they experienced sore eyes, upset stomachs, headaches and dizziness.

Worsening the problem, former government officials say, is a scarcity of oversight at Cal/OSHA. The state’s worker protection agency employs 210 field inspectors in a state with roughly 200,000 farmworkers, according to the latest data from California Employment Development Department.

Cal/OSHA also lacks inspectors who speak Mixtecan languages that are dominant among the pickers from Oaxaca, Mexico, some of whom struggle to understand Spanish, said Ellen Widess, who led the agency from 2011 to 2013.

Cal/OSHA said that while it does not employ any staffers who speak Mixteco, it does it use tele-interpreter services.

“We are fulfilling our mission with the resources available, however there is always room to do even more,” Cal/OSHA chief Juliann Sum said.

The strawberry industry’s complicated structure makes it easy for the people in power to blame each other, worker advocates say.

Many California farms are small enterprises that hire workers through labor contractors and funnel strawberries to larger distributors, such as Driscoll’s, Giant and Naturipe Farms.

Driscoll’s sent employees to meet with each of its growers in Ventura County to run through safety procedures, the company said in a statement.

“We provided our growers with N95 masks to distribute to workers in accordance with Cal/OSHA guidelines,” the company said.

But many farmworkers still report to advocates that they feel overlooked.

“What happens often is everybody along the supply chain points their finger in the other direction and refuses to take responsibility for how farmworkers are treated,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a Washington nonprofit group focused on migrant laborers. “The burden falls on the farmworkers.”

The strawberry production schedule is relentless, regardless of the air quality, said Patricia Frausto, development director at the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project. “Most farms seem to keep their workers in the field and speed up production to keep their crop from being damaged,” she said.

In one Oxnard field, Filiberto, 41, who also speaks only Mixteco, said he watched his supervisor drop off a box of masks last week but could not understand what he was saying.

He wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to take one, he said, so he wrapped a Mexican-flag bandanna over his nose and mouth.

A supervisor forced him to take three unpaid days off during the Thomas Fire last year when he expressed concern about air quality, Filiberto said.

Now the Oaxaca native said faces with a dilemma: Few other places hire workers who are in the country illegally, but he dreads picking strawberries through another blaze.

“My eyes burn,” he said. “My throat is irritated. I know we should leave, that it’s not good for us to be here.”